August 28, 2008

Innate Competitors Find Homes Among Red Rowers

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You were seven years old when you first noticed it. Never satisfied with getting picked first for kickball on the blacktop, you needed to be the captain. Soon you were timing the kindergarteners’ 40-yard sprints to recruit early, and you suddenly found that your best friend was Todd Lung, the 5-10 fourth grader whose birth certificate was more questionable than those of the Chinese Olympic gymnastic team. Later in life, you probably turned into a three-sport athlete, P.E. all-star or a just a pick-up basketball fiend who calls backcourt violations and carries a playbook with his gym shorts. You are a competitor who lives for a challenge. And men’s varsity crew is looking for you.
You’ve been told again and again by concerned parents, teachers and that little voice in your head that the best way to find your niche at Cornell is to get involved and join a club or two. And considering the last time you worked for Habitat for Humanity, you insisted on building a house worthy of MTV Cribs to show up the other volunteers, you might want to stick to the competitive world of sports.
Cornell offers a club for just about any sport you can imagine, but for those of you who thrive on hard work, dedication and the fight towards victory, there is a more competitive and rewarding, albeit more demanding, option for you. Some varsity teams at Cornell like polo, women’s swimming and men’s and women’s crew, do a lot of recruiting on campus and allow for walk-ons. No doubt you’ve seen some rowers sketching around the swim test pools, salivating at the sight of a six-foot girl or a pair of broad shoulders. And perhaps you, too, had to wipe away a little drool at the thought of joining a competitive team again. Admit it, there was definite dribble.
According to Todd Kennett, the current heavyweight rowing coach and winner of three national titles as the Cornell lightweight rowing coach, the difference between a club sport athlete and a varsity athlete is not, in fact, talent.
“Many athletes who play club sports are just as, if not more talented than some varsity athletes,” Kennett said. “The difference is the competitive edge. True athletes are competitive, and when you’re competitive, you want to compete against the best.”
And, as a varsity rowing walk-on, you are guaranteed to compete with and against the best. The heavyweight team, which is more likely to accept walk-ons, consists of 26 athletes who compete with each other for seats in the top boats, and then travel around the country to race against some of the top rowing schools in the country in the most renowned regattas.
In your first year on the rowing team, you are not expected to compete with seasoned veterans. The freshman squad, which consists of both walk-ons and recruits, is dedicated to improvement and acclimation to the sport. The schedule and workouts are less demanding, but the competitiveness remains high.
“It’s like the weight room, you don’t walk in and squat 300 [pounds]. You work with the bar first, get your form down, and add weight,” Kennett said. “Freshman year is about getting your form down. Besides, good competition always rises quickly.”
And while athletes train at minimum 10 hours per week, to rise quickly through the program requires about 15-20.
All those hours take their toll on the athletes’ other activities. However, men’s crew tends to average above the student body average GPA. Kennett attributes this success to a regimented schedule and improved time management skills.
“When you’re faced with the decision of whether to put off your homework and stay up late, you have to think about how it will detriment the team,” he said.
In fact, when the lightweight team was training the hardest for Nationals last semester, they averaged their best GPA in years – with no student earning higher than a 4.0. That means each athlete pulls his own weight, both on the water and in the classroom.
In regards to his rowers’ social lives, Kennett knows that the men make certain sacrifices for the good of the team, but he believes that they “create something bigger than the traditional social life.” According to the rower-turned-rowing coach, “they can’t go out all night drinking when they have practice in the morning. But rower friends are ridiculously dedicated friends.”
The rowers themselves boast pretty packed social and academic schedules. Michael Brown, a senior rower who walked on as a freshman with only three months of high school crew under his belt, is a chemical engineer and a member of the Delta Chi fraternity. According to Brown, crew actually improved his social life.
“It helps a lot in the sense that you meet more people on other teams,” Brown said. “There’s a lot of camaraderie, and that’s part of why you’re doing it.”
Kennett describes Brown as the “typical guy you want as a walk-on.” A three-sport athlete in high school, Brown came to Cornell looking to walk on to the basketball team, but a persuasive varsity rowing coach turned his sights to crew. Approached at the swim test, Brown was drawn to the sport by the competition and his affable teammates.
“Doing the whole sitting-on-the-erg thing is tough, but being in a boat on the water of Cayuga Lake is one of the most rewarding things I’ve done at Cornell,” Brown said.
While some walk-ons quit after the first year, many continue on to become strong contributors to the varsity program. According to Kennett, the walk-ons “won’t know anything in September, but by November the best ones are giving the recruits a run for their money. It all depends on their drive to pull hard.” Some walk-ons continue to succeed after college, like Ken Jurkowski ’03, a rowing walk on who just finished with 11th place in the Men’s Single Sculls in the Beijing Summer Olympic Games.
But before competing in the Olympics Jurkowski had to visit the coaches’ office located in Teagle Hall, just like any current interested student. However, this is the first year that rowing is offered as a short P.E. course in the fall. Students will be able to test out the sport and earn P.E. credit regardless of whether they are asked to join the freshman squad. Perk alert! You can also stave off that freshman fifteen. If you’re interested in making the team, here’s a little advice, straight from the mouth of Head Coach Kennett: “Heart is more important to me than brawn; we’ll make you strong as long as you’re willing to work hard.”
In retrospect, Brown added, “I think what you get out of a varsity sport are the people you meet, and how you learn to conduct yourself with discipline. I think what you take from it is far superior to any sacrifice you make.”