The Education of the Uninitiated
A Rowing Odyssey
by Arch Montgomery
posted on December 9, 2005
"Dad, I made the team!" Those breathless joyful words left on my voicemail on July 11, 2005 (my wife's birthday, she's 29) catapulted me back in time to consider the rowing odyssey that had led to our family trip to Brandenburg, Germany.
|US 2005 Jr. Men's 8+ |
|US 2005 Jr. Men's 4+ |
|click images for full-size version|
(Pictured at right: US JM8 2005: cox, Jimmy Germano, St. Augustine's; 8- Michael Gilson, St. Ignatius (SF); 7- Clayton Sachs, St. Paul's (NH); 6- Jesse Johnson, Mt. Baker; 5- Neil Stanga, Washington Lee; 4- Cornelius McPeak, St. Augustine's; 3- Henrik Rummel, Pittsford; 2- Michael Rossidis, Chaminade;
Bow- Derek Johnson, St. Ignatius (SF) -- US JM4+ 2005: 4- Adam Jones, St. Augustines; 3- Luke Spielfogel, Pinecrest; 2- Brad Werntz, Salisbury; 1- Tyler Montgomery, St. Andrews; c- Zach Vlahos, Oakland Strokes Photos by Dr. Ted Walkley)
"Pulling on a stick to go backwards until you throw up" was how rowing was once described to me. On cold February afternoons with darkness chasing away any warmth Philadelphia's glowering grey skies might have offered while attending college in Philadelphia during the early 70s, I observed stoic men running up and then down the long steep steps of Franklin Field's lower deck. I tired of watching them long before they tired of their Sisyphean efforts.
I heard heroic stories of a legendary man named Ted Nash whose oarsman seemed to hold him in distant awe. I heard of Herculean pull up contests down at Penn's Schuylkill boathouse and of early morning practices in such cold weather that oarsmen could not unclench their frozen fingers from around their oar handles.
None of this seemed very pleasant to me, and across the decades from youth to middle age, I always wondered with idle curiosity as boats slid by past a train or car window or as I jogged along the Charles or the Potomac, why these dogged men and women bent over their knees before stretching backwards to the inaudible rhythm or cadence of a hidden muse, did what they did.
Things have changed. On a crisp sunny late winter day in 2003, my youngest son, Tyler, abandoned the obvious joys of chasing a ball amongst friends in favor of the mysteries and agonies of a racing shell. It was a perplexing decision, but it was his to make and really none of my business, as he would have vigorously pointed out had I dared interject an opinion.
I observed, interested but entirely ignorant, from a distance. My boy rowed his first year on the second boat, and while I suspect he was frustrated by his delegation to the less competitive group, I also surmised that his skill was not equal to his enthusiasm and determination. I pictured him thrashing gracelessly across a pond, red faced with the effort, and tilting the boat to and fro from his haphazard exertions.
His eleventh grade year found him in the bow seat of the first boat. It was, I am told, a fast boat, which ultimately won the New Jersey championships and headed off to Henley where the boys lost in a close quarter final race to the regatta victors.
One of the early benefits of this eleventh grade experience I must acknowledge despite my continuing puzzlement about the agonies of crew was my son's exposure to an older more experienced oarsman named Chris Carey who is now rowing for Dartmouth. Chris was not merely an accomplished oarsman who rowed for the Junior National Men's Team in Banyoles, Spain, and who had an impressively low two thousand meter school boy ergometer score of about 6:14, he was a disciplined, scholarly boy who understood how to organize his priorities to excel in class and on the water. He ate well and got enough sleep. He pushed himself hard and consistently to become a better oarsman and student. All the while, he was a quiet, self-effacing leader by example.
This was the boy my son admired. This was the example he strove to emulate. If that is all rowing gives my son, this alone is enough. I watched his grades begin to rise and his self-discipline improve dramatically. A teenager's choice of peer-friends is as critical as any decision he makes. Rowing seemed to attract well disciplined, focused youngsters who lacked hubris. There appears to be something inherently humbling in the sport. The boys my son was privileged to row with were remarkable fellows.
This might not be true everywhere though, and I remember pondering the possible catalyst for my son's experience at St. Andrew's School in Middletown, Delaware. The answer for those who know that program on the shores of Noxontown Pond is a man named Lindsay Brown, and I am told that there was a remarkable coach before Lindsay named Dave Washburn.
Coach Brown's personal rowing resume has an impressive list of accomplishments including Olympic and other international events, but it is as a teacher/coach that he interests me. Before my son met Lindsay and a few other excellent teachers, he was an indifferent student. Coach Brown who is also chairman of the history department said a few words along the lines of, "Ability is not enough in rowing. It requires persistent hard work and dedication. Students who cannot focus on their school work are unlikely over time to be reliable in a boat. You cannot count on them to be there for their teammates when it is most important." Tyler became an honors student. "Yikes!" I remember thinking. "Is rowing magic?"
As the spring of 2005 dawned there was excited anticipation even in the voice of the imperturbable Coach Brown. Most of the oarsmen were back from the fast Henley team of the previous year, and now they were bigger, stronger and tempered by international competition. Early hopes became early season reality as the team posted the fastest 1,500 meter time on Noxontown Pond in the history of St. Andrew's, and St. Andrew's is traditionally slow in April and early May merely because the boys play other sports until spring arrives. They dared to hope of winning at Stotesbury, the Nationals and perhaps even Henley. Shhh! Don't say it aloud!
Disaster struck. A boy on the team, the stroke in fact, made the kind of mistake that teenagers commonly make, and it was impossible for him to remain on the team. Sad for him; miserable for the team. The ensuing shuffle left the boat out of rhythm and slow. They floundered at the New Jerseys and were slow at Stotesbury.
But the Brown magic reasserted itself. By the time of the nationals on Mercer Lake, Tyler called us to say that he thought the boat was fast again, not as fast, but the rhythm was back, the movement was strong. Sure enough, St. Andrew's won its semifinal race and rowed well but without medaling in the final. It was a triumph of sorts. They had learned how to get up off the mat when most had counted them out. They had learned how fragile and precious excellence is. They learned how to deal with bitter disappointment. They suffered failure when success was within their grasp. Then they pulled themselves out of despair and back to competence, back to competition, back to self-respect. If I could have scripted that sort of life lesson for my son, I would have. But I couldn't, so rowing did it for me.
And then rowing stepped up and provided another opportunity. Tyler learned that he was one of forty coxswains and oarsmen invited to participate in the 2005 Junior Men's Team selection camp in Princeton, New Jersey. He was honored and pleased, emotions soon to be replaced by awe and exhaustion.
We learned from the Head Coach of this Junior Men's Team that Tyler nearly had not been invited. His erg score was very strong in the universal sense, but amongst this select group, he was a laggard. When Tyler arrived at the camp, he reported feeling puny. There were five returnees from last year's team. The boys looked massive, tall and broad of shoulder, deep chests and huge legs. They were confident and accomplished. Then Coach Crotty told them, "I am your coach, not your best friend. If you make the boats go fast, you will stay. If you do not, you will leave." After one practice on the water, Ty reported, "Everybody here is good. Everybody!"
I liked what I heard. In an era when parents strive mightily to protect their children from adversity, discomfort and failure, in an era when schools often reward everyone a gold star for participation and when coaches fear making cuts because of the alleged irreparable psychic damage they do to self-esteem, here was naked competition. If you do well, you stay. If not, go home. What an honor to be treated so honestly, so candidly! The oarsmen would be shown respect by being told the truth as the coaching staff saw it. As a teacher and as an administrator, I often worry that we are retarding our children with our understandable good intentions of protecting them from a skinned knee or a bruised ego. Rowing was providing these boys with an antidote to the cult of self-esteem. Do well and stay. Lose a seat race, come back another time.
The subsequent three weeks of conditioning, seat racing and cuts were as grueling as the Coach's words had foreshadowed. During one practice a boy passed out. After another, two quit. We received a phone call at home, "I don't know if I can survive another day like today. There's nothing left in the tank." My wife and I could only listen, helpless in Asheville, North Carolina out of both distance and ignorance. We could not fully comprehend the tribulations, both physical and mental, that these youngsters were enduring. It is agonizing to sit on the sidelines, but it is exhilarating to understand what the opportunity to compete is doing for your child.
The boys were on the water at either Lake Mercer or Lake Carnegie by 6 a.m. and they practiced until 9 a.m. Then they refueled and rested until they were on the water again from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Time to refuel. In bed before 9 p.m. One practice included eighteen one thousand meter pieces at full pressure with scant rest between each piece. I'm not entirely sure what that means, but it sounds unpleasant.
Then on July 11 we got the ecstatic call that Ty was among the twelve oarsmen who had been selected for the team. Even in his joy, however, he was remarkably subdued and restrained. "There wasn't one weak oar here," he told us, "Anybody at this camp could make a boat move, and all of us knew that. We are lucky to be here. The guys who went home are as good as anybody out there. They'll be back."
* * *
"The Team" was now set, and with the final cuts came a more relaxed and friendly tone. While cuts had remained to be made, an inevitable tension had tainted the atmosphere. "They were all solid, good guys," we were told, "But it's hard to relax and get to know a guy when the next day it might be you against him in a seat race." The change was welcome after the mentally taxing weeks of uncertainty. The boys got their "gear," and we heard an excited voice announce, "They're giving us really great stuff to wear!" In the dining hall, younger rowers there for a rowing camp treated the new Junior Team members with deference and awe, but it was hard to get a swollen head when down at the boat house the Women's and Men's National Teams were working out. "Those guys are beyond awesome," my clearly awed son reported.
When my wife and I visited the racing camp just after the cuts to retrieve some unneeded belongings that our son would not use in Germany, I caught a glimpse of some of the rowers Tyler had been describing. To my surprise, they were just a bunch of kids. Large athletic kids, no doubt, but these seventeen and eighteen year olds had not yet developed the hard, mature look that older athletes have cultivated. They looked as they slouched on couches and chairs in front of the common room television like any group of teenage boys, like any moment they might do something irreverent, funny, silly. They looked like they could clean out a refrigerator in the blink of an eye or sleep for an unrelenting fourteen hours or break into an impromptu wrestling match over who controlled the remote. Their conversation was vintage "like-you-know patois" with casual impenetrable references to things mysterious and unknowable to all adults. I liked them immediately.
Clayton Sachs towered over me at 6'5" and around 215 pounds. He is a friendly, open faced boy, very articulate and apparently bright, who had rowed in the Henley Royal Regatta Princess Elizabeth Challenge Cup championship boat for St. Paul's School, Concord, New Hampshire. He stuck out his hand and introduced himself to my wife and me gently, confident in an unselfconscious way.
Luke Spielfogel unfolded himself from the prone position on a couch to say hello. He too loomed over us with his unkempt light brown hair and lean features. Lucas, I learned, had only been rowing for one year; making the team was a precocious accomplishment.
The others we had not yet met, but we had heard stories about a few. Jesse Johnson reportedly had an "aura" about him. A 6'3", 215 pound championship wrestler with a blonde crew cut and a crooked nose, Jesse has the ability to command respect just by standing there. He is reported to be the youngest American oarsman ever to break 6:00 minutes in a 2,000 meter erg test.
Neil Stanga is a force of nature on the water. He is 6'8" and 230 pounds of pure rowing aggression, powerful confident, competitive, and he likes to shout when the boat goes into a sprint.
Henrik Rummel was on last year's team along with Stanga, and he is a giant of a youngster, master of multiple languages whose international family had settled in Pittsford, New York. Henrik's specialty in a boat might not be called style and grace, but every boat he steps in goes faster because of him.
Brad Werntz smiled and hummed a little tune as he sprinted the final meters of an erg test, and he pulled an impressive time of 6:13. "You should have seen him, Dad; he doesn't seem to feel pain," my son reported excitedly, "You want him in your boat during a close race."
Neil McPeak is another colossus who heads to Penn this fall. He sits in the engine room, all 6'6" of him, and powerfully hammers his oar through the water with measurable results. He is an intense, focused fellow who takes his rowing seriously and pushes himself hard to excel. He appears to be one of those centered youngsters with a mature sense of himself.
The two boys from St. Ignatius High School, Michael Gilson a port oar and Derek Johnson a starboard, are strong effective rowers who seem completely in sync with one another. Gilson is the shortest member of the team at 6'1" but more than makes up for that disadvantage with power, technique and grit. Johnson is a light hearted character of perpetual good humor and an impressive rowing pedigree. His Dad rowed for the U. S. National Team.
Michael Rossidis brings his Long Island accent from Chaminade High School to the team, and the toughness in athletes that seems to be bred into the residents of that skinny island, along with their peculiar vowel sounds, belongs to Michael. He is a catalyst of sorts, the kind of boy other boys like.
Adam Jones who heads to Penn next year as a freshman is a lean 6'5" who is long in the water and mechanically sound. He strokes the team's four from the starboard side, and is easy to follow. He is a friendly, humble and accessible young man with a sense of humor.
Perhaps the greatest characters on the team are the two coxswains. Jimmy Germano is an irrepressible tousle haired kid from south Jersey with a relaxed demeanor and a command presence. Zach Vlahos is a friendly boy who gets on the water and morphs into an aggressive, competent leader who brooks no foolishness. It was explained to me that coxswains are by definition little people (in stature only) who are bone comfortable bossing larger people around; moreover, they are accustomed to being obeyed without challenge. Finally, they know they can give most anybody all the lip they want because eight large men have their backs. I don't know if any of this is true, but these two confident, competent boys appear to fit the mold.
* * *
When the boys arrived in Berlin on the morning of July 27, they headed to the Axxon Hotel, dropped off their belongings and continued into the racing venue in Brandenburg. The subsequent practice was one of those jet lag phenomena during which it is hard to know whether you are awake or asleep. It was a dreadful, exhausting affair even though it wasn't particularly hard. The venue, though, was impossible to ignore. It's a marvelous set up. Stands for several thousand grace the finish line with a three story glass finishing tower set on grounds large enough for restaurants and vendors. There are six racing lanes and two wide loops for holding before the start or winding down after the race. The start included not merely a stern dock but also a bow holder to keep the boats straight. Different teams from multiple countries swarmed the place. Even through their sleepy haze, our team appreciated what a privilege it would be to compete in such a spot.
Back at the Axxon they discovered that the German, Polish and Greek teams were sharing the hotel along with the American Junior Women's teams and three junior men who had earned their spot on the team, not at the Mercer Lake camp, but through open competition: Sean Medcalf (Single Sculls) and John Cerrone and Justin Ochol (Double Sculls).
Food, otherwise known as fuel, was plentiful, and the rooms better than adequate. The routine of practicing twice a day, traveling back and forth to the venue, eating, and sleeping was reassuring and exhilarating. Dozens of boats took to the course daily to practice starts, to sharpen their skills and to accustom themselves to the course. Our men's coxed four did a few full pressure sprints against our junior women's eight and the boats appeared to be almost even. Tension began to build though as the first day of races approached.
* * *
Enter the clueless parents. My wife, oldest son, and I got to the Brandenburg venue on time only through the kindness of others. We waited to watch the boys who had worked so hard, under such grueling conditions, for so long bring their efforts to fruition. Our men's four, in which Tyler was rowing, came in fourth out of six in the second race of the day, while our men's eight dominated the field.
I felt terrible about the four, but my son assured me that it had been a good race, that we remained in contention and not to fret. In other words: get a life Dad!
And he was right. The next day in the repechage our men's four charged to the lead and dominated the field. We shouted ourselves close to unconscious, feeling as though we had traveled from the outhouse to the penthouse. The men's eight qualified for the final the next day by finishing second in their semi-final. So all the boys we had come to care about through our son were going to the big dance on Saturday, the finals.
* * *
The grandstands on Saturday was a standing room only crush of colorful national costumes. From Zimbabwe and Kenya to New Zealand, Japan and Poland, fans waved their flags, tooted their horns, rattled their noise makers and chanted their country's name in raucous unison. A Croatian group had painted their faces, donned silly hats with silver hair and wrapped themselves in flags.
The first final for our Junior Men's team was the coxed four and the race proved to be a dog fight. Germany and Italy broke free but for third place the USA and Canada seesawed back and forth across about 1,000 meters. With five hundred meters to go the American boys seemed to have broken their Canadian rivals only to see Poland in lane one making a desperate sprint at the three hundred meter mark. And it was Poland who touched out the Americans by less than half a second for the bronze medal. It was a dazzling race; great competition at the highest level of junior sport. As all the oarsmen slumped over in their boats, I could not help but think with pride what a privilege it is to represent your country in such an elite group.
My pride was only reinforced by the dominating performance of our Junior Men's eight. They led virtually from wire to wire, fighting off every challenge. I remember as I watched them receive their gold medals and then cover their hearts for the national anthem that they were only fresh faced boys only recently departing from the throes of adolescence. I remembered the grueling ordeal that the fourteen, who were selected at the Mercer Lake Camp, had survived. Few teenagers will ever be lucky enough to learn about themselves as much as these boys had learned. What are the limits of my endurance? Am I able to persist when my mind says, "Desist!" Do I have what it takes to compete at the highest level of sport?
The boys I had followed, both the four and the eight, made me very proud, proud to know them, proud to have my own son among them, proud to be an American represented by such marvelous kids. This in no way diminishes the significant accomplishments of the women and other members of the team. They too have represented our country mightily, but it is this group of boys who I had watched for two months. It was this group who made a reality my odyssey from completely clueless and mystified rowing parent to mostly clueless and entirely grateful rowing parent.
* * *
I am sitting in Heathrow Airport waiting for my connection to Philadelphia as I pen these final words. I get it now! Those boats sliding by on the river, those hours running up stadium steps, those frozen hands on the Schuylkill, those hours on the ergometer make sense to me. Rowing may be about pulling on a stick and going backwards in a literal sense, but to this proud father it is much more. Rowing is about the triumph of the human will and spirit over ordinary physical limitations. It is about self exploration and the attendant humility such exploration inevitably cultivates. As Coach Crotty wrote the boys by e-mail, "You developed into the most successful US Junior Sweep Squad in history…But, stay hungry. It was your hunger that made you eek out every ounce of energy you had. It was your hunger that made you fast. It was your hunger that enabled you to earn your spot on a very talented team. Prepare yourself for a whole new world in college."
Arch Montgomery is the author of two novels, Hank and Jake, weekly columnist for the Asheville Citizen Times, and headmaster of Asheville School in Asheville, North Carolina.