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The Reward Worth All of the Work: What It’s Like Walking on to Harvard Rowing

The Harvard men's heavyweight rowing team gets set to launch before an early morning practice on October 19, 2023.
The Harvard men's heavyweight rowing team gets set to launch before an early morning practice on October 19, 2023. By Julian J. Giordano
By Thomas Harris, Crimson Staff Writer

One of the most unique parts of Harvard Crew is a culture of walk ons. There are very few sports where athletes are encouraged to start anew in college, and join a varsity team in a sport they’ve never played before. Rowing is one of those sports. Many of the first-year class are encouraged to join the “novice” program, and commit to weeks of grueling workouts with the hopes of joining the team.

For the strongest and grittiest of them all, the reward is waking up for early morning practice day in and day out, all to race around eleven times a year.

“I have to admit sometimes after killing your body for six days in a row, eleven times a week, sometimes you just don’t want to be there,” said Toby Nwafor, a junior on the men’s heavyweight rowing team.

Given the enormous time commitment and the physical dedication required, why would anyone want to walk on to rowing? For Calliste Skouras, the senior captain of the women’s lightweight team, being on a varsity team was always the goal.

“I originally started my freshman fall thinking that I was going to walk onto the lacrosse team. And then when I got here, I practiced with the team, the first few days of school and the coach said she didn't see a fit for me on the team. And I knew that I wanted to be a varsity athlete here. I had seen flyers around and people were talking that there's a novice rowing program, so I thought I’d try it out,” Skouras said.

For junior coxswain Cate Engles, it was a completely different story.

“My freshman year there were a ton of guys in my math class who were walking on the rowing team. There was enough to fill in an entire boat — they just needed a coxswain,” Engles recounted. “They reached out to me and I thought, ‘You know what, I'll give it a try, it's college!’ So I just started trying to learn from day one more about coxswaining.”

Regardless of how they came to the team, every athlete felt two forces that kept them coming back to the program: the challenge and the family.

Men's heavyweight senior Jack Weldon, who had previous rowing experience, said “What struck me most was the community. I could tell it was really special from the jump. It's an incredibly historic team. It's the oldest collegiate sports team in the United States, the Harvard Yale regatta as the oldest intercollegiate competition in the United States, and the team does a lot to carry on that legacy. It was just an environment in which I knew I could progress as an athlete, but also help carry on this great tradition with guys who are now my best friends.”

“I love being an athlete, I love pushing my body to the max and seeing improvements as I work harder. And then two are the team and the family,” Skouras said. “The familial feeling that I get by being a part of a team. My teammates are all my best friends. And they make it so much fun to come to practice every day.”

“After my first season just being on the novice team I loved that high energy environment. I decided that this would be good for me to keep working on and master throughout college,” Engles said. “I love the team and I love the energy. It’s what keeps bringing me back.”

Nwafor, who started on the team his first year, said “the Harvard Varsity Club’s motto is ‘your team for life,’ and I don’t really believe in cliches, but you truly do forge a team, a family for life. Also, being on the water we get to experience Boston unlike anybody else on this campus or in this city. We notice landmarks people don’t notice. The sound of each stroke is entrancing. The [woosh] of all of us pulling at once — it is a majestic feeling.”

Nwafor did admit above that sometimes daily practices can be a grind, but he is quick to say that the benefit outweighs the work. “The water, the brotherhood, and the family — they all make [the long practice hours] worth it.”

Skouras also says that her walk-on status was actually an asset to her captaincy. “A lot of athletes want to see themselves as their captain. They want a captain who’s the ‘people's captain,’ one who isn't perfect, isn't automatically the coach's favorite and doesn't just have everything handed to them. They want a captain who's experienced what it's like to be at the bottom of the team and what it's like to work their way up.”

Skouras and Engles are both very excited to race this weekend. But for the women’s lightweight team, this year’s regatta is all about defending the HOCR championship.

“Last year in the eights, our top boat, we won. We set the standards very high for what we're trying to accomplish this year. And that is 100% our goal for this year,” Skouras said.

The Harvard men's heavyweight rowing team practices in the early morning on October 19, 2023.
The Harvard men's heavyweight rowing team practices in the early morning on October 19, 2023. By Julian J. Giordano

For the men’s heavyweight team, coming off of a third place performance, it’s all about continuing the positive momentum with a younger crowd.

“I'm rolling in the club event on Saturday, where we had a medal performance last year. So trying to replicate that would be amazing. We've had some injuries so it's been a little inconsistent. But we can pull it off with the right race.” Weldon said.

“For our top varsity boat we have a really young but really talented group of guys who have been working on putting it together. We graduated a lot of our mainstay guys that had been in that boat for the last few years last year but our goal is always to win, as it is every year. Last year, we got third, and the year before it was fifth. So hopefully we can continue that trajectory. This is not as high stakes as the spring but we're going to compete and hopefully win. And we're gonna keep moving towards that goal in spring. So that's, I think, where the team would be,” Weldon said.

But for Weldon, Skouras, and many other rowers, it is also about soaking in their last Head of the Charles.

“Head of the Charles is awesome. I always joke that it's the one time in rowing where you feel like a professional athlete, because there's just 1000s of people in the bank cheering as you come down. Our real racing season is in the spring, that's when the stakes are super high. So definitely racing to compete as always, but definitely try to soak it in a bit more than I have in years past. And that's my last one run for Harvard, running with the Harvard colors, Harvard blades. So I am just trying to enjoy that,” Weldon confessed.

-Staff writer Thomas Harris can be reached at

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Head of the Charles 2023

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