Rowing ropes in students from other sports
While most of campus is still asleep, 29 students are up eating their oatmeal or their bananas and piling into their cars to drive to American Lake. They typically arrive around 4:50 a.m., so they have enough time to open the boathouse and carry the boats and gear down to the water.
“One foot in,” the coxswain will direct them, “and in,” and off they go onto the cool dark waters, followed by their coach in a motorboat.
Head Coach and PLU Director of Rowing Thomas Schlenker will call drills, and, on each boat, there’s a coxswain, who will manage the rowers on their boat and steer, while the other two, four, or eight students on the boat row.
In the fall, they will practice for four or six weeks and have a single 6k regatta, or race, to prepare for, and in the spring, they practice for 13 to 15 weeks and have six 2k regattas.
Each practice is a little different, but nonetheless exhausting.
“It’s challenging, and it’s rewarding,” said Steven Rystrom ’12, a varsity member of PLU’s rowing team. “We are using our endurance and having to push ourselves through almost every minute of practice–there’s not really a whole lot of down time. That also is what makes it rewarding. When you’ve done your job right, you feel like you have nothing left to give.”
Rystrom has been getting up before sunrise and driving to American Lake to practice six days a week since his first year at PLU. Like most other members of the team, Rystrom had never rowed before, but now he can’t imagine his life without crew.
Rowing is a unique sport in many ways. Most rowers have to travel to practice because their school doesn’t have a boathouse on-campus. Rowers also work with a lot of equipment. But perhaps what makes rowers particularly different, is the fact that many of them didn’t start until they came to college.
“Usually in collegiate athletics, you don’t have the option to jump into a sport you’ve never done before,” said Schlenker. “Even at the top of the line programs around the country, the powerhouse programs, half their novice program will be walk-ons that have never touched an oar before in their life—they are the swimmers, the cross-country runners, the wrestlers.”
Rystrom was the swimmer.
“I’m really, really slow–I’m a terrible runner, so I did swim in high school and then I was like, ‘ I want to try something that you don’t have to run for and can still be good at,” Rystrom said. “I had heard about crew as a sport and wanted to try it.”
Rystrom came out to practice wanting to have some fun, but has become more interested and committed to the team each year.
“Being on the crew team means that you’re a much more close-knit group, because essentially you’re all just trying to follow one guy or girl and be as exactly with them as possible,” said Rystrom, who rows in the sixth seat for the men’s varsity eight boat. His job, along with the other seven rowers in his boat, is to follow the stern, or first seat, under the direction of the coxswain, who sits in the back and doesn’t row.
“It’s hard,” Rystrom admits. “There’s about 20 different tiny motions that go into each stroke that you’re kind of thinking about.”
Practice is hard, and getting up before most of your peers and practicing for two hours, six times a week isn’t easy, but being a part of this team and this sport makes it worth the while for Rystrom and his teammate Nikki Fast ’13.
“The whole team calls me mama Nikki because I take care of everyone,” Fast said. “These people are my best friends. I’ve known mostly all of them since I was a freshman. Steven is like my goofy older brother. This team is a family. We travel together; we go everywhere together. We all hangout together and we’re just a family.”
Like Rystrom, Fast also joined the team as a first-year. She played volleyball in high school, but wanted to take a break from it during her first year of college. About a week later, Fast got bored and decided to try out crew.
Fast began as a rower, but because of medical problems, she was reassigned to the position of coxswain. She loved rowing, but she ended up loving the role of coxswain even more.
“I motivate them in races” Fast said. “I’ve been here for three years doing this and I wouldn’t leave this team for anything.”