At The Head of The Charles

A veteran rower tells of her time on the water

It is a crisp fall day in New England, the wind calm, the air unseasonably warm, and for a few calm seconds, you forget what is about to happen. Seated in a boat with eight teammates, oar grasped in both hands, your eyes close briefly. You hear the faint chatter of rowers in the boats around you, the splashing of water and creaking of oarlocks as someone takes a stroke or two. The mid-morning sun on the back of your neck reminds you to add more sunscreen.

And then everything changes. An official with a megaphone commands your crew to approach the start line and build speed as you near it. That one concept—to build—means so many things: You build not just effort and momentum, what will propel you across the start at race pace, but also teamwork, precision and courage. In a surge of full-body force, your teammates rocket their blades through the water, the air now filled with the shouts of coxswains directing their eight-member troupe to row, row through pain and exhaustion to a finish line about 3 miles away. You cannot see the finish line; you will not see it until you’ve passed it. On race day, rowing is in many ways a sport about faith—faith that if you and your teammates have the physical and mental wherewithal and if your coxswain steers you straight, you’ll reach the finish before everyone else. That you’ll reach it period, really. After all, you’re facing backward the entire time.

But at that finish, all is placid. Spectators of the Head of the Charles Regatta, held annually in October on the Charles River, which divides Boston and Cambridge, sip Bloody Marys out of travel mugs. Autumn leaves crunch underfoot. Someone’s golden retriever gambols to the bank of the river and wags its tail as boats pass by in what seems from the shore like the most refined of races.
Bucknell University’s men’s team at the 2013 Head of the Charles.

When my parents heard that our neighbors’ son had earned a spot at Harvard University after he picked up an oar as a novice on the rowing team at the elite Lawrenceville School, in New Jersey, they assumed the same could happen to me. But in Princeton, where I grew up and went to high school, I had no plush prep school facilities—or after-school practices in the sunshine—at my disposal. Getting into rowing meant crawling out of bed at 4:30 each morning for two hours of intense training with a community boat club before school. We practiced in the pouring rain, bitter cold and agonizing heat. Just about the only thing that kept us off the water was a frozen lake or a thunderstorm. But I got hooked.

Rowing became my addiction when, at the age of 15, I earned my first victory at a local regatta. In rowing, races are few and far between, and that first win shot through my veins like emotional heroin and has stuck around in my bloodstream, hiding latent in the tiniest of capillaries. I might forget about it for weeks or months at a time until some early morning row amid freezing rain when I ask myself, “Why am I doing this again?” The memory returns, a sudden high, and I remember, “Victory is why.”
On race day, rowing is in many ways a sport about faith—faith that if you and your teammates have the physical and mental wherewithal and if your coxswain steers you straight, you’ll reach the finish before everyone else. That you’ll reach it period, really.

When I started rowing in the mid-1990s, the sport was going through a revival, largely sparked by a court decision. After Brown University lost a major Title IX–related lawsuit in 1996, colleges suddenly scrambled to create more women’s sports programs. Several turned to rowing, a sleepy prep school tradition that in many parts of the country was so obscure as to be nonexistent, and in 1997, women’s rowing became an NCAA sport. Soon women’s rowing scholarships proliferated, which helped to create a balance with the scope and spending of men’s programs, and the sport’s reputation grew.

That was the first step toward the more mainstream status that rowing enjoys today. Its training machines, known as ergs, are now staples at CrossFit gyms, and Daniel James Brown’s book The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics was a runaway best seller in 2013. Collegiate teams remain the heart of the sport, but graduation does not always mark the end. For many athletes, rowing is a sport for life, and never is this more evident than at the Head of the Charles Regatta. With divisions for all ages, from high schoolers to grand veterans (competitors over the age of 80), and peppered by teams such as a centuries-old British club and 21st-century nonprofit programs, the regatta remains an ongoing and evolving toast to the sport.
“We practiced in the pouring rain, bitter cold and agonizing heat,” the author says. Here, the snow-soaked 2009 Head of the Charles.

Back on the water and long past the finish line, you lift your oar and rest. However you, your crew and your competitors connect to rowing’s legacy and intense camaraderie, you are also aware of its humility.

Peter Cipollone, a coxswain for the gold medal–winning men’s eight event at the 2004 Olympic Games, in Athens, recently related to me a particular moment that took place just before that race.

“One day after practice, we’d just gone out and done a smoking-fast time,” Cipollone said. “It’s just the nine of us sitting there with [longtime Team USA Rowing coach] Mike Teti, and he said, ‘Guys, let’s be honest. We’re all here because we got cut from other sports.’”

That may be the reason why many rowers picked up their oar in the first place, but why we’re all still here is more complicated. One thing is certain: It’s a hard thing to let go.
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CAROLINE MCCARTHY, an alumna of Princeton University’s rowing team, took part in the 50th annual Head of the Charles Regatta, in 2014. She has worked for CBS, CNET and Google and lives in Brooklyn.