February 20, 2008

Bennett the Benchwarmer: Tales of the Ergometer

Print More

It seems like everybody quits crew at Cornell.
OK, that’s not true. All the high school athletes still clinging to that dream join, and then quit crew at Cornell. It’s like your rite of passage; your initiation into the real world, that first taste of failure. It’s when you realize that you’re more of a misfit than an athlete.
I started to realize I was a misfit in the athletic world when I became proud of my identity as a member of the erg team. The erg — or ergometer — is torture delivered by way of a sliding seat and moveable handle. It’s an indoor rowing machine. I knew for sure I was a misfit when the erg team adopted the name “Erg Team Delta” — it just sounded so much more svelte, covert and sexy — and thought it was coolest thing we had done that semester.
Erg Team Delta was comprised of the kids that rarely got on the water. While the recruits and experienced kids hit the water in sleek eight-man sculls, we would do three 15- or 20-minute pieces or (god forbid) two 45-minute pieces.
In high school we had run track and played football, baseball, basketball and soccer, but mostly run track. Some of us were All-Conference athletes, others spent their four years of high school discovering which undershirts kept you the warmest on the sideline and where best to stick your hands to keep them from freezing.
There was a kid who wore tortoise shell glasses and the same weathered flannel button down with paint on it. There was a kid whose race was more ambiguous than the life advice I got from my Ouija board, and asked me in our first conversation to discuss South African politics or name an Olympic year so he could tell me the city.
I ate plates of kidney beans at dinner and accidentally showed up to the first day of practice wearing a shirt with a picture of a TI-83 calculator on it. Another one of us was jokingly asked by our coach if he had less than 10 percent body fat. “3.5 percent” was the immediate response (the same kid was later yelled at for not paying attention because he was staring at his biceps).
Another one we nicknamed “Blackout” after he got drunk and woke up on the wrong side of a “Danger, High Voltage” sign covered in blood and with no recollection of how he got there. We were weird. Our novice coxswain was so sweet and quiet that she didn’t even have the heart to yell at us while we were rowing like a coxswain is supposed to. It was like having someone politely inquire as to whether we would like to consider rowing harder.
We did share one thing, though, and that was the erg. We were not rowers. And that erg reminded us that every day. It became something of a running joke. We joked about taking an erg into a large lecture class, or the dining hall, or just setting one up in the common rooms of our dorms, and just erging.
When I asked for memories from erg team delta recently, I got a message that had this line, “Erg machine — our facebook pic, homepage, and lover.” Only one of those wasn’t true (I’ll let you guess). Well, technically two aren’t true, but we did have a facebook group called “www.concept2.com is my homepage” (concept2 is the devious mind behind those torture devices). We used it to swap erging stories over our first winter break.
And eventually, what started as a joke became a common identity. When the recruits ordered shirts that had a Miller High Life logo on them, but with the phrase “Cornell Lightweight Rowers,” in place of the beer’s name, we designed a logo on a t-shirt website of an erg within the Greek letter delta.
Certainly one of the reasons we were clinging to some sort of athleticism was that we missed the feeling of being on a team. But this was different. We were united by defining ourselves in opposition to rowing, not by our common enjoyment of a sport. We became tight because we were not everything that we were supposed to be. We finished last on the erg every single time. We dealt with a coaching staff that called us anything but our names (I was Cody, my friend Nick inexplicably became Nickel Bag O’ Funk) and recruits that largely ignored us or confused us for one another.
We took it seriously, though. For a period of my life, nothing made me happier than shaving time off my erg score. But we had to learn to laugh at ourselves, because we were never going to get there; never going to get to something we hadn’t even experienced before. We could only have some idea of what we were missing, or striving for. Since we had so little concept of what rowing was actually like, it was easy to bond over our love-hate relationship with this non-entity.
Not even our coach’s speeches about survival were going to get us to erg hard enough to get out on the water consistently. Before one competitive erg piece, our coach said, “So, think back to early times. There was a bunch of species, right? The dodo bird was one of them. But it died. It died because it didn’t scratch and claw for survival. It died because it didn’t want to survive, it didn’t work at it.”
Before another, he tried to get us to be more tenacious on the erg. “It’s like dog fighting,” he said. “It’s a terrible, terrible thing. But those dogs know that they are fighting for their life, so they’re ferocious. You need to be like that.”
Instead, we liked to listen to the Eddie Money ballad, “Take Me Home Tonight”, while erging. On easy pieces, we would sing “Don’t Stop Believing” at the top of our lungs like drunk nerdy college kids (not too far off from the truth). We thought the instruction “Power 10,” used to get you to go hard on the next ten strokes, was better applied in other aspects of life (when “Blackout” told us his story, one of us replied “We need to power 10 his ass to AA”).
We would yell Power 10 every night after practice during our thirty-minute walk back to the dining halls on North from Cayuga Lake. We always got to the dining hall right before it closed and would spend up to two hours just demolishing plates of food, while Nick just ate plates of spinach and egg whites. We probably all ate three times as much then, and were still all in the best shapes of our lives (I’ve put on about 15 pounds). It was those dinners where we really formulated the identity of Erg Team Delta; where we found raucous hilarity in failure and a common bond in our love-hate relationship with a machine and an undefined sport. We were so rowdy once they sectioned us off with a divider.
Usually in sports, you bond with your teammates or fellow fans over a common passion for a sport. None of us were particularly fond of rowing. Our only experience was mostly failure and that damn erg machine. We united over not being rowers.
Rowing did a lot for me. It put me in the best shape of my life, taught me how to discipline myself and push my body beyond what I imagined I could do. But it also taught me that sports can be used as something to unify against.
And more than that, it brought me some of the best friends I’ve ever had. The guys (and girl) from Erg Team Delta may not spend as much time together now, but none of us would ever say anything except that those were some of the best times of our lives. Thanks, guys.