The Learning Games
The Ultimate Team sport
In a boathouse, a few miles north of campus, four female rowers take hold of a 50-foot shell. At their coxswain’s command, they take the boat from its rack and in unison, step underneath it and lift it over their heads. They walk in militaristic fashion, listening as the coxswain (pronounced cox-en) directs them toward the Susquehanna River. At the dock, they uniformly drop the craft into the water, then rig the oars and adjust their seats. Once the boat is rigged, they step inside, altogether, one foot at a time. They take their seats in sync, and with one hand on their oars and the other on the dock, they push off.
“One of the first things you hear is the water running under the boat. It makes a sound similar to trickling water,” says Timothy Ostlund, a sophomore biology major from Centreville, Va., who rowed for three years in high school before joining Susquehanna’s Crew Club. “Then, as everyone starts rowing, you hear the sound of the oar blades going into and out of the water, pulling the boat along with them.”
It’s a cadence that lifts all concern from crew member Kate Strangfeld. “It’s easy to get lost in the sound of the oars clicking in sync in the oarlocks and the feel of the boat gliding through the water,” says the senior finance and French major from Ramsey, N.J.
The synchronicity the sport requires is as much of an escape for rowers as the sound. While it may appear to be an upper-body sport, rowing is actually a total body workout involving every major muscle group, beginning with the arms, then moving through the torso and the legs to produce what head coach James Grose calls “the quest for those perfect strokes.”
Those “perfect strokes” are possible only when each rower is maintaining good posture and balance while simultaneously executing a stroke at precisely the same time as each of the other rowers. “The object is for everybody to move the same body part at the same time,” explains Grose. “The oar blades should be entering and exiting the water at the same time.”
This takes an incredible amount of teamwork and practice, which begins on dry land. The men and women practice as many as four hours a day, five days a week—first on ergometers (“ergs” for short) on campus, then on the river itself.
Although important, physical ability accounts for only part of a team’s success in crew. “Rowing takes as much mental preparation as it does physical,” Strangfeld explains. A rower’s entire focus has to be on her strokes so she can stay in time with her fellow rowers. The coxswain, who steers the shell, keeps them rowing together and offers a focus, taking their minds off the intensity of the workout they endure during their 2,000 and 5,000-meter races.
These skills—teamwork, determination, dedication and focus—are valuable byproducts of any sport, but in the case of crew, they are imperative. “If your boat doesn’t row together, then it is just a mess,” Strangfeld says.
As a student-initiated club sport, Susquehanna Crew also presents student-athletes with opportunities for experiential learning. “The club-sport status of the crew team allows and compels the student-athletes to choose the direction taken by their team,” Grose says. Susquehanna’s club sports are responsible for such things as budget development, fundraising, and creation of rosters and emergency management plans. “By ‘owning’ their team,” Grose says, “these athletes learn lessons in finance, logistics and administration.” moreover, they form close-knit bonds, encouraging each other to meet and exceed their personal best.
“Rowing against varsity teams from Division I universities in races from New York to Virginia, we don’t always bring home medals, but that doesn’t mean we’re not winners,” says Grose. “I feel proud of my students because they are gaining respect for themselves and each other with every outing. We focus on personal victories, doing better than the day before and getting better each race.” In other words, they learn lessons they can use in any situation life throws at them.