Out on the water, the frigid wind blows cold enough to sink deep into a rower’s bones. The scent of the Schuylkill River rises off the waves that lap against the side of the boat. Clouds cast the sky gray, obscuring the early 6 a.m. light.
Despite this, or because of it, the crew teams are out on the river and ready to work.
The men’s and women’s teams are making their final preparations for this week’s Dad Vail Regatta, the most prestigious gathering of collegiate rowers in the country. Every year around this time, thousands of athletes gather on the Schuylkill to compete in the two-day event.
Last year, the men’s Varsity 8 took third place behind Purdue and Colgate.
“We like to push for the gold,” junior Bradford Long said. “We’re not happy until we win.”
“I didn’t enter a Dad Vail in the past 27 years that I didn’t hope we could win,” men’s coach Gavin White added. “It’ll have to be a perfect race.”
This year was expected to be a rebuilding one after losing six seniors from the Varsity 8 boat, but Long said the freshmen have stepped up.
“Many other schools think we’re not going to do as well because of freshmen,” he said. “But I think we’re going to surprise some people this year.
“[Other schools] definitely see us as a competitive team, and they should. It’s a mistake to look at freshmen,” Long added.
The new recruits’ strength can be seen in their record. The Second Varsity 8 was undefeated this year until a close loss to rival Saint Joseph’s at the Bergen Cup April 25. Six of the eight rowers on the boat were rookies.
Also not to be discounted at the Dad Vail is the women’s team. This year, the Owls placed fifth in the Atlantic Ten Conference Championship, their best showing since 2000.
Unlike the men’s team, most of the women this year are returning from last season. This has helped form what senior captain Laura Altimari called a “sisterly bond.” Altimari was named A-10 First Team All-Conference and will be rowing this weekend in the women’s Varsity 8 boat.
“The girls are closer, [with] more trust, more experience,” Altimari said of the team.
She also credits the talent of the young rowers, who are quite important for a sport like rowing that takes a tremendous amount of effort and self-discipline.
“I thought it was a sport where you just sit down and use your arms,” senior captain Laura Scullin said about her freshman year. “With this team, as long as you keep trying, they’ll give you the coaching you need to get better.”
“It takes dedication,” women’s coach Tim Hagan added. “You don’t have to be the most athletic person at first. The sport makes you that way.”
White, who is in his 28th year as coach, is quite versed on the subject.
“I’ve seen students that weren’t great athletes. They know how to punish themselves,” White said. “What other sport can you not practice until you’re 18 and become an Olympian? Rowing is the kind of sport you can come to late and really excel.”
In a sport where literally every stroke counts, training means everything. And come race day, after they push off the docks, that’s all the rowers will bring with them.
“One of the frustrating things about this sport is that there’s no halftime,” White said. “Once you put them out there, that’s it.”
Kriston Bethel can be reached at email@example.com.