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Dreaming of spring
“Rowing is a sport for dreamers. As long as you put in the work, you can own the dream. When the work stops, the dream ends.” —Jim Dietz, U-Mass crew coach
From the outside looking in, it seems downright masochistic: rising in the darkness of a damp November morning—the day after Thanksgiving break—to hit the rowing machines in a grungy room off Van Lennep Riding Center. Built in the 1980s as an energy-supplementing methane-processing site, the bunker-like room is framed by cinderblock walls and a bank of tall, thick windows.
|Crew members gladly submit to grueling ergometer workouts.
Yet there they were at 6:15 a.m., eight members of Skidmore’s women’s varsity crew, “erg”-ing in unison for forty-eight minutes. Ergometers, or rowing machines, offer a test of strength and endurance while simulating a race on water—on this occasion, according to the practice plan of coach Jim Tucci, four twelve-minute pieces, two-mile equivalents. Beyond the physical benefits, ergs establish a pecking order, and it’s common to post individual erg times.
Unlike the side-by-side alignment of rowing machines in most gyms, these mimic the positioning of the Thoroughbred oarswomen in their eight-person racing shell. Thus, lanky Maris Pritchett ’02, the team’s “stroke,” sat up front, effortlessly setting the pace, while Sarah Lutenski ’03, the team’s bowwoman, provided starboard-side power at the back.
Along about the third piece—at 90 percent effort for eleven minutes, followed by “110 percent” for the last minute—morning’s light began to creep through the windows. It was emerging as a gray day. Two dogs yelped happily and sniffed the air. A barn door slid open and a horse was led out.
Pritchett and company were still in rhythm—catch, drive, finish, recovery…catch, drive, finish, recovery —but their faces had lost that blank, relaxed look; strain was starting to show. Toward the end of the last piece their technique deteriorated, no surprise this early in the grueling offseason, which is primarily about building physical capacity for the spring’s sprint races. Most observers believe the quality of the winter workouts are a better predictor of success in the spring than the results of races such as Saratoga Springs’s two-and-a-half-mile Head of the Fish. (The Skidmore women fared well in this fall’s Fish, second out of twenty-eight boats, at 14:05, one second behind Williams but well ahead of Cornell, Wesleyan, and Ithaca.)
While Tucci and coxswain Holly Yacko ’01 wandered among the whirring ergs to check stroke ratings and heart rates, injured captain Jessie Rabinowitz ’01 talked about the team’s recent breakthrough victory at Philadelphia’s 1,500-meter Braxton Regatta: “We were dominant against Ithaca, a team that, until this year, we have come up short against. Holly and I agree that it was our proudest medal; it meant the most to us.”
“This is the happiest I’ve ever been with the boat,” confided Yacko, who fell into crew in her freshman year after she failed to make the field hockey team and has since developed leadership skills she didn’t think she had. “Last year we had strength, but we were missing the mental aspect. This year all the pieces are there: chemistry, dedication, and strength. No one is making excuses.”
Coach and rowers alike believe this is the year they can overcome William Smith and Ithaca to earn a spot at NCAA nationals.
Men’s varsity looks forward
Mild-mannered Marc Mandel, a 1999 Northwestern grad who won Midwestern and Big 10 championships in the university’s lightweight eight, is in his second year as the coach of Skidmore’s men’s varsity crew. He’s called an evening meeting in a Sports Center classroom.
Happily, the Thoroughbred eight, which had lost to Ithaca by nine seconds a few days earlier in the Frostbite Regatta, came roaring back the next day in the Braxton, nosing out the same Bombers squad for second place. “You guys realized what went wrong and you fixed it,” said an appreciative Mandel. “What was the difference between Saturday and Sunday?” the coach asked, trying to elicit feedback from a group of guys who don’t share a lot out loud. “We may have gotten too technical,” said Greg Thall ’02. “Sunday we did what we do best for now. We honked on it!”
Mandel shifted the focus to goals for the spring season: the New York State Championships, which doubles as the UCAA championship; the Champion Intercollegiate Regatta; and for the women, the NCAA Championships. The men’s stretch goal: a top-three finish in New York. “OK,” said a pleased Mandel, whose candid assessment ranked his team seventh at this juncture. “If we’re looking at third, Marist and Hobart are beyond our grasp, but we can take RIT if we work hard and believe in ourselves. That means six minutes for 2,000 meters. That’s the benchmark.”
“What do you think?” the coach asked captain Ben Clarke ’01. “We can have any type of fall season, good or bad, and still come on strong in the spring,” he responded. “It comes down to the winter.”
Down on Fish Creek
It’s an early Monday practice and the women’s varsity, junior varsity, and novice eights unload their fifty-eight-foot, carbon-fiber boats from the trailer, the nearby Stafford Road bridge looming behind them. It’s pitch black out, and the stars and a sliver of moon shine brightly. It’s windless and cold and quiet, too, except for the commands from the three coxswains as the oarswomen carefully maneuver their high-priced shells into Skidmore’s boathouse for preparation of the oarlocks and rigging.
Below the boathouse, on Fish Creek, Tucci, a former Jacksonville University star and national team candidate, organizes his troops. It’s going to be a technique practice, emphasizing details such as feathering and the leg drive that precedes the stroke. This is Tucci at his best. “Coach takes the stroke apart piece by piece; he dissects it,” according to coxswain Yacko. “He’s so good at emphasizing where we need to be techniquewise.”
|Skidmore women pull hard at this fall’s Head of the Fish.
Cameron Lane ’03 eases off the icy dock into the coach’s motorboat. Lucky her: she gets to bail out yesterday’s heavy rains. Out on the water, above the din of the outboard motor, she explains that feathering is the act of rotating the oar so that it’s parallel to the surface of the water. Executed at the end of the stroke before bringing the oar back to the ready position, it’s a cautionary move that keeps the oar from getting caught in the water —a mistake that could cost a boat critical seconds in recovery time.
The sun is rising above the treeline on the eastern bank, and as the creek widens and the Thoroughbred oarswomen close in on the Route 9 bridge, it becomes a big orange ball of warmth. Rowing fluidly in a continuous motion, the three boats seem to merge with the shimmering landscape. The beauty and the solitude stir the soul. The silent moment stands still.
“Crew has a lot of attractive dimensions,” says Tucci, who got interested in the sport as a teenager when bad knees limited his athletic options. “It’s about connection. It’s tough when it’s dark and cold, when there’s frost and rain; it’s really hard work on a year-round basis. But the payoff is that the camaraderie is incredible in the same way it is for people in survival-type conditions.”
For Ben Clarke, whose best friends are fellow rowers, crew is the “greatest thing about Skidmore.” From crew, he says, “I’ve learned that I can handle anything. Once you get started in a race, the only thing you can do is finish. There’s no stopping. You just have to get through it.”
Clarke says he’ll never forget a 2,000-meter race his sophomore year. Tucci told him and his novice mates, “When you hit the 1,500-meter mark, I want nothing left.” Then what? they wondered. “At that point,” the coach said, “get spiritual.”
Women’s captain Rabinowitz claims that she doesn’t remember what the end of a race feels like; it has a Zen-like quality. “Especially in the last 250 meters when you’re sprinting and emptying your tanks,” she says, “you’re not really aware of who you are.” No doubt that’s music to Tucci’s ears. When an eight is fluid and synchronized, they can sometimes achieve “swing,” a feeling of being one living, breathing entity. It’s pretty much gospel that the crew making it look the easiest is doing the best job.
“I tell my athletes that if they strive for this feeling, the results will fall into place,” says Tucci. “I tell them they are an engine, that they need to row with blinders on like a harness horse.”
But make no mistake, achieving swing, even coming close, is elusive, and it is only achieved through hours and hours and miles and miles. All this work, all these hours, just for six eight-minute races in the spring. —PM