At lunch today we were sitting around, listening to coach Larry Gluckman and our housemate, Shay Seager, work on a training plan.
Shay is a rower and, although our sports would appear to have much in common, we are still completely mystified whenever the rowers talk about their training. They train at specific stroke rates or wattages; we train at heart rates, which seems much simpler.
We asked Larry why this was. And then we realized that skiing has many fewer variables than rowing: namely, there’s only one of us on each pair of skis. If you have two guys in a boat, you have to give them something in common to shoot for during training. A coach’s job is figuring out how to get each guy to work equally as hard while they row at the same stroke rate.
One thing led to another and soon Larry was telling racing stories. In 2005, he took his Trinity College team – a D-III club which had finished second at their national championships – to the Henley Regatta in England. Henley racing is match racing, a bit like March Madness brackets – each race features only two crews, and the winner advances. Trinity was seeded seventh, and in their second day of racing, they faced the number one seed, Cal’s undefeated freshmen crew (who, Shay pointed out, had beat Cal’s own first varsity that year).
Even though we knew the outcome of the story, we were all on the edges of our seats. Two of our friends, Tom and Peter Graves, were bow and stroke in the boat.
Larry described how they had done scouting. There is a cattle guard on the trail that runs around to the river at the 700 meter mark, and they knew that the Cal boat covered the distance to the barrier faster than they had in their first race. They also knew that their crew was faster over the next part of the course, until the Fawley Farm mark.
“I never told them what to do,” Larry said. “I always let the boys make their own race plan.”
The crew decided that they needed to get out fast, because if they Cal got ahead, it would be very tough to make up time. Then, they would just do what they always did, and hope they could hold it together.
Larry described, a little bit, the scene at Henley. Each team has a few tickets for launches – boats that can drive along beside the race. They are usually used by coaches, but Larry gave the launches to parents and watched from the grandstand instead. At several intervals along the course, there are placards that are updated as the boats pass, showing the relative position of the two crews. It was mainly through these placards that Larry could tell how the race had started.
Trinity rowed out harder than they ever had before, balls to the wall, and after two minutes led by ¾ of a length. Larry was watching from the stands at the finish, and he was pleasantly surprised when he saw the placards.
The Cal crew had never been behind before, but they stayed calm and didn’t panic. Gradually, over the next three minutes, the Cal crew crept up on the Trinity boat. At the second placard, they had made up a quarter of a length, and at the last placard before the finish, it was almost even – in fact, nobody could really tell who was ahead.
“I thought it was over,” said Larry. “I thought that when they rowed to the finish, Cal was just going to slip right by. Plus, the guy in the 3 seat had really bought the farm. He was slumped over his oar, just kind of moving back and forth and maybe – maybe – putting his oar in the water on some of the strokes. He was the strongest guy in the boat, and I have no doubt that he was the main reason we got that ¾ length lead in the first two minutes – but he had spent all his energy.”
As they pushed toward the finish, both crews were rowing harder than they had all season. The giant crowd – ten or twenty thousand – was yelling. Larry isn’t quite sure what the cox told them, but they didn’t lose much ground. Soon there were only 40 or so strokes left, and the crews were still neck and neck.
Larry says that his crews always practice the last 40 strokes, and, in particular, the last 10. You never want to drift over the line; you want to have more momentum than your opponent. So when it got down to here, his crew dug in (the guy in the 3 seat may have even started rowing again) and pulled.
The boats crossed the line and nobody knew who had won. It was quiet. There was no announcement. Larry started walking down to the water, sure that his team had lost.
Then there was an announcement. “Trinity.” Not “Trinity College of Hartford Connecticut of the United States,” like usual (since there are also other Trinity Colleges, like the one in Dublin). Just “Trinity”.
As Larry got down to the enclosure, he saw why. The guy in the 3 seat had completely collapsed and partially fallen out of the boat as they crossed the finish line. His head was in the water, and the guy in front of him was trying to hold him up. A referee’s boat came out to take him out of the boat, but he insisted he was fine. As soon as the boats reached the dock, one on each side, both crews tumbled out and lay down, completely wasted.
“It looked like a war zone,” said Larry. What the men had accomplished was absolutely incredible, and they had paid a serious price for it.
As is sometimes true in tournaments, the next day’s race was much easier. Then, on Sunday, they were in the championship. The number of boats in the boat tent had been reduced from a few hundred to maybe twenty. Half these boats would be champions.
As it turned out, Trinity was one of them. They beat the Yale lightweights. At the end, Tom and Peter stood up, at opposite ends of the boat, turned toward each other, saluted, and sat down. The moment was captured and used as a centerfold in Rowing News.
It was a good race, and they worked hard (the 3 seat again bonked beyond belief), but it was no Cal race. That race garnered them attention and respect. Although they are a D-III team, they now race almost exclusively D-I schools, and based on that one regatta alone were invited to Stanford’s annual invitational.
Listening to the story, we were all completely enthralled. It got our adrenaline going. It made us look forward to racing – in fact, we wanted to go race right then and there.
Get me my skis, the snow is coming.