The Perfect Catch

Cecilia Kiely '04, English 171, Brown University, 2003

[Author's Introduction]

The Rowers

No one calls the Sharpe Refectory the “dining hall”—it’s The Ratty. The Ratty is unofficially divided into four general sitting areas, and the rowers own the northwest quadrant. Other Brown students sit there, but they are lost among tables of tall people, male and female, who are not afraid to wear spandex. There are showers in the locker room at the boathouse, but there are always those times when practice lets out late and there is not enough time to change out of the shiny skintight workout clothes before riding back to campus to catch dinner before the doors of the Ratty close at 7:15pm. Tonight was one of those nights for Karen Prazar. She stood in the line holding her tray . . . deciding whether she was going to be a vegetarian that night. She usually was . . . except she did eat tuna. . . . recently she had started eating chicken as well. Karen was a rower; even when she wasn’t wearing her spandex it was clear she was a rower. She set her tray down on the table.

Audrey Patten looked up from her pasta in a casual acknowledgment of Karen’s arrival.

“Wait, Karen, you don’t like fruit?” one of the other girls at the table asked as Karen moved her bag off the seat she had saved and sat down.

It was a freshman . . . not that freshmen should be scared of her, but it always surprised Karen when the novices weren’t too intimidated to ask a Senior (and Captain!) personal questions like that.

“That’s right, I don’t like fruit. I don’t eat fruit.”

“You don’t eat any kind of fruit?”

She eats apples, grapes, and watermelon—Audrey knew this. She’d been eating meals with Karen since freshman year and she swore this conversation topic came up at least once every two weeks.

“I eat apples, grapes, and watermelon. That’s it.”

“You don’t like bananas?”

“No.”

Audrey was not wearing spandex. But she was wearing pants . . . her roommates liked to joke that she never wore pants. It made no sense. She had never walked around the suite without pants on . . . Keep your pants on, Audrey! Probably because all the pants she bought last spring were a little too loose and practically fell off her if she wasn’t wearing a belt . . . her brown belt . . .the belt that was too big because she bought it in the men’s department and was too embarrassed to be seen purchasing men’s accessories that she didn’t even try it on and had to make a new hole in it because it ended up being too big when she finally tried it on when she got home . . . she was wearing that belt now. She hadn’t showered at the boathouse, but she changed into her jeans anyway. Not the best shopper, but a damn good rower! Someone who was only 5’6’’ and could still pull that hard on the erg . . . the Erg . . . the rowing machine, like a treadmill, really. A sliding seat, just like the ones in the boat, and the rowing motion is imitated by pulling on a handle attached to a wheel for resistance. A small digital monitor provides instant feedback—stroke rate (in strokes per minute), distance (meters), time, and the Split. The biggest number right in the middle of the screen—the focus, up and down the slide—the digits announce the time it would take the rower to go 500 meters at that pace . . . essentially it describes in minutes and seconds the ultimate bottom line—how hard she is pulling. Keep the splits down. Audrey held her own against rowers who outweighed her by a good fifty pounds.

“Do you like kiwis?”

“No.”

“What about strawberries?”

“NO, those are the WORST. I have nightmares about strawberries.”

“Pomegranates?”

“I’ve never had a pomegranate, but I’m sure I wouldn’t like it.”

“No, and I don’t eat any processed fruits either, no apple sauce or apple pie. Or grape juice . . .but I do drink wine . . .”

Yeah, she does drink wine. But only in the fall. During the spring season the women’s crew team goes completely dry . . . not a sip of alcohol for 96 days . . . but who’s counting!

“ . . .and I drink apple juice, too. But those are my only exceptions.”

Audrey took a sip of fluorescent green Powerade . . . she preferred blue, but the Ratty’s drink machines only had lemon-lime. She looked up from her tray again, across the table. Karen’s probably stressing about an orgo exam or something—she hasn’t changed out of her workout clothes . . . she’s so busy this semester . . . but at least she wasn’t wearing that full-length unisuit she sometimes wore in the winter, Audrey thought, that long blue spandex bodysuit with a big white stripe down the side. Audrey’s roommate, Bronwyn, was sitting next to Karen.

Bronwyn Uber was wearing a tank top, as usual. Not that she needed to be wearing a tank top to attract attention, and not that she needed attention, but she had to admit she liked the contradiction of being a little (5’7’’ was small on the crew team) blond girl that just happened to have biceps and impressive lats. With her blond ponytail, Bronwyn looked like a Nike ad. But as a lightweight on a heavyweight team, it wasn’t obvious that she was a rower. Then again, she didn’t look like a biomedical engineer either.

Audrey, Karen, and Bronwyn were all seniors on the crew team, and last year they had all lived together in a five-person suite on the fifth floor of Tower D, one of the four riot-proof cement towers that made up the dorm called Grad Center. Their two other roommates, Cecilia and Cara, were ex-crew—an ex-rower and an ex-coxswain who had both quit after one year on the team. They were what John and Phoebe Murphy, the women’s crew coaches, might call “the bad apples.” There are always bad apples on a team that lets anyone join, regardless of experience. Since most high schools don’t have crew teams, collegiate programs rely on walk-ons— freshmen that often have never rowed before—to fill out their rosters. John and Phoebe don’t make cuts, anyone that wants to row can be on the team. But, as coaches, they do their best to shake the tree . . . hard. Of the forty or so walk-ons that start rowing at the beginning of any given fall, most will be gone by the time winter training starts . . . before the team goes indoors for endless sessions on the erg. Fall practices are demanding enough. Bronwyn and Audrey were the only walk-ons in their class to make it to senior year. They hung on to the tree for four years. Cristin Clark had been another promising walk-on that year. She had the slowest erg scores the first time the novices did a piece, but by the spring she was beating varsity rowers on erg tests, and she had earned a spot in one of the varsity boats, meaning she would travel with the team to the NCAA championships. She quit the day before they left for nationals. She got off the erg in the middle of practice, walked into the office, and quit. Phoebe was so taken aback that she wasn’t careful about extending the metaphor she and John had constructed during a team meeting at the beginning of the year, and she called Cristin a loose nut instead of a bad apple. Regardless, rowing requires a very specific brand of person; the rest are shaken from the tree sooner or later. They have to be—one bad apple ruins the whole bunch.

The Murphys didn’t know that three of their top varsity rowers lived with bad apples . . . didn’t know that when Audrey complained about crew, flopping on Cara’s futon after a frustrating practice or a maddening meeting with John, the two of them would tell her, “Just quit.” John and Phoebe wouldn’t have liked that. But the Murphys didn’t even know that Karen and Audrey lived together—they even got it into their heads that Karen was sort of mean to Audrey, had no idea that the two had chosen to live with each other until Karen decided to randomly give Audrey hugs at the boathouse when John was walking by. But it didn’t really matter who they lived with because Audrey would never quit, Bronwyn would never quit, and Karen would never quit. They all wanted that “perfect catch”—they had the desire to win that made them not only love rowing—everyone loves to glide across the river . . . Eight oars entering the water at the same time with such a smooth force it seems effortless to those who can’t see the muscles flexing in the rowers’ backs, arms and legs, the blistered hands. They had the will to prepare to win at all costs . . . keeping the splits down on the erg in workouts in practice after practice when the river has frozen over and the indoor rowing machines are all that they have to simulate being on the water.

Satisfied that there was no obscure fruit that Karen actually liked and forgot to list, the conversation at the table had turned to crew talk. Rowerspeak: erg, PR, power ten, 2k test, stroke rate, port, starboard, coxswain.

“Did you PR today?” The abbreviation for “personal record” had been turned into verb and one of the novices was asking the girl sitting next to her if she had beat her best time on the erg piece that afternoon.

Audrey picked the banana up off her tray and snapped it in half with one quick motion. It wasn’t that hard to do, but most people just didn’t open their bananas that way. Audrey always opened her bananas that way and she always ate a banana at dinner. Somewhat superstitiously for four years now, ever since freshman year when Phoebe told the novice team that bananas were good to eat after a workout because they had potassium, Audrey has eaten a banana every night after practice. But Phoebe didn’t just promote bananas in that speech, she had also warned about overeating at the Ratty after practice. Get an orange, peel it slowly. Crew is literally about pulling your weight. But eating with rowing in mind is nothing. Rowers sleep with rowing in mind, study with rowing in mind.

Karen finished her rice and beans. She had decided to go vegetarian after all, even though she—and everyone else on the team (since she talked about such things regularly)—knew that the beans would give her gas later on. She got up from the table to get a bowl of cereal for dessert. She stood up and it was easy to see how she had been the stroke of the first varsity boat . . . the first seat, setting the rhythm . . . since sophomore year. Karen was 6’ 1’’ and had forearms that could only be described as inspiring. She was a top recruit, rowing for both Exeter and the junior national team during high school. Summer after sophomore year at Brown she was at the national team training camp until she burnt out after ten months straight of rowing every day but Sunday. So despite the hoping of the rugby team, whose players walk around campus looking for tall strong women, Karen would never quit crew. She has the perfect catch, you can see it in her eyes, and in her hands.

It doesn’t take a palm reader to see the marks of Crew on the hands of a rower—permanently callused, blistered and raw during the season. Rowers don’t wear gloves . . . peel an orange slowly. . . the wooden handle of the oar is worn smooth, yet still carves up the soft skin at the base of the fingers. The hands—just one reason why Crew is seen as a cult. Rowing takes a certain degree of masochism and a lot of focus. Up and down the slide. Feather the blade. Catch the water. Pull. Make a puddle . . . Your teammates know when you’re not pulling your hardest and make a mental note . . . positive peer pressure, Audrey calls it. Everyone knows what everyone else is pulling on the erg and everyone can see the puddles left on the surface of the river when someone makes that Perfect Catch . . . the oar grabs the water at just the right angle to maximize the force. Pull. Then release. Up the slide. Catch. Pull. Release. All in perfect unison. Unison. Unison. Unisuit. Spandex shorts and a spandex tank top fused together into a seamless shiny brown spandex suit—a uni. Even the uniform of the rower emphasizes smoothness. The goal of crew, as it is in most sports, is to cross the finish line first. And it’s all about smoothness. Technique is as important as strength. Combine the two into fluidity and rhythm—working to preserve the momentum . . . no check . . . all eight moving up the slide as one, catching as one, pulling as one. Watch the set . . . the boat must be balanced. This is what is needed for the perfect catch.

The Perfect Catch

The Hunter S. Marston Boathouse is located on the banks of the Seekonk River, right next to India Point Park—a center of sketchiness. Cars are continuously parked along the street, yet there never seems to be any traffic. . . any cars actually moving, just men sitting in old burgundy Chevys with tinted windows, staring. Audrey and Brownyn were approached and asked if they had any drugs, walking home one day after practice. It is a mile or so from campus, down Hope Street, across the pedestrian bridge completely enclosed by chain link fencing . . . the cars honk as rowers walk and run and ride their bikes over the bridge on the way to practice. And then there’s the water. The bay and a couple of trees, which can be beautiful in the fall at peak foliage. Bronwyn took a picture of the scene that could have been a postcard—she positioned the camera just right so that the trees almost blocked out all signs of the power lines lining the park and obscured the sewage plant on the other side of the bay. Karen saw the picture, and was impressed: That is SUCH a good picture. You should do more art. But Crew—intense intercollegiate athletic experience is an understatement; life-consuming entity is more accurate—isn’t conducive to hobbies, although it seems that most of the women’s team does know how to knit.

Around the corner is the parking lot and the boathouse– the boathouse! The home-away-from-dorm for the members of the men and women’s crew teams at Brown. With daily three-hour practices, rowers will spend more time at the boathouse over four years than they will at any other single place on campus. The boathouse was remodeled in the 1960s, a building formerly used by the Saltesea Packing company as a fish processing plant. Three garage doors on the face of the boathouse open into the boat bay where the boats are stored. They aren’t really boats . . . shells, technically. The lightest possible design, the black-hulled Resolutes have a bear’s head, teeth bared, painted on the bow. These shells slice through the water. The Brown women race in eights, shells with just enough room for the eight rowers and the coxswain, the small girl who sits in the stern, steering to make sure the boat stays on course and shouting orders and encouragement to keep the rowers together.

The erg room is upstairs, third floor. There are two lines of ergometers facing each other and a stereo to play mix . Many a good song has been ruined in this erg room. It may pump you up, but be careful of overusing it or everytime you hear it you think of erging. But the rowers like the erg, gotta love the Erg . . . especially in those three months of winter training off the water. Erg scores excite them, motivate them, bring them joy. Erg scores help them win races . . . help them get their Picture on the Wall. The Pictures on the Wall— they fit in every speech that John and Phoebe made—speeches given to the whole team, forty rowers crammed into the small office; speeches given during boat meetings before race-days; speeches delivered to individual rowers called into the office before/during/after practice. To make it up on the wall of John and Phoebe’s office, a boat had to win a gold medal. And even with this strict criterion all the walls were covered with poster-sized framed moments of glory. Now the rowers in these photos were not all 6’ 2’’ recruited athletes. No, in every boat of gold medal winners there was at least one girl—the lightweight who still beat rowers twice her size on the erg, the walk-on who went on to be an Olympic rower, the girl who lost a leg and still had the fastest erg scores on the team. Well, maybe that last one was made up, but she would have been a good one to point to when saying that bronchitis (“a glorified cold”) was no reason to miss practice.

Each picture was the Perfect Catch in a frame—nine smiles standing on the awards dock, medals around their necks, sunglasses and visors removed to expose the faces of champions. The only moment of recognition in the pursuit of the gold is that moment on the dock. It’s about glory, but it’s about internal glory. One of the most successful teams in the whole university, and the women’s crew team receives almost no acknowledgment. A championship gold ring is flashy, but crew is just not a spectator sport. Fans stand on the bank to catch barely 30 seconds of a 7-minute race—they can hardly see the rowers and could miss them unless they know which seat they are in or if they usually wear a magenta bandana, like Bronwyn.

One afternoon last winter, during the first 20-minute erg piece of a 3x20 indoor training session, one of the novices fainted with about 7 minutes left to go. A coxswain went over to see if she was okay, the coaches were notified and the ambulance was called. None of the other rowers stopped erging. Hold the splits down . . . distraction doesn’t get the Picture on the Wall. . . everyone finished the piece. The EMTs came and brought her to the hospital. All the rowers on the freshmen side stood up and each moved down to fill in the gap left by the vacated erg. There are no empty ergs left between rowers because teammates push each other and it is hard to push from across the room. It’s all part of the Perfect Catch—the quest for smoothness, the will to win (it is all about winning), trust in each other.

The weight room is on the second floor. Blue plastic mats are lined up on the floor along the edges for sit-ups; the weights are racked near the doors. NCAA championship banners cover the walls. The perfect catch—when a silver medal is a mistake. It is never a question of qualifying for nationals, but a question of winning nationals, and these banners prove it.

The coxswains stand behind with stopwatches and call out time as the rowers in groups rotate from station to station—squats, bench pulls, reverse curls, press. The weights are not that heavy—they use metal bars with coffee cans full of cement stuck on each end for all of the exercises. It’s the repetition that tires the muscles and builds endurance. The most brutal circuits require no weights at all. Almost always the circuit includes jumpies—squat jumps that are also called JCs, though no one quite knows what the c stands for. In a circle, they jump up and down thirty times, then ten seconds to recover, and they do this ten or twelve times. It’s all in pursuit of the perfect catch, even though they can barely see the river through the window of the weight room. The rowers’ hands are orange from the rusty bars at the end of the weight circuit. Their quad muscles feel detached from the rest of their bodies.

But the lifeblood of the crew team is the river. The Seekonk is sexy, if ugly can be sexy. The Charles River of Providence, it is nothing like the Charles—no brick bridges or joggers running along the banks or city lights on the shore at night. The Seekonk is gritty. An abandoned wire factory serves as one of the only landmarks on the shore. There is little scenery—an industrial wasteland. An old rusted iron railroad bridge, permanently raised at a 90-degree angle to the river, marks the end of the 2,000-meter racecourse used for home races in the spring. Like blistered hands, the Seekonk is not pretty; but like the movement of those eight oars that the blistered hands produce, the Seekonk is beautiful.

Practice

It takes practice to make the perfect catch every day. Outside the boathouse forty or so rowers are sprawled on the ground—stretching, talking, resting, recovering from erg workouts and weight circuits (done before practice yet still called post-rows)—amidst piles of jackets, extra layers of spandex and a rainbow of Nalgenes (red, orange, magenta, yellow, green, blue).

Hands on the Elena Maria. Time to launch one of the Resolutes. Eight rowers get up, handing the coxswain their water bottles and walking into the boat bay. Up an inch and out. Up over heads, ready up. Split to shoulders. Walk it out. Watch the riggers. Following the coxswain’s commands, the rowers pick up the boat, which is lying upside down on a shoulder-high rack, and slide it out. Lifting it over their heads, they then split to either side and bring it down to rest on their shoulders. Careful not to hit the riggers on the riggers of the other boats jutting out on either side, they navigate out of the boathouse.

Up over heads. Toe to edge. Roll to waist. Ready, roll. Down and in. On the edge of the dock, they again bring the boat above their heads and swing it down towards the water so that it is now right side up, then set it down in the Seekonk. Kicking off sneakers and sandals, they leave them in piles on the dock and grab the oars.

Starboard oars out. One foot between the tracks, down and in. Count down from bow when ready. In the boat, the rowers count down when they have stowed their water bottles and jackets under the seats, adjusted the foot stretchers to the right height, and velcroed their feet into the shoes. “Bow, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, stroke.”

Push off in two. One, two . . . Bow four to row, sitting ready to row. Ready, row. Shoving off from the dock, the ports use their blades to push the boat away from the dock. The four rowers in the bow row while the stern four sets up the boat—their oars flat on the water to balance. They paddle under highway bridge . . . click clack thump of cars passing overhead sounds like chains being dragged echoing through the cement arches.

Way enough in two. One, two, let it run, and oars down. After two strokes, they stop rowing and bring the oar handles to the gunwales so the blades are high off the water so as not to slow the momentum as the boat glides. The oars slap the surface of the river and the shell drifts to a stop on the other side of the bridge. As soon as soon as John appears beside them in the launch, practice begins. There is no more talking among the rowers.

[Author's Introduction]


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Last modified 19 December 2003