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A Season in the Tradition of Harvard Crew
By Susan Saint Sing
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2010 Susan Saint Sing
All rights reserved.
A HUNDRED YEARS OF SWEAT
I had been recruited heavily by Yale, Princeton, and Dartmouth, so why did I choose Harvard? Because as soon as I walked into the boathouse I could smell a hundred years of sweat, and I wanted to be part of it, part of something great.
— Patrick Todd, Harvard crew, class of 2002, Olympian
A hundred years of sweat. Hundreds and hundreds of rowers. Thousands and thousands of strokes. Tens of thousands by career end. But the first step in making a Harvard crew begins the first time your oar hits the water. It is an individual moment, as individual as the question, why Harvard? Or, why rowing?
Newell Boathouse is an institution. In the turbulent years around 2008, it has seen other institutions undergo great change: Wall Street tottering; the Twin Towers still not rebuilt; the closing of the old Yankee Stadium, to be torn down leaving the dirt to Fen-way, the last pitching mound the Babe ever stood on. In a mounting global energy crisis, glaciers are melting, Boston Harbor is rising, and wind turbines in Nantucket Sound are helping us "to go green." All around the boathouse, the world is changing, yet at its feet lie centuries of tradition, hardly touched by any of the above.
Newell is covered with red slate siding, looking like a cranberry-colored Victorian fortress. Its roofline has a steely wrought-iron finial that rests on a gold ball atop the gables. Copper verdigris rain gutters and a crenellated roof meet the slate shingles.
As you open the heavy door, gray, wooden, one-hundred-year-old hand-hewn planks spread before you in the boat bay. They seem anachronistic as Michael Jackson's 1988 hit song "The Way You Make Me Feel" pumps out its steady rhythm and beat from somewhere upstairs in the distance, presumably from the erg room where Crimson oarsmen are ticking meters away during their training pieces. Graceful arched windows rest majestically above the great five-panel two-inch-thick doors. You step inside. You see the water. You see the shells. This is Harvard rowing.
The massive black-and-white picture of the "Rude and Smooth," the undefeated crew of 1974–75, on the staircase landing tells you exactly where priority lies — perfection. Two national championships will do. The look on the faces of the Rude and Smooth digging not just into water but into souls and character formed inside an eight from this house makes almost every person walking in take pause. It serves notice that "this is the bar"; pass over if it you think you can — measure up to it, but do not pass under it. This is Harvard.
The Rude and Smooth symbolize the dream. They present a presence that no other team can. They represent the essence of what Harvard crew is about. If this were baseball, it would be as if, with every contest they attended, they brought the mound that Babe Ruth pitched off of and placed it in the middle of the field silently, without fanfare, without announcement; they simply placed it there because they could. It is theirs and they alone own it. Others might tear it a bit, wrinkle it in a defeat here and there; but they can't wear it themselves, nor can they destroy the enigma and mystique. It is the essence of Harvard lore.
There are examples of New England lore bound inextricably by tradition and heritage. Take, for example, the Gloucestermen just a few miles north of Boston — they go and fish to such a high standard of maritime and nautical supremacy that the very word Gloucestermen conjures up its own image in people's minds. So it is with Harvard oarsmen. They are expected to be of a certain ilk.
At the foot of the picture the great staircase — majestic, of dark wood, perhaps walnut or heart pine whose sap has darkened over the decades — invites you to lay your hand upon it, touch it, and start the walk upstairs. Underfoot, the crimson carpet that wraps upward to the balcony would be the envy of any Victorian home.
This is both boathouse and home if you are a member of the varsity eight-oared shell. In fact, you may feel more at home here than anywhere else because you are with like people who understand you. You don't have to explain. Dogged effort, the need every morning upon rising to do something great that day, is on everyone here. You fit in here as an individual, as a teammate. At last everything is right. Youth, health, tradition, opportunity, all work in your favor at last. No one here asks, "Why are you getting up at 5 A.M.?" No one here asks, "Why are you wrapping that sock around your calf?" Or, "Where did you get those track bites? Do those blisters hurt?" No one here asks because everyone here knows that you do it because you must. You love it. You are in pursuit of something ethereal — the pursuit of an ideal. Call it excellence, call it perfection. "It" exists out there in the shrouded morning mists, and you must pursue it because it is your personal grail; and some others are here to join you in finding it.
In "Harry's house" a "say-less-do-more" attitude prevails. The house itself bespeaks that motto. It is almost grim and cold, looking like a castle or suit of armor in its chain mail–esque red slate suit. It could be likened to a giant transformer: young, impressionable rowers and seekers walk through the massive orifice of its front door and — after passing through various contortions and readjustments of attitude, form, skill, trust, and self-reliance in the skillful hands of Harry Parker — return from the waters to stand as mature, confident oarsmen. This mettle gives Harvard an advantage on any dock because everyone knows what these men have gone through and who they've become to get there. It is a process of entitlement that every other crew must row upstream against.
Newell Boathouse, often called "the elder statesman among Charles River boathouses," was built in 1900. Its plank dock fronts eight miles of rowable water along the Charles River. It is named for Harvard student Marshall Newell, who was struck by a train and died tragically on Christmas Eve, 1897. The Harvard grad, class of 1894, was walking back to his office with his collar turned up against the wind and driving snow when he was struck. The hands of his pocket watch stilled at 6:35 P.M., recording the time of impact. His picture rests on the wall at the top of the stairs, a portrait of the quintessential athlete in his rowing togs and Harvard crew shirt. A football and crew star, he is remembered for his goodness.
Newell's classmates said of him, "An athlete in the best sense of the word, he loved sport for sport's sake alone. In football strong and alert, he was effective without being rough. As an oarsman he was persistent, determined, powerful. Always to be trusted, his spirit never flagged, his courage never faltered. He was tried often and never found wanting. He stood for simplicity, righteousness, and truth. His character was as sturdy as his body."
What does Newell say to the modern rower? Tyler Winklevoss '07 muses, "There is a very special feeling when you enter Newell Boathouse. The creaking floors, old wooden boat bays, the pictures of past crews, it is impossible to forget the oarsmen who have come before you. There is an emphasis on the past history of Harvard crew and repeating it, becoming not only a winner but something more. The character of a Harvard oarsman is something that is unique in and of itself, it is something you will not find anywhere else, and is something you feel each and every day you walk through the doors of Newell Boathouse."
It is a sacred space. Boathouses are storied places. In his book, The Joy of Sports, Michael Novak talks about sacred space and sacred time as they relate to our love affair with sports. "The feeling athletes have for the arena in which they struggle is a secret feeling not often voiced. ... If you have ever walked the fields of Gettysburg, reconstructing in imagination the movements and the courage; perhaps then you understand how certain places are hallowed by deeds." Novak describes an athlete as "training everywhere he or she can ... yet there is a certain awe when one enters the high school gym or Madison Square Garden or wherever the symbolic center for achievement may be." Newell Boathouse is a place hallowed by deeds and deserving of awe. It sticks to you.
The time a rower or a coach or a visitor spends there is sacramental, especially if you can have the privilege of being alone there for even a few moments. There is a certain communion you feel as you walk through the doors that you have joined into a continuum with the others before and those yet to come. There is an unmistakable aura to the place that seeps out of the floorboards and the walls and is held in the filtering sunlight. Like a leaf that captures afternoon sun and brightens with it from gray-green to lime, the sunlight is amplified in its holding and in the communion of the two. As the sunlight drifts into the bays of the boathouse, its hues reflecting off and onto racks of shells, drifting down oars, across life jackets, and skittering off metal riggers, it is not unlike the filtered light from stained glass. It catches you, unexpected, the stirring awareness of something greater.
There is the presence of time and all that time is. You can smell time here. Oar handles have shaded areas where hands grasped them over the years. Overalls and an errant Gore-Tex jacket with a slight smell of sweat hang on a peg, waiting for weather. Cox boxes, used to measure the speed and stroke rate of a crew, sit plugged in, giving off a slight scent of warm electric wiring until the moment when they are transferred to the wire harness of a shell. The tank water has carried thousands and thousands of oars, with each stroke revealing a desire to excel and to learn. Oarsmen have dripped sweat on the planks, sometimes blood, sometimes both. Boats wait guts down on the racks, with WD-40, Simple Green, duct tape, and wrenches nearby to adjust and tweak rigging before the shells are launched and after they are set back to drip-dry in the boat bays. The musky Charles River and damp New England weather are no strangers to the boathouse's innards. This place, like a kiva, has presence, a presence that seems to be watching, noting, musing, ascertaining, and judging all who dare walk though its formidable doors. Don't enter without courage and skill, strength of character and body, or else this place will eat you alive. It is not for the faint of heart, nor is it for those who will only dabble — this is the real deal.
Newell Boathouse demands of all who enter it that they enter in to it. It is the master. It is the teacher. Even Harry Parker and the coaches before him have come in and out through its doors. It has partially shaped them: the wind coming through its bays, the view of the Charles down its docks, the stairway leading up to the coaches' room, the crenellated roof and the small globes of wrought-iron finials all leave indelible images in the minds and souls of those who see it, enter into what it is — a place demanding change of self, a rite de passage. Integrity lives here. Transformation occurs here. And, with luck, transfiguration results.
Places like Newell — like a dinner party in elegant surroundings — demand everyone be on their best behavior. Places contribute to who we are, how we act, and who we might become. The process of doing the rituals — say, kneeling to worship in church — produces a response. The acts themselves contribute to the process of becoming, by training, by participating in the spiritual. The space contributes to and shapes the response.
As Belden C. Lane so richly details in this description of his response to the atmosphere of Ghost Ranch, New Mexico: "Something more than cognitive, beyond cultural construction" occurs when you enter; "you feel called by the place, entering into something of its mystery in a profoundly embodied, interactive way." He adds, "Identifying the sacred character of a place, however, involves much more than gathering the random accounts of its individual spiritual encounters, significant as these may be. To experience a place as sacred is to participate."
Participation is perhaps the greatest lesson one can learn from sports. It is the essence of the phrase If you build it, they will come, from the movie Field of Dreams, which explores this near mystical arena of living and dead, heroes and novices, fans and coaches. Newell Boathouse is a rower's field of dreams. It represents the pinnacle of collegiate rowing in America. Senators, governors, and presidents' sons have walked through the doors: Leverett Saltonstall, former governor of Massachusetts and longtime senator; Franklin Delano Roosevelt's sons, Franklin Jr. and James; Theodore Roosevelt IV. At Newell, tradition walks its planks and rests comfortably on its benches. It is a gateway to the intersection of the ancient and the new. Here the waters of the Charles merge with the self when one crosses the bridge from Harvard Yard. Something happens out there on the river. The geography of transcendence is internalized.
This is not a new thought; these intersections of the ordinary with the sacred are as old as Plato. It is "a concept rooted in the very ancient philosophical notion of correspondence — the idea that the visible world is 'double' of some prior, cosmic counterpart, deriving its energy from the hidden, metaphysical connection modeled after cosmic cities and sacred rivers is as old as history." Alexandria on the banks of the Nile, Rome on the banks of the Tiber, Harvard on the banks of the Charles, each has its own link to the sacred, through temples, pyramids, and fountains that link the earth to the world above. And, "in this unified view there is no distinction between sacred and profane. The ordinary carries within it the power of its heavenly double. Reality conceived in this manner, is therefore 'open to emergence'— to the in-breaking of mystery at a place where the navel of the earth is met."
Every rower who presents himself at Newell is making a subtle gesture — one that he may not fully grasp — to be a better person through sports — specifically through rowing. To leave the Yard, cross the river's bridge, eye the slate-sided Newell behemoth, push open its heavy door, and enter in can be very intimidating. There is no incense here; there is the smell of sweat. What is found in the necessity of seeking something greater than self is the reward. And nearly every rower will allude to some type of emergence, an energy given to him from this place. It enlivens souls to action. It summons, it embraces, it gives, and it protects. And the rowers who walk on its planks and down its apron to the water's edge know it. They have been told it by the wisdom figures of fathers, uncles, mothers, grandparents. They gather here to find that "something" which has eluded them on land, and which can only be found here. The "first Harvard eight" — and the myriad aspects that that term entails — forms the lines of their holy grail. As they rest their shells upon the water and push off, they are energized by it because they have given over self, for a short while, in the hope that it will be given back to them on a higher plane.
And that's what makes a hundred years of sweat worth it.
I had two girlfriends, each for less than a week. Then I met one who learned all the guys on my side of the boat in less than a week, could tell port from starboard, and didn't ask me how my day was but what split time I hit at the morning erg test. I knew she was a keeper.
— Harvard rower who wishes to remain anonymous
There is something that happens to men and women when they become interested in rowing. It is like an infection. It spreads to roommates, girlfriends, boyfriends, parents, grandparents. Dinner conversations that once centered around the daily TV news, household comings and goings, antics of the family pet, or the neighbor's yard soon are riddled with unfamiliar but provocative jargon: "work through," "erg piece," "coxswain," "watts," "VO max," and "bucket rig."
Excerpted from The Eight by Susan Saint Sing. Copyright © 2010 Susan Saint Sing. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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