Ruling the River

April 07, 2011

Colonials hope to row past the competition at the GW Invitational Regatta, April 9-10.

By Julia Parmley

If you’re ever walking over Key Bridge before 9 a.m., make sure to look down. You may just see the GW rowing teams glide by.

GW rowing has hit the water hard in recent weeks, gearing up to defend their home river this weekend at the GW Invitational Regatta/Potomac Challenge Cup on the Washington Harbour, April 9-10. The largest collegiate rowing competition in the Washington metropolitan area, the regatta will pit GW against eight of its biggest rivals, including Georgetown, Columbia and the Naval Academy, as well as two international crews: Oxford University and Canada’s Brock University. Click here for a live video feed of this weekend's races.

“It’s going to be exciting, even for the casual fan, to watch the whole race unfold,” said Mark Davis, men’s head coach. “It’s very fan friendly. The more people we can get down to regatta, the better!”

Mr. Davis brought 16 years of coaching experience to the table when he joined GW in 2009, including stints at Yale University, University of California at San Diego, University of Texas at Austin and Colby College.

Along with Assistant Coach Matt Fitzgerald and captain and GW senior Craig Helmstetter, Mr. Davis has helped the team compete all around the country since last fall, including regattas in Massachusetts and Tennessee.

Being a member of the rowing team at GW requires some serious dedication. The men practice six mornings a week on the Potomac River. Weight lifting and yoga classes—which Mr. Davis said improve the team’s flexibility and overall strength—are also part of the training regimen.

The biggest challenge facing the men this season has been their inexperience: A majority of the 42 team members are freshmen and sophomores and some joined the team without any rowing experience. But their naiveté is also an advantage—Mr. Davis said the rowers have “no idea” how good they can be.

“They don’t have any preconceived notions about what they are and aren’t capable of doing, so I can push them more and expect more out of them,” he said.

This year’s team is also faster on the ergometer, or rowing machine, and Mr. Davis hopes to “take those good scores and turn them into fast boats.”

While it may look easy to the innocent bystander, Mr. Davis said rowing is a painful sport that tests endurance and fortitude. Rowers share two characteristics: a willingness to work and an ability to ignore pain.

“I think what attracts a lot of people to this sport is that the harder you work, the faster you go. It’s a sport where you have to go harder than you think you can,” said Mr. Davis. “A lot of pain builds up in the muscles and in the body as you’re rowing, and the people who are really good at it are the ones who can shut it off and keep going, when their bodies are telling them to slow down and go easy.

“You don’t necessarily have to be born with great leaping ability or tremendous hand-eye coordination,” he added. “You just have to be willing to outwork your opponent, put in more time than them, put in more strokes—then you’ll probably be faster than them. That’s what we look for—guys who want to work hard.”

A coxswain—a position in charge of navigating and steering— for the men’s varsity eight boat, senior Margaret Barone described her fellow members on the team as “incredibly hard working and dedicated.”

“Even with early morning and afternoon practices, I have never passed the Smith Center cardio room without seeing one of the guys putting time in on their own to get faster,” said Ms. Barone. “It is a young team, with only three senior rowers, but these guys have truly stepped up and have helped push the team to work harder and get faster every day.”

The “guys” are also deeply into the sport, which is why Mr. Davis decided to join GW’s rowing program in 2009.

“I saw a program on the rise, and I saw a group of athletes here who were really passionate about the team. It really struck me,” he said. “I thought it would be an exciting time to be part of the program, and it’s been a lot of fun.”

The program also has a storied past. A GW sport since the 1950s, members of the men’s team have represented the United States at every Olympic Games since 1992.

For Mr. Davis, it’s the emphasis on the team—and its inherent “selflessness” —that has kept him in the sport.

“At a basketball game when one guy is scoring all the points, you know he’s the best player. But when you watch the boat row by, you can’t pick out the best rower,” he said. “With rowing, it’s all about the group, the team, the boat. It’s never about the individual. I’ve always been drawn to that because I never was the best rower, but I loved being part of a team. As a coach, I feel the same way—I feel like I’m an extension of the team.”

This weekend, the men’s team hopes for a strong showing in their four varsity and freshmen boat races, which will run between 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Sunday at the team’s headquarters at Thompson Boat Center.

“The invitational is our biggest home race and a chance to test our speed against some of the top teams in the nation,” said senior David Morgenstern, a member of GW’s Varsity Eight boat. “We also get the chance to race Oxford which is an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. This weekend is going to be a lot of fun to race in as well as watch so I hope we get as many supporters on the river as possible!”

Mr. Davis said it’s a particularly big event for the team since it has so few home races. “For our team, it’s our home court. We want to do well, and we want to defend it.”

Click here for a schedule of races. 

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