Crew finishes strong season with a flourish

By Ben Adams

The University of Chicago men’s and women’s crew teams wound up their fall seasons on Sunday with a regatta in Elkhart, Indiana; the men’s four-person boat finished third and the women’s eighth out of a field of over 20.

These performances made for a strong end to a season in which both teams overcame significant obstacles to building legitimate clubs capable of competing with the larger, higher-budgeted schools that attend the nearby races.

“We’ve done well with how small we are. It’s a small group but it’s very dedicated,” said Mike McGowan, president of the Chicago Rowing Club, of his team’s most recent finish. Their time was good enough to best every team at the race except for Grand Valley and the University of Michigan, both of whom draw from significantly larger talent pools.

Women’s team captain Cindy Landrebe agreed. “We had strong races. We definitely finished the season really strong.”

The Elkhart regatta may have given both teams a pleasant send-off into their one-week respite from rowing, but it was hardly the highlight of the season. That distinction belongs, this year and always, to the Head of the Charles race in Boston.

On October 19, 2002, several thousand rowers descended upon New England to line up for the Cambridge Boat Club’s regatta. It is a tradition that has been going on for some 37 years, and expanding since its inception. A thousand volunteers in 34 committees worked with 300 local police and ambulance personnel, nearly an acre of tent space, and some 800 pounds of pasta to put on the world’s largest race of its kind. The University of Chicago’s men’s and women’s teams competed against fields of 54 and 64 boats, respectively.

Showings were impressive for both teams. The men’s four placed 15th among their field, and the women came in 30th.

“I think it’s safe to say this was the best field at the U of C in a long while,” McGowan said.

The women insisted that their finish could have been better, and had good reason to think so. They crossed oars with a Harvard Business School boat during the middle of the race and had to come to a complete stop.

“It’s definitely fair to say [the women could have finished] 15 or 20 seconds faster,” McGowan said.

In a highly competitive head race like the Charles—wherein teams compare times rather than racing head-to-head—even a few seconds can mean the difference between a superlative finish and a mediocre one. The women’s four finished the Elkhart regatta, a race of almost three miles in length, just seven-tenths of a second behind Northwestern. The collision with the Harvard boat may have cost the women’s four as many as ten or fifteen places in the rankings.

But that comes with the territory, according to Landrebe. “Half [of the Head of the Charles] is rowing hard, half is not getting run into,” she said.

After the race, the Boston papers write up the best crashes of the weekend. It’s a Head of the Charles tradition.

But given the difficulties facing both teams, even a 30th-place finish is more than worthy. The entire University of Chicago Rowing Club consists of only a handful of people, who practice and work long hours just to make the season possible.

“Since we’ve gotten here, we’ve definitely tried to build the program,” said McGowan, “I think we’re definitely on an upswing.”

The team’s annual expenditures exceed their University budget by a factor of five, and team dues and fundraising has to account for the difference. The resultant commitments, both physical and pecuniary, help strengthen the club’s sense of team, which is alive and well.

While McGowan and Landrebe credit their respective teams’ successes in large part to the coxswains—Eren Merzeci and John Orcutt for the men, and Joanne Leong for the women—they stress that rowing is ultimately a team sport.

“It doesn’t matter how hard I pull if no one else is pulling,” said Landrebe.

Though the coxswains steer the boat, help the team focus, and orient the rowers physically, (“they are your brain for the race,” according to Landrebe), the remainder of the team forms the muscle that the coxswains direct. So, naturally, good teams depend on conditioning, and on practice. This is what got the U of C team to its present level.

It is also what they will pursue as they move toward the spring season, for which they start training at the beginning of next week. They will have a few more practices on the water, and intend to move inside to the rowing machines when the weather gets too cold. The club will continue to meet indoors until spring break, at which time they take their annual trip to Austin, Texas, to get their oars in the water for one intensive week before the new season begins.

They row twice a day for the duration of spring break, then come back to Chicago and make final preparations for the spring. A week or two later, they kick off the quarter with a local meet at Bridgeport, not far from Chinatown.

The spring season should be just as rewarding as the fall, provided there are no collisions.