March 13, 2003

Blood and Ice: Rowing Through Spring Break

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Tomorrow, the student population of Cornell will depart en masse for Spring Break, mostly to points warmer. I suppose that break means different things to different people; maybe it’s a chance to catch up with family or finish up some neglected schoolwork. Maybe it’s waking up naked on a beach and having beer for breakfast (hey, whatever blows your hair back).

For the varsity athletes staying behind in the tundra of Ithaca, break takes on a slightly different personification. For men’s hockey, it’s the start of a playoff push. For lacrosse, baseball, and softball, it’s the kick-start to the regular season. To myself and my fellow oarsmen on the crew, Spring Break means civil war.

Yes, that’s correct. War. Before you condemn me for comparing something as supposedly absurd and inconsequential as sports to armed combat, especially with our nation balanced on the brink of conflict, let me remind you of history. Ever since September 2001, sports have been set aside as endeavors secondary to the national good, as low entertainment in the face of real drama, as nothing more than mere games.

But athletics, the Olympic games, were the Ancients’ substitute for war. They laid down their arms and could see, as too few of us do now, that there is more honor in out-running, out-jumping, out-rowing a man than there is in shooting him.

So, welcome to Cornell Rowing, 2003. First things first, however, we need a battlefield. The ice encasing Cayuga Inlet is over a foot thick and with the climate Ithaca has weathered over the past weeks, it will take a miracle to carve out a channel of any significant distance, let alone to actually maneuver the racing shells around the icebergs. Fortunately, we rowers are in the business of miracles.

Tomorrow, a small band of determined and slightly insane oarsmen are venturing out onto the icecap with saw and sledgehammer to free a large tugboat moored in the Ithaca back-channel, the owner of which has agreed to play icebreaker for us. With any luck, the tug will be successful and the ice will melt and flow harmlessly out into the lake by early next week. Then, we get to go to war.

It’s called “seat-racing,” but it’s really just pain. A high-speed continuous burn for three minutes, or four minutes, or whatever our coach decides is our fate. It’s competition, surely, but it’s different. It’s intense and personal, doused in an unconscionable pain that you pray you never experience; the kind of competition where you find yourself calling upon every god that ever has or ever will exist, promising anything and everything to them in exchange for a little more speed, a win.

The boats line up and row a “piece,” one of these minutes-long races. The finishing margin is recorded and two rowers, one from each boat, switch seats. The boats line up and row the race again, the only difference being the switched personnel. Based on the new margins of the seat-race, it is clear as to which rower was applying more force to the boat, moving it faster. It is clear who has the strongest heart.

All of this, the emotion and the intensity, is compounded by the fact that we’re racing our brothers. Spring Break is a civil war. On any team, especially in a maximum effort sport such as crew, the bonds between teammates are that of family. I work, sweat, bleed, live, and die with these men. The relationship is especially tight between my fellow juniors and me; we have toiled side by side for three years and there are but six of us left. The moments we have shared, both on and off the water, are too dear to express in words. I am almost certain that I will find myself switching with and racing one of the closest friends that I’ll ever have as long as I live. The task before me is so counterintuitive, I can hardly bear to imagine it: I must destroy his will and break him. In rowing, victory goes to the stronger spirit more often than to the better skill. When one crosses the finish line in second place, he need look no farther than himself to find the reason for the loss — he is still alive, he was not totally committed. Such is the culture of rowing.

This war of attrition, though emotionally and physically grueling, will eventually produce the fastest boats and oarsmen combinations possible. This after all, is the goal — To be the fastest collegiate crew in the United States. Believe it.

Archived article by Per Ostman