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Magnificent Obsession
Row, row, row your boat -- then row some more. But Why? By Lee W. Bailey

In a collegiate world rife with temptations ranging from poetry readings to keg parties, there are Penn undergraduates who nevertheless throughout both semesters minimize social and other extracurricular commitments in favor of less than a single hour of competition -- the cumulative duration of the six or seven spring races in which each of Penn's crew teams participate and for the sake of which they endure hundreds of practices year round.
Unlike many other varsity-level sports, crew has no "off-season." Rowers get 10 days rest at Christmas and no Spring Break. Competition is beyond fierce, and it is said that the pain of a crew race is more intense than that experienced in any other sport. Penn's team competes with the very best crews in America. And while Ivy League footballers enjoy pictorials in the pages of glossy magazines like Vanity Fair, rowers in the Ancient Eight -- or anywhere else for that matter -- receive almost no media attention whatsoever. Escaping the confines of West Philadelphia for the waters of the tree-lined Schuylkill River can seem attractive in September, but the appeal is no doubt significantly reduced during icy, wind-lashed outings on February mornings.
Ask them why rowers still keep on rowing, and you're likely to get an answer like the one women's crew team co-captain Heather Whalen, C'97, recently gave the Daily Pennsylvanian: "I became obsessed." Whalen is not alone in her sentiments. Lightweight rower Jed Cridland, C'99, who strokes a boat fresh from wins over Harvard, Rutgers, and Cornell, comments, "I row primarily because I can't quit." And that's not hyperbole, either. Cridland actually tried to quit earlier this year after four years of rowing in his native Seattle and a freshman year here at Penn, only to find that he couldn't stay away from the boathouse.
"A lot of my friends just don't get it," remarks heavyweight rower Jake Watkins, C'97. The sacrifice that so mystifies non-rowers is addressed by a tee-shirt slogan common in boathouses everywhere, an all-purpose reply to invitations to go skiing for a weekend or out for a drink: "I can't. I row." And the pay-off? Watkins is quick to reply, "There are certain moments that make all the pain, the regret, and the doubt disappear. I guess I row for these certain moments more than anything."
Rowing is nothing if not a sport of moments, such as that most fondly recalled by lightweight oarsman Alex Muniz, SEAS'99: "Eastern Sprints in [Worcester,] Massachusetts last year, was by far the most exciting part of the season." For many rowers, sprints is the culmination of the spring season, a battle royale among the Eastern Association of Rowing Colleges, which includes all the Ivies, Georgetown, the Naval Academy, and a select few other rowing powerhouses.
And so it is not a masochistic desire for pain which drives rowers. While their excitement in recounting one race or another certainly attests to this fact, it is all the more borne out by the commitment to Penn crew shown by other individuals who don't experience the tortuous lactic acid accumulation or gasping breathlessness of the finish line, but nevertheless propel boats to victory: The coxswains, small in stature but big in leadership and vocal cords, are key members of the team. Weighing in at around 120 pounds, the coxswain's job is to both direct and motivate the boat, a task often underestimated. Debbie Gortler, C'98, who coxes for the lightweight junior varsity eight, says, "While I am not physically pulling, I know that I am in many ways the one who sees to it that the guys function as a team, rowing exactly together."
The support of a top-notch staff, which includes head coach Stan Bergman, certainly motivates rowers like Jake Watkins: "Coach Bergman is the best athletic coach I have ever had, and I can only give him my highest respect as a person as well." Nonetheless, it is the drive inside the mind of the rower him -- or herself -- call it obsession, addiction, or dedication-that keeps him or her waking up before dawn, traveling the two miles to Boathouse Row, donning the Red and Blue, and putting a thousand marathons in the water behind them. Sometimes inexplicable, always impressive, and rarely subdued, the elusive motivation behind the athlete who rows remains without question one of sports' most powerful forces.

LEE W. BAILEY is a junior history major from Houston, Texas. He has contributed to The Daily Pennsylvanian and the Penn History Review.

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Copyright 1997 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 6/2/97