For some, collegiate rowing is a continuation from high school; for others, rowing in college is simply a four-year experience; for still others, it is the beginning of a lifelong love affair with the sport (and for even more, a life long love/hate affair).
Three rowers from three distinct parts of the country, Dartmouth's Sam Morris, Gonzaga's Malori McGill, and University of Cincinnati's Paul Gordon look back on their last collegiate fall season as they head off the water and onto the ergs.
Having grown up around the sport, rowing in high school and college was a given for Morris. His mother, Sally Morris, coached at Brooks School during his childhood and went on to coach at Exeter, where Sam learned to row.
"In some ways, I think I may have felt that rowing in college was simply the path that my family took," Morris says. "Of course now I realize how much of an enormous privilege it has all been, but back in high school I think I sort of always assumed that I would do well enough to be recruited and that I would eventually end up rowing at a good school."
Now in his fourth year as a Dartmouth lightweight, Morris has gone from rowing because of family tradition, to rowing out of a true love for the sport and the water.
A outdoor person who traded the first week of his senior year "in favor of running around in the White Mountains," Morris has a deep appreciation for the Connecticut River, that sometimes perfect, row-for-miles river that flows from the New Hampshire/Vermont border over four-hundred miles south to Long Island Sound.
"It's been one of the best leaf seasons in my memory, making rowing on the Connecticut a somewhat surreal experience," Morris says. "Early mornings in the mist and sunsets with the dark green pines and the golden birches. It's really remarkable how consistently perfect the river is for rowing. We also tend to row at the most beautiful times of day, either at the golden hour in the afternoon or just as the mist is rising off the water in the morning. Add a good pair to the equation, maybe skipping out on some homework to get a little extra water time-- couldn't be better."
Most athletes agree that the fall is a training season with some racing thrown in, a preparation for the essential spring season. It's no different in Hanover, and with only a few fall races, it's important for the guys to keep things fun and focused way up north. The senior leaders on the team have an opportunity to influence how each season will unfold - how a team will bond, how practice is approached. The personalities that comprise a senior class can make or break a team.
"I think the whole senior class has been glad to direct the flavor of a team a bit more than in the past," Morris says. "The D150 2014's are a pretty weird bunch of dudes, and I think it shows in how we approach our training. I've noticed that oftentimes very talented rowers get wrapped up in their intensity and end up moving slower on the water than they might. Keeping things a little weird tends to relieve that kind of tension, and that feels good. At the same time, the whole team is deadly serious about keeping the recent streak of D150 success alive. It's easy and fun to lead a team like that."
The quirky yet focused nature of the team has brought them great success, and Morris is looking forward to one more spring season with the Big Green (though the term 'spring' may be questionable in the icy town of Hanover).
"The spring is a long time from now, but I think the goals and expectations are always familiar. As the D150 coach emeritus Dan Roock once said of our team, 'we'll be slow at first, and then we'll get faster.' Seeing that jump in speed is always a ton of fun. Of course, I'm also simply looking forward to racing, especially championship season. Nothing makes me love rowing more than a good race."
Though he's wrapping-up his last fall on the team, Morris is already getting ready to represent his class as an alum next year and throw-down against the underclassmen.
"A real Dartmouth tradition that I have seen my last of as an undergrad is the Gardner Cup class day race. Luckily I get to come back and do it again next year as an alumnus. Can't wait. Consider this your warning, young-bloods."
As she approached her senior year at Gonzaga, Malori McGill was brimming with excitement. Her team had made the NCAA regatta for the first time in the program's history last spring, and as she approached the fall, the prospect of speed and another strong season looked like a promising way to end her collegiate career.
"Amidst that excitement, I did feel emotions of pressure as well—not because my teammates and I are striving to do anything more than we are capable, but because my desire for those outcomes is so great," McGill says. "As a senior, its difficult not to feel like everything has to be 'perfect' because it's the last. I quickly learned that is not the case, nor is it a healthy approach to my final year here. Moreover, the opportunity to make this year the best yet is right in front of me. I am surrounded by teammates who strive for excellence and understand that there is no way to get there except dirty, messy, painful and sweaty hard work."
Though McGill hadn't held an oar before beginning her freshman year at Gonzaga, her admission counselor mentioned she might be a good candidate for the rowing team. The former basketball player, whose family has a history of collegiate athletes, decided to take up rowing; what was a new experience just a few years ago has become an integral part of McGill's college experience, and life.
"It was actually my novice coach [Courtney Hasse] who first influenced my rowing career," McGill recalls. "She was an alum of Gonzaga and did a tremendous job at sharing with us the 'legacy' that is Gonzaga rowing. Her enthusiasm, demand for excellence, and faith in me personally was especially influential in shaping my career."
Now, as a senior on the team, McGill has an opportunity to influence her teammates in the way that Hasse impacted her rowing. Part of the special feeling of being on a college team is leaving something of a legacy with the team. Around the country there are countless stories about the athletes who came before; whether one or ten years—the history of a team shapes its future.
"I am so very lucky to be a senior among a group of underclassmen who are extremely committed, hard working, and eager. Their enthusiasm has become motivating to me more than ever before and I see my role as becoming a part of their enthusiasm and ensuring such passion is kept about."
If it weren’t for a boat dispayed at the freshman involvement fair and a senior nicknamed "B-Vott," Paul Gordon would not be rowing today.
"Brandon Votto, 'B-Vott,' was the only senior on the team when I began, and he did influence me," Gordon recalls. "Since he was the only senior, I remember looking up to him for the times he pulled on the erg, and that gave him a lot of authority in my book. I can still remember him coxing me to my first sub-7:00 2k just before Christmas break my novice year in the basement of our Rec Center. I honestly don't know if I could've done it without him encouraging me and helping me realize the potential I had."
Now a senior at the University of Cincinnati, Gordon now leads his semi-varsity team; one that does not have the same administrative support that a varsity rowing team would understand.
"I feel like I have eyes on me all the time, and it drives me to perform better, as I know that now I'm the one setting a high bar to move our program forward," he said. "I want to row my senior year to inspire the guys younger than me to greater heights than I ever had. It's challenged me a lot personally as well, as increased responsibilities have put my character to the test. It's shown me that I still have a lot of room to grow, as a rower, as a friend, and a teammate, and as a person. The biggest thing I fight as a leader is my own pride. I deserve no preferential treatment, no matter my speed or year, and it can be humbling to be knocked down a peg from time to time. Being a senior presents a whole new arena of growth I never saw coming. "
Gordon shares sentiments with Morris when it comes to the beauty of fall rowing. For those who have to slog through freezing, damp March mornings, the sentiments surrounding scenic rows cannot be understated.
"Crisp, cool morning rows on a glassy Ohio River, with the sun coming up, colorful trees on every side, and fresh air in your lungs. You get out there on those days, and the rest of the world melts away. It's just the boat, you, God, and all his creation out there, and there's nothing quite like it. Spring water doesn't afford nearly the same conditions as the fall does, and those mornings make you realize why you love this sport. "
Gordon may have enjoyed the scenery of fall, but is ready for the aggressive racing that is in store for the spring.
"Bring on the 2k's baby," he says. "I'm ready to throw down one last 6k, just to see what I've got, but I look forward to doing my first 2k in eight months and seeing if I can't make some big gains."
Seniors, how do you feel about wrapping up your last fall season? Are you for 2k's or feeling sentimental about the end of long steady state season?