Pulling Together

September 10, 2002
It's 5:30 a.m. on the Brazos River. A soft wind skims through the trees and across the calm, ambling current. As the sun peeks over the river's forested banks, a boat suddenly slices through the water and five shadowy figures dance back and forth -- rhythm, muscle and movement in sync with their leader's command of "And, PUUULLL! And, PUUULLL!"
As the sun's rays stretch above the uppermost branches and creep onto the river, the light reveals the water's predawn visitors. For the Baylor Rowing Team, also known as crew, it is the beginning of another day.
Four Baylor rowers and their leader, called the coxswain, propel the boat down the river, exhausting every ounce of energy in their bodies -- all by the time most of their classmates' days are just getting started at 7 a.m.
Since fall 1999, when crew was chartered at Baylor, dedicated team members have risen before the sun five days a week in their effort to master the art of moving a 36-foot-long boat no wider than a chair down the river with eight, 12-foot-long oars. Competing in a sport that is largely unheard of in the South and working with limited funds where huge ones are required have not deterred this group. Nor do daunting road trips (up to 40 hours in one weekend) to Wisconsin or Georgia to compete against traditional varsity powerhouses such as Princeton and Harvard.
"Attitude is a major component when attending a large regatta with many scholarship crew programs," says Amy Goodman, the team's faculty sponsor and a lecturer in mathematics. "If they know in their hearts and minds that they have given everything they can, then it does not really matter against whom they are rowing. If they win, it gives them a feeling of accomplishment. If they lose, it shows them the level they need to be on for the next match-up."
Rowing is not a men's or women's varsity sport at Baylor and so cannot recruit scholarship athletes or use athletic department funding. And there are no plans for crew to become a varsity sport at this time, says Scott Stricklin, assistant athletic director. Instead, crew competes as a club sport, one of 20 at the University. The campus recreation division provides some travel monies for the team, $3,000 this year, and pays dues for the team's membership in the U.S. Rowing Association, says Robert Graham, assistant director for campus recreation and club sports coordinator.
Other than that, team members must raise the money needed to train, practice, purchase equipment and compete. Some recent donations from alumni have helped their efforts greatly (see sidebar). Relying on campus advertisement and word-of-mouth, Baylor crew nearly doubled its size in the last two years, to 68 in fall 2002, with slightly more women than men, Graham says.
The team makes room for everyone who shows an interest. "We're all one big family," says Nick Seeman, a senior business major and team coach. "The (men's and women's) teams compete separately, but we share the same resources. We have people who were MVPs on their high school football teams, and we have people in our club right now who have never done anything athletic in their lives. Physically, it's the hardest thing I've ever done."
Crew officers decide which regattas to attend, usually two or three a semester. In fall 2001, they brought home five medals and had their best spring semester ever in 2002, says Walt Ackley, a senior business major and this year's crew president. "We had never brought home a medal or even placed before that -- well, we placed last," he adds.
Many regattas are held in the Northeast, and the team must drive rather than fly. Boats in tow, the team members cram into rented vans and crisscross the northern half of the country -- from Kentucky to Georgia to Massachusetts -- to compete against the best collegiate varsity programs. Last November, they competed in the Head of the Chattahoochee Regatta in Atlanta, the third-largest competition in the nation, Ackley says. "It's a big deal for us to make it into the top 10 there. Last fall we had two boats make it."
For senior biology major Katie Tunison, treasurer of the team and a third-year member, the camaraderie of the road trips is one of the best parts of being in crew. "You get to know these people really well. It's a lot of fun and joking around," she says. "And when you get there and see all those other schools and how good they are, you know you're right up there with them. That makes you feel proud."
Baylor's team is making a name for itself among competitors, not yet for its wins but for its "practice field." The Brazos River provides one of the best water surfaces for rowing in the United States, Seeman says. Because of its forested banks, there is little wind to create waves or strong currents to impede rowers. "For all of the challenges this team faces, we have one of the biggest advantages around," he says.
The river is so perfect for the sport, the Baylor team can't keep it to themselves. Several collegiate teams, including the University of Colorado and Kansas State University, spend their spring breaks practicing here. In spring 2002, those two teams joined Baylor in a Bear-hosted regatta on the Brazos.
"The first thing that attracts other schools to the Brazos is the fact that it does not freeze during the winter," faculty sponsor Goodman says. "The schools that visit us over their spring breaks have faced half a semester with no water practice."
Even though they have an all-season practice locale, Baylor rowers do have challenges. Because crew is a club sport, members must work around each other's class and extracurricular schedules to find common practice times. Often, this means multiple daily practices and land training in addition to work in the boats, which are stored at Baylor's Marina. The team has six shells, which can cost $10,000 for a four-person and $20,000 for an eight-person.
Rowing involves the development of every muscle in the body. Aerobic endurance training includes running and stair conditioning. In addition, team members undergo intense weight training for their legs, the muscles that propel the body back and forth to pull the oars through the water, Seeman says. To train these muscles, the team practices on land using plyometrics, or natural weight training, such as squats and jumping exercises.
While crew members train their bodies, they're also conditioning for mental endurance, perhaps the most ominous barrier for this demanding sport, Seeman says. Most races are a distance of 2,000 meters to 5,000 meters, the latter taking from 18 minutes to 23 minutes of nonstop physical exertion to complete.
"I've never sat in a sprint race that I didn't wish I had quit at the time," says Robbie Rutland, BBA '02, former crew captain. "Halfway through it, you've pushed your body so hard that ... all you can do is row; you have to stop thinking about everything. You come off the water and you're shaking, you're exhausted. The training determines how fast you come back from that." Seeman puts it more bluntly: "We kill their bodies so their minds have to take over."
In the boat, teammates come together as one in a sport where synchronization is everything. Ackley says crew members encourage one another in those hard, final moments of a race. "When I'm dying myself, I'll say something to the person in front of me and others do the same thing. You just want to quit, but we're very encouraging of one another to get through it," he says.
What motivates these students to commit to such a demanding sport is not the roar of the crowd or a full trophy case. It's much more personal, rowers say.
"It's the satisfaction of knowing it's a job well done, of striving for my best and accomplishing it," Ackley says.
And for Tunison, who contends with chronic asthma, it's a mixture of emotions -- the excitement, tension and adrenaline rush of a competition -- as well as the closeness shared with other rowers in the boat. And then there's another factor: "I've fallen in love with being on the water," she says. "The greenness, the scenery -- you can connect with the water and the environment and become very centered. It's very peaceful."
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