This week's row2k Interview is with Lewis & Clark senior Davit Sargsyan. We talk with Sargsyan on finding the sport from Armenia, the difficulty in studying abroad, and more.
row2k - What led you to the idea to come and study in the States and how did you find Lewis & Clark?
Davit Sargsyan - Looking back to when I was still in high school, I can’t say I knew for sure I was going to move to the US for my studies. However, I was fortunate enough to get a scholarship to study at UWC Dilijan - an international high school in my home country of Armenia. Upon graduating from UWC I had the chance to continue my studies in various schools around the world. My family, especially my father, was very encouraging of me continuing my education abroad, at a prestigious school, so I decided to look for schools in the States. I was realizing that this was an opportunity not a lot of folks get where I come from.
At the time I already had a few close friends studying at Lewis and Clark College. They convinced me to apply and so I did. After learning more about the college and about Portland, I realized that it would be a good fit for me. I got my offer in the spring of 2019 and the rest is history. Moving to the US at the age of 18 was a thrilling experience. Finding myself in a foreign country that I had never visited before was scary and exciting at the same time. Learning how to navigate my life in this new system had its ups and downs but I couldn’t be more grateful for this experience.
row2k - How did you find your way into the rowing program?
Davit Sargsyan - Back home rowing is not a popular sport at all, because, well, there are no open bodies of water to begin with. So I definitely didn’t have any exposure to the sport before coming to the US. Growing up I always did some kind of sports or martial arts. In high school I got into lifting weights and I really loved it. After moving to the US, I wanted to make sure I stayed fit, so I’d visit the weight room regularly with some friends. And one evening when I was on my way to the gym, I ran into my friend Andrea who was already on the crew team. Andrea told me that one of the coaches, Claudia Loeber, has noticed me in the gym and she told Andrea to recruit me. Sure, I felt very flattered but I was very unsure about joining the team. I never thought of myself as a team player and felt insecure about not having any background in rowing. So I disregarded what Andrea told me for a while.
Fast forward to the end of my first fall semester. As many freshmen in college I was not having the best time during my first semester in terms of social life. During a regular weekday dinner at the cafeteria I was sitting with my friend Sherlock who was also on the crew team. I shared with them a little about how my life was going and they encouraged me to join the team. Sherlock emphasized how great the team is and how it’s about so much more than just the sport of rowing. So this really made me consider joining the team. After many more conversations with Andrea and Sherlock I decided to visit the coaches and ask some questions. By the end of our conversation I decided to take a leap of faith and told the coaches I want to join the team.
I had to wait till spring semester to attend my first practice. It was very intimidating to be a part of such a big team and given that I was the only novice joining that semester I was worried about making connections with my teammates. In retrospect, all my worries were unnecessary as the team quickly welcomed me in and made me feel included. Same goes for the coaches. If it wasn’t for our awesome coaching staff, I would have probably had a hard time staying in the team. As I enter my last season of rowing I am filled with a bittersweet feeling. Joining the crew team has most definitely been the best decision I have made in college. Despite all the hardships this team and this sport has brought out the best in me and has given me so much to be grateful for. The only thing I regret is not joining the team sooner.
row2k - What has it been like to be so far from home, through COVID and the fighting in Armenia, since you have not been able to get back to visit?
Davit Sargsyan - After living in Portland for over 3 years I feel lucky to call it home. Despite having my partner and so many close friends here I still get homesick from time to time. People don’t talk much about what it’s like to be an international student. It can be very challenging to leave everything you know behind and move across the ocean to a country that functions in a totally different way. That has been the case for me too.
When COVID just started it was very scary. My flight home was canceled and I got stuck in Portland with no definite housing and no job. And for a while it was very uncertain what was going to happen to me. I was stuck on campus with a few other international students and we were each others only support system. After things settled down a little, there was more clarity and fall semester started, another tragic event happened back home.
A full on war broke out between my home country and our neighbors. It was a devastating time for my people. As the entire country was dealing with peaking covid, and all of a sudden we had to protect our existence too and this put a lot of pressure on my family and me. Following all those events from the peace of my dorm room was surreal and unsettling. Being so far from home and seeing my entire family in danger was agonizing.
In the middle of all of this I also lost my father to COVID. This absolutely crushed me. Given the unstable situation at home, I couldn’t even go home to be with my family. The morning when I got the news from home, weirdly, the only place I wanted to be was with the team. Through time these people became my support system and the place where I felt the safest. The amount of love, support and care that the team and the coaches showed me throughout those terrible times was so positively overwhelming. I am so immensely grateful for having my team next to me through all those hardships. It really showed me how this team is more than just a group of people doing rowing.
row2k - What do you like most about the sport of rowing?
Davit Sargsyan - What fascinated me the most about rowing is how beautifully it coordinates both individual and team aspects. I think it’s so awesome that each person in the boat is responsible for their own strokes yet every action they take in the boat affects everyone involved. There is no greater feeling than finding that perfect synchronization with your teammates in the boat. Learning how to rely on your teammates, lifting each other up and delivering your work is probably the greatest thing I have learned while rowing.
Another thing I love about rowing is the repeating motion of the stroke. Some people might find it boring but I think it’s so cool that something that looks so simple can be so complex and it takes so much time to learn all the nuances of the stroke. My coach Sam Taylor often likes to say that every stroke is an opportunity and that if you took a bad stroke there is always the next one and it’s up to you to make it a good one. I like to implement this strategy in my daily life too. Every day and every practice is a new opportunity and sometimes there are going to be bad days and bad practices but it is up to us to come back the next day or to the next practice with the intention of doing the best we can on that day.
row2k - What has been your most memorable race and why?
Davit Sargsyan - My most memorable race must be the petite final at the Covered Bridge Regatta on Dexter Lake in Oregon. This race happened last spring. Me and my friends in the varsity 4 boat were getting some rest after the heats when the winds picked up and the conditions became not so great for racing. There were white caps and strong winds and we could see gray clouds gathering above the lake. We were pretty sure the finals would be canceled. But shortly after that the conditions got slightly better. Good enough to race in. So the V4 launched to warm up. As we were approaching the start line the winds picked up again. Bear in mind, it was early spring and it was very cold. As the boats get in their lanes it starts pouring like crazy. The wakes were tossing the boats around and we couldn’t even get aligned properly. The officials called the race and off we went.
The headwind was so strong that the boats barely moved from the start line. Everyone was visibly struggling. The rain and the winds only got worse with time. Around 750 meters in, it started hailing. At this point everyone was so drenched and cold that it didn't really matter anymore. I looked around at the crews and saw one of the most cinematic scenes of my life. Every single boat in that race was absolutely miserable. Blades were being thrown around, there was water splashing everywhere, the boats got heavy because of all the water collected in the shell, the coxswains could barely yell, everyone was catching crabs. It looked like a battlefield. I could almost hear the “Gladiator” soundtrack playing.
Honestly, I was not sure if we were going to finish that race. We somehow scrambled our way down the race course and as we approached the 250m mark all of a sudden the rain stopped, the clouds disappeared, the winds calmed down, the water became glassy and a rainbow appeared right above us. We managed to sprint and finish the race in absolute perplexity. I can’t even describe the feelings we went through in those few minutes. And that rainbow in the end was the cherry on top. When I look back at that race I laugh about it because it was this very special experience I got to share with my close friends and no-one will ever know how miserable those few minutes were. But I’m glad I got to have that experience, too.
P. S. I don’t ever want to race in those conditions again!
row2k - What are you studying at Lewis & Clark and do you have any plans for after graduation?
Davit Sargsyan - I am majoring in biology at Lewis and Clark College. I am passionate about medium and large scale biology, especially the fields of conservation ecology and animal physiology. After graduation, I would like to take some time off and get some work experience in those previously mentioned fields. After some time off, I would like to continue my education and hopefully get a PhD and start teaching. I know for sure I don’t want to give up rowing. It is such a big part of my life at this point that I’m not sure I can imagine my life without it. I will most likely join a local rowing club here in Portland and continue improving my rowing.