by Tony Barcia
Head Coach, Men's Crew
Jan. 22, 2004
SANTA CLARA, Calif. - For 38 years, Santa Clara University Crew, the intercollegiate rowing team, has taken a group of freshman walk-ons and engendered in them a certain set of skills, values, and principles. And each year, several senior oarsmen graduate with not only a profound sense of respect for the sport, but also with deeply ingrained personal changes as a result of their involvement. Oarsmen from Santa Clara have gone on to success in all walks of life, such as senior business executives, Jesuit priests, soldiers, doctors, lawyers, farmers, engineers, diplomats, rocket scientists, and parents.
These individuals leave their oars behind as they move out into the world, but they take with them the values that they have developed on the water. In particular, they learn that there are things greater than the self that are worth sacrificing for; that believing in yourself and your teammates will allow you to attain unimaginable goals; that dedication and hard work are the only ways to truly succeed; and that commitment means sticking with something through thick and thin. Through these values, crew helps to educate the whole person and pushes each student to maximize their potential. In doing so, Santa Clara University Crew is an integral part of the mission of Jesuit education.
Perhaps the enigma of the sport of rowing lies in the degree to which it is stands apart from this swelling tide of self-oriented values. Crew has no superstars. It has no financial incentives. In fact, it has few actual physical rewards and virtually none that mean anything to people outside the sport. Preparing to compete requires an incredible investment in time and energy for a return that is not understood or appreciated by society. Crew involves sacrificing the easy life to take on a rigorous physical regimen. Crew demands teamwork, even on days when you can't stand your teammates. The sport requires performance at the highest level, for being anything less than completely committed is a futile waste of time. There is an intense and constant demand for more: more strength, more endurance, more unity.
Why, then, does the sport continue to draw competitors? Why is it the oldest and longest standing collegiate sport in the United States? What makes people want to sacrifice so much and put themselves through the intense demands of the sport when there are so many other less taxing pastimes to choose from? The answers lie in the nature of the sport, for it is far more than simply racing boats.
Crew is a complex balance between a gentleman's sport and a bloodthirsty win-at-all-cost competition. It is a sport which separates "the willing" from the weak of mind; those who are committed to put it all on the line, from those who are not. For those who rise to the challenge, the effects are everlasting and the friendship bonds formed with teammates are without end.
It is a sport where most rowers need several years of practice to develop a truly effective stroke, yet in their first several months novice rowers can experience the inexplicably awesome sensation of the boat (shell) gliding over the water under their own power. A typical day of training starts with a morning workout on Lexington Reservoir at 6:15 a.m. The athletes spend an hour-and-a-half to two hours rowing; carrying out the prescribed workouts as their coach follows in a motor boat, instructing them on their technique and pushing them to pull their hardest. The combination of a high intensity cardiovascular workout with the resistance of pulling the boat through the water is one of the best exercises and one of the most exhausting as well. Experienced elite rowers are physiological outliers, often exceeding even long-distance bike racers in most measures of fitness.
The original motivations for pursuing the sport are often as varied as the backgrounds from which the participants come. Most interested individuals were involved in team sports in high school and come out for crew to be involved in another competitive team sport. Others want to get in shape, while still others want to be a part of the tradition that surrounds the sport. In the end, the bonds that form between the rowers, the competition and love of the sport are what keep them coming back year after year.
Ned Matthews, and SCU junior and an oarsman , initially came out for crew because his brother, a former oarsman at Georgetown University, persuaded him to try it. "I was used to more individual sports such as swimming where you relied on yourself only and did not have to worry about others performing" says Matthews. "I was concerned that I would not do well in a team sport. All that changed as soon as I sat in the boat and began taking strokes . To instantly become part of the most complicated machine on Earth--eight guys trying to move their bodies in perfect coordination, from the height of their hands to the slightest movement of their heads--seemed the most natural and wonderful experience I have ever had."
Crew develops the ability to trust that when it really counts, your comrades will pull just as hard for you as you will for them, and that everyone on the team will do what it takes to succeed. Rowing develops an individual's sense of unfailing commitment to a common goal. It engenders a sense that the team that you are a part of is greater than simply the sum of its many parts, that the goals you strive for are larger than simply winning or losing a race. Crew teaches the individual to contribute everything they have to the success of the group. The sport pushes each person on a daily basis to be all that they can be and far more than they think they can be. It demands that the rowers break down mental barriers that prevent them from performing at a higher level. It refuses to allow them to listen to the voices in their heads that tell them that the pain will go away if they don't pull quite as hard on the next stroke. Crew teaches that in life there are no short cuts to real success. It persuades one to believe in something that is greater than the "self."
The Jesuit ideal of magis, which means "Excellence in all things," resonates deeply with the tenants of rowing. Magis is a thirst for "the more," for the greater good, for the most courageous response to the challenges of our time. It is an ideal and tradition spanning more than 450 years. Striving for excellence is a hallmark of Jesuit education; mediocrity had no place in Saint Ignatius' worldview. In regard to Jesuit education, the magis refers not only to academic formation in the classroom, but also to everything a person may be engaged in doing.
In much the same way as Saint Ignatius intended, rowers carry the values and principles they learn from crew out into the world. The web of Santa Clara Crew alumni is made up of hundreds of individuals who each have an effect, in their own way, on the people around them.
Ostensibly, rowing is a sport, a recreational pursuit, but in actuality the effect it has on the athletes goes far beyond the competitions on the water. For those senior oarsmen who graduate each year, rowing is life, and whether or not they realize it, the lessons they have learned on the water have shaped them into the people they are on graduation day. Dave Smyth '93, now a member of the U.S. Armed Forces, attributes much of who he is today to Santa Clara Crew. "A lot of the character building lessons I learned rowing crew have helped me in my career as a soldier, and as a human being in general," he says.
From time to time, the argument is made that Santa Clara University, as a Jesuit institution, commits too many resources to athletics, or that the athletics department should focus on sports that bring in more revenue. The answer from the crew program is that not only are we a key part of the University's commitment to having a competitive broad-based varsity athletics program, but that crew is an integral part of the Jesuit mission to educate the whole person. Clearly, the sport of rowing isn't for everyone, but by its walk-on nature, it is open to all that want to try out. Furthermore, by no means is crew the only sport on campus that embraces excellence or teaches the life lessons presented above. Certainly, many of the same arguments could be made for the dedication and commitment of other student-athletes.
In the modern era, when many of the intrinsic benefits and lessons of athletics are lost in the glamorization of the superstar and the high-dollar contracts paid to professional athletes, crew stands apart. As though a throwback to the past, it continues in it's long standing tradition of pushing for "the more," of demanding excellence and in doing so, passing along values of which Saint Ignatius would be proud. It remains an amateur sport that receives little attention from the media and puzzled glances from onlookers. In reality, that's probably the way rowers like it.