My first exposure to rowing (or what they refer to in America as “crew”) came in 2010, when i saw David Fincher’s movie “The Social Network.” Besides being completely blown away at the fact that Armie Hammer was playing two people on screen at the same time, I was additionally shocked that competitive kayaking was a real sport, one that posh British people in the movies seemed to take exceptionally seriously. My next encounter with rowing, in high school, reminded me that the founding of Facebook wasn’t the only thing exaggerated in that movie and helped me better comprehend this aquatic mystery of a competition.
My next-door neighbors and my best friend were both involved with our high school’s rowing program. Their combined influence got me to attend one regatta (that’s what they call a boat race in the sport, so I’ve been told) on a freezing cold Sunday morning in Philadelphia. As I saw people speeding down the stretch of river we were encamped on, dressed in their tight spandex leotards, only one thought crossed my mind. “What kind of complete lunatic would willingly do this?”
Historically speaking, the answer to that question is quite a few complete lunatics, as competitive rowing has been around for centuries. A quick internet search revealed that there are records of ancient Egyptian feats of oarsmanship as far back as 1430 B.C., and as a proud Classics student with wonderful professors, of course I know that funeral games involving rowing were described as a part of Virgil’s “Aeneid.” In the form that we know it today, however, rowing emerged in none other than jolly ol’ England, where I happen to be!
In case you missed my column last week, I’m studying abroad at Oxford and trying to better come to an understanding of the British conception of sports. Rowing is deeply embedded in the sports, and more pertinently, collegiate sports culture of England. The River Thames, which flows through Oxford and London, was the site of the earliest rowing competitions, made amongst ferrymen as early as 1700. As the rules of the sport developed, so did amateur competition, as various organizations (particularly university colleges) founded “boat clubs” and began to compete against one another.
The Thames is the site of the second ever intercollegiate sporting match in history (the first being a cricket match between the same participants two years earlier), as the Oxford University Boat Club took on the Cambridge University Boat Club in 1829. In British culture, this Oxford-Cambridge boat race is a massive event; think Big Game, but on a national level. Over 250,000 people crowd the shores of the Thames to watch it live each year, and over 15 million watch it on television. That’s the same viewership as game one of the 2017 World Series between the Dodgers and Astros. I’ll be attending this event (the regatta, not the World Series) when it occurs in March, so stay tuned for that column!
Suffice it to say, there are plenty of lunatics at Oxford ready, willing and able to sacrifice their bodies to the elements to proudly row for their colleges, and the university as a whole. One such lunatic is my friend and fellow Stanford cohort member, junior Mary Carolyn Manion. Upon receiving an email from Corpus Christi (our college) about an opportunity to join the women’s rowing team, she jumped right on board, eager to learn more about the sport. Despite never rowing previously, nor really participating in team sports, she’s become enthralled with the community and the activity as a whole. I sat down in the Stanford House where we all live and spoke with her about it.
We all received the email advertising rowing to us as new students, but Carolyn was one of the only people to respond. Why? In her words: “Everybody back at Stanford said it was the best way to get involved in the ‘genuine Oxford experience,’ and since my dad did rowing and I grew up being told it was a really really great sport, I figured that this would be a really great way for me to get involved in Oxford life.” And it has been. Since joining the team at preliminary practices last week, Carolyn has been out to brunch and gone shopping with the rest of the women’s boats, getting to know more about the lives of Oxford students.
While rowing may not be thought of as a traditional team sport, the cohesion and coordination required among members of a rowing shell is crucial to success. In an eight boat, which are the boats used by most of the Oxford colleges, there are eight rowers, each with one oar, four oars on each side. There’s also a single coxswain, who’s in charge of steering the boat and keeping the rowers together. In order to maximize speed and efficiency, the rowers must be completely in sync. Carolyn commented on the amount of teamwork required, particularly as a first-timer: “Something that’s hard for me, just stuck there being new, is that it’s really important to all have the same timing. You all have to be hitting the water at the same time, and that’s so incredibly stressful, especially for me having never touched an oar in my life. But it’s kind of cool, because you’re one with everyone else on the team.”
My biggest hangups with rowing, and the reasons why I tell myself I never got involved with it, are the early morning practices and freezing cold temperatures. The fog and dampness here in Oxford never cease, and the winds on the river are frigid as well. When I asked Carolyn if she was cold, she said “We deal with it; when you’re moving you don’t notice it as much because you’re moving, but because there’s sometimes only four people rowing, you’re just sitting there and you want to be rowing because it’s freezing in the middle of the water.” I also inquired if anyone had flipped their boat or fallen into the Thames, to which she said, “It would have been a serious health hazard if anyone had fallen in that water.”
Who knows, maybe I’ll find myself behind an oar sometime during the rest of this term, but for the moment, I prefer to stick to activities on the safe, stable, relatively warm ground. The mere possibility of freezing in the hypothermic Thames is enough to keep me completely dry. But for Carolyn and the others involved with rowing at Oxford, the season is just getting started. If you’re interested in learning more about rowing, you can attend a regatta right near campus! Stanford men’s, women’s and women’s lightweight crew teams all compete regularly beginning in the spring, with their boathouse located in Redwood City. Until next week, enjoy checking the weather forecast in Fahrenheit and driving on the right side of the road!
Contact Bobby Pragada at bpragada ‘at’ stanford.edu.