A couple weeks later, with a little more confidence under our belt and a little more knowledge in our heads, we come back to the boathouse to race against some of the other freshmen. After a short motivational group meeting, the coach hands us over to the coxswain, who leads us to the “garage” where the racing shells are housed. Like a general surveying his regatta of warships, I try to absorb the sight of racks after racks of gleaming, slick long shells made of ultra-light, high-tech carbon polyurethane.
“Hands on,” Alfred commands us to grab onto the shell.
“Ready to lift … Ready! … Lift! Shoulders and walk it out.” Working in unison, the eight of us manage to move the unwieldy, shell down to the water. Without the cooperation of the entire team, this “ultra-light” shell would easily crush a single rower.
“Weigh-enough … Up and over heads … Ready! Lift! Roll to waists … Ready! Roll! And out and in together!”
The shell effortlessly slides into the river without even a splash and we nimbly strap in.
“All eight sit ready! … Ready! Row!”
I forget about the problem sets due tomorrow or the Yale Daily News article I have to write this weekend. The serene, gliding river becomes my world, stretching on forever. The sun casts a warm glow over the water.
Then boom! Our shell charges off the starting line as Alfred explodes in our ears.
“Give me three short strokes … half … full! Good, keep it there. Lengthen and stretch.”
1500 meters left. No time for stray thoughts. Instead, all I can concentrate on is the rough feeling of the oar rubbing against my calloused hands and the water splashing on me from the rower ahead. My legs already burn as I gasp for air between each measured stroke. The sweat pours from my face, blurring my sight as Alfred continues yelling. 1000 meters.
“Harder! We’re five strokes to six. And push with those legs … and push.” The eight oars slice the water at exactly the same instant. I begin to feel the rhythm, the splashing and roughness of the oar no longer on my mind.
Yes, this is what rowing was all about. We finally see the payoff to our grueling workouts on the tanks in the dungeons of the Payne Whitney Gym. Like one eight-legged beast, we ram through the water, each one of us rowing as part of the unit. Our bodies slide in synchrony, and all I hear above the din of the cries to push harder, row faster, is the grinding of eight oarlocks, which gives off an almost musical and most definitely even beat. Eight have become one.
500 meters. The final stretch, the sprint that would make or break us. At this point, our slow-twitch muscle fibers have been flooded with lactic acid buildup for several minutes. The same muscles that power some people through 26.4 miles now struggle to keep our blades driving through the molasses; the lactic acid has quickly depleted our blood sugar supply so our lung cells desperately crave oxygen.
With all the fancy hi-tech improvements like the aerodynamic racing shell and sliding seats, the race still remains about man versus man, pitting the collective strength and mental endurance of our boat against the others. We are indeed contemporary Vikings, waging a continuous battle against the limits of our own body and lactic acid build-up!
We have no strength left. Yet somehow from mysterious reserves, we force ourselves to push harder, row faster. My heart beats as fast as a hummingbird’s while my head pounds with blood. Just when I feel like collapsing from sheer exhaustion, we glide through the finish line, two boat lengths behind.
After docking, we jump out of the boat, elated at completing our first race. We gave it our all, and so we congratulated each other. The other freshmen came over, brimming with excitement at our performance and gushing about the successful season we will have. Like Yale in 1852, we lost by two boat lengths, but like the Vikings, the war was meant to be won another day.
Over the past century and even millennia, rowing surprisingly hasn’t changed; the races still came down to slow-twitch fibers and Viking aggression, and of course, we still despised Harvard Crew. I turn around to admire the sparkling sunset one last time and walk off to the locker room.