Boys in the boat: A week with Whitman crew

Junior+Taylor+Haber+attempts+to+row+on+an+erg+after+losing+all+feeling+in+his+lower+body.

Charlie Sagner

Junior Taylor Haber attempts to row on an erg after losing all feeling in his lower body.

By Taylor Haber

During my time at Whitman, I’ve had my fair share of high-school defining moments. I’ve put up posters of my face wide enough to cover an entire stairway. I’ve dressed up as a medically trained bear to raise awareness for charity. I’ve even given a history presentation on the 10 most culturally impactful Muppets. But of all my goofs and gaffs, all of my most bizzare stunts, one of the most interesting decisions I made was to row on the crew team.

There was once a time when I attended Whitman, starry eyed and full of hope, hope that crew would be the sport for me. That was in ninth grade. How naive.

I trained for months, battling the harsh winds of the Potomac in the autumn and the grueling indoor practices on stationary rowing machines called ergometers, or ergs, in the winter. It was all to achieve one singular goal: racing in the spring.

If I was going to train for six months, I expected to race for more than a total of five minutes on the water. Granted, there are rowers who enjoy those practices, they stick with the sport and get better — but it just wasn’t for me. 

With that realization, I quite literally left. After my final race of the season, I carried my boat toward its storage space with my team, left the competition a full three hours early before the award ceremony, and to this day, I have not received my bronze medal from the WIMIRA regatta.

Now as a junior, I recently realized that my crew journey wasn’t quite complete. I needed to do some soul searching, to remember what drew me to the sport in the first place. I decided to get back on the erg and revisit Whitman crew one last time. 

My rules were simple: For the sake of journalistic integrity, I would exercise with the novice men’s crew team for one school week’s worth of practices, from Friday, Dec. 13 until Thursday, Dec. 19. I wasn’t just going to report on winter training; I was going to take part in it. For 90 minutes every day, I would do it all. I would run in freezing temperatures around the track and row on an erg until I fell off (falling isn’t a typical part of rowing — this was more just because I’m clumsy), and I would do it all while wearing a week’s worth of uncomfortably tight Spandex shorts, the crew uniform.

I soon realized that this new week would be far different from my previous time on the team. During my freshman year, I had dreaded rowing after school. I felt that if I didn’t row at the same intensity as my teammates or if I didn’t finish a race quickly enough, I wouldn’t be able to compete at the highest novice level. Those feelings of stress vanished when I came back.

My scores for the week wouldn’t have any bearing on my ranking on the team because I wasn’t on the team anymore. I did want to break a sweat, but that was a personal goal. Rowing was now simply a weeklong time commitment rather than a yearlong marathon.

I spent my week with the novice men’s crew team, a group of roughly 20 freshmen and sophomore boys. Most of them seemed eager to prove to themselves, and each other, that they had what it takes to become some of the finest rowers at Whitman. 

Suffice to say, I was not on their level. Most of them had been training for months before I arrived. During one practice, our warmup was to run around the track two times. I kept pace with the group, even surging slightly ahead, but as I started making my way off the track, the other rowers were making the turn into their third lap. I soon realized that the warmup was a four lap one mile run, something my unathletic lungs were not prepared for. By the end, I had to literally cut corners, running across the field instead of around the track to keep pace with the slowest members of the group. I struggled to breathe, and I downed the contents of my water bottle. Eighty-five minutes were still left in the practice.

That experience and the handful of others that I had over the week are all thanks to the men at the top: the coaches. Rowers at Whitman revere their coaches, a small group of former collegiate athletes in the sport, all of whom started crew in high school just like the group they train. Coaches take on a number of responsibilities for the team, acting as both the motivator — pushing rowers to reach their best scores on the erg — and the enforcer to whip kids into shape for the racing season. 

It’s all a part of the coaches’ tough love approach when training the team: Do the work, even if it’s brutally painful, and you have a better chance at succeeding. 

The Whitman crew team strives to make its rowers the fastest in the country, and according to novice girls crew coach Pat McCloksey, “you can’t do that with candy and flowers.”

My chance for redemption came on Tuesday, my second day struggling through practice. Both the novice and varsity teams were preparing for a 2,000 meter sprint on the ergs, commonly referred to as a “2K.” A 2K mirrors the length of a race on the water, making it one of the best metrics to judge a rower’s strength, skill and stamina. For this reason, 2Ks become one of the most competitive activities in crew culture, where edging out the person next to you can mean moving into a more elite boat for the season, sophomore rower Sawyer Hays said.

Most of the varsity rowers wanted to set a personal record for their 2K scores, and a few of the scared novices, seeing as it was their first time, were trying to leave practice for an urgent, last-minute dentist appointment. As for me, I was preparing to risk it all — and by that I mean my dignity — if I could prove my worth to a bunch of ninth graders. I needed the personal validation of just completing the test. I had been working out with the crew team for a day, and I wanted to feel like I had taken something out of the experience, aside from the heart palpitations.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have my intended Olympian performance on the erg. I wound up with my legs feeling like jelly and finishing near the bottom of the group. While my scores may have been disappointing, my confidence was booming. The fact that I had been able to finish the 2K was an achievement in and of itself. I was impressed with myself since I’m the type of guy who calls running on the treadmill once a month “working out.” 

The practice wasn’t done, however. The coaches still had us go for a run on the neighborhood streets surrounding Whitman. I wound up trailing so far behind that I lost the group on the way back. For those wondering, you cannot make a beeline behind people’s houses to the school. There are fences that aren’t worth climbing.

 My second day with crew reflects my experience for the week; every day took a physical toll. By the end, I felt like I should have been on crutches. Not everything during my week on the team went as I expected. My five day long experience with the team eventually whittled down to three, with one day lost to a snowstorm and the other to me forgetting to bring a pair of gym shorts. Maybe those delays were the crew gods smiling down upon me, or it could have just been the forecast. Storm Team 4 works in mysterious ways. 

I learned to appreciate Coach Pat’s approach to crew, partially because his instructions didn’t apply to me anymore, but also because I realized that he was trying to turn his rowers into elite athletes. Even after this whole ordeal, I can’t really remember why I joined crew, only why I was so eager to leave.

While crew wasn’t the sport for me, I did gain several rowers’ perspectives on why they enjoy the sport, however soul crushing it may be to me.

“The community around here is pretty great, I’ve made a lot of good friends, it’s a great way to stay in shape, it’s really competitive, and I’m hoping it will help me out with college admissions,” junior rower Peter Godshalk said. “Every day is a new workout, a new race, where you can try and beat the guy ahead of you.” 

Other students on crew expressed their enjoyment for practice on the water; training on the picturesque waters of the Potomac river.

“It’s always fun to go out and row in D.C., the scenery is always nice, and of course, racing is also fun — just going out there and competing,” junior rower Josh Kim said.

Over the course of the week, I learned something about myself: If I ever want to challenge myself, I’ll pick an activity more calming, like meditation or chess. Something where I don’t run the risk of pulling a hamstring.