A troop of eight gently lifts one of the long, thin sculls from its blocks, hoisting the fiberglass shell onto their shoulders. In a carefully choreographed routine, a coxswain guides them down a shadowy path to the lake’s edge where they step precariously into the water until they’re hip-deep in the murky waves.
The rowers heave themselves into the boat and slowly pull away from shore, the coxswain barking orders from the stern. Blades rip through the water, propelling them forward. Power travels though each part of the body—feet and thighs, stomach and back, arms and shoulders—as they perform drills and scrimmage against each other’s boats. Meanwhile, the sun peaks over the horizon, illuminating the cool mist rising from the water.
They eventually row back to land, their bodies dripping with sweat and backsplash. After tucking away the boats, they fight rush hour traffic on their return. By 7:45 a.m. they’ve slipped back onto campus, unnoticed as usual.
“A lot of people don’t even know about the crew team,” says former president Kevin Gravett, a 2004 graduate.
Despite its anonymity, last year’s team included 32 men and women and received the most funding of the 17 active clubs under the University’s club sports program. Seasonal budget requests have come close to $40,000—rugby, the second most expensive club sport, only receives between $10,000 and $12,000 a year. New boats, which cost $20,000 each, van rentals, equipment, travel, regatta fees and coaching salaries add to the growing budget numbers, offset by the team’s fund-raising efforts.
However, apparel sales, dues and working concessions at sporting events defray only part of the cost: “Crew fund raises far more than any other club sport,” Gravett says. “But the team does it because they are so dedicated to the sport and their team. Crew takes so much time, but everyone works so hard to make it all come together.”
And team members have been tested often since crew’s founding in 1983 when two graduate students formed the club with little money and even less experience in managing a team. Graham Coles, an English import who rowed in college, and fellow student Steve Santen first advertised the crew team at Club Day on the Mall.
“We had maybe 10 committed guys and 10 committed gals,” says Matt Brodbeck, a 1986 graduate and one of the team’s first captains. With a shoestring budget, the team purchased two used boats—one from a high school in New Jersey and another raced in the 1976 Olympics—which Brodbeck estimates cost a total of $1,000.
“We were so focused on saving money that when we went to the regatta site, we would make a bunch of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches,” he says. The team practices five days a week year round, alternating between land and water on East Fork Lake or the Ohio River. This year they began practicing in the evenings.
“Convincing everyone to meet at 5:00 a.m. and drive down to the river for a workout is tough—especially when it’s so cold,” says Brodbeck. “It’s not a fun, casual sport. You have to be very, very committed to it to achieve any level of success. You have to be fairly dedicated to it just to become competent.”
Crew attracts a decidedly mixed group of athletes—most of whom have never rowed before. High school football players, cross country runners, volleyball players and those who have never belonged to a school sport begin on an even playing field. They don’t receive regular accolades because regattas usually take the team out of town as far as Boston and New Jersey to compete against varsity teams.
“How this team survived 22 years is really a testament to the students because it’s just nothing but dedication that keeps these kids going,” Brodbeck says. “I’d really like to see one of my sons become the first legacy oarsman.”