Sometimes, in the early hours of the morning, Oxford is covered in mist. Along High Street, lampposts glow and faces of gargoyles protrude eerily through the fog. You can’t even see the top of the spires because they’ve disappeared into the clouds. Most of Oxford is still asleep, but the stone city stands quietly as it has for centuries. Farther down, across Christ Church Meadow, flows the river Thames. At dawn, when the horizon is just turning from black to grey, the water is smooth, glasslike, and the riverbank is still. But then, breaking the silence, you hear the rowers coming. They might have a small white light on the bow of their boat to shine the way ahead, and there are often several boats filling the Isis, the small section of the Thames which runs through Oxford. The first term is nearly over, and the weather is quickly getting colder. Hearing the swoosh-thud, swoosh-thud of the boats moving through the water sounds peaceful, but apart from the layers of Lycra the rowers are wearing, this is the only thing keeping them warm. If you listen even closer, you hear grunting from the boats. It’s an athletic exercise, but it’s also a subtle art of tempo and connection. In rowing, your senses are tested as much as your stamina.
I had rowed for a few semesters at the College, but that didn’t prepare me for the intensity of the Hertford College First Men’s Boat, “M1” for short. Some of these guys have been training since they were 12. They start young, are groomed for peak performance, and can row with more ferocity and poise than any of us. For them, the rowing stroke is in their DNA, and it’s beautiful to watch. It’s all I can do to keep up. We row every day except Friday and do double sessions on the weekends. That means four hours of straight rowing on Saturday and another four hours on Sunday.
When I joined the team, there was no introductory period; because I had some experience, I just jumped into training. My first practice wasn’t a row on the water, but a core circuit session which lasted an hour. It was a rapid switchback between push-ups, crunches, push-ups with clapping, crunches with twisting, jump-lunging and squats. By the end, the room’s windows were fogged up and steam was fuming off our backs. A friend on the team looked at me afterward and said, “Baptism by fire, eh mate?”
Rowing challenges you physically, but it also gives back in ways you don’t expect. Because the team is so skilled, your experience is unique. At times, the thin shell of the boat will be perfectly balanced, the water will be flat, and you will connect to each body in front of you. Each man follows the same motion of sliding up the boat with control in his core, putting the blade swiftly in the water, and then, building up speed, pulling the oar through the water until it emerges with a dull thud at the end of the stroke — what we call the “send.” For a fleeting moment, eight rowers become one. When this happens, the boat is weightless, and you feel like you’re flying. In rowing, this is called “swing” — it’s almost like a dance. In the past week, we have been “swinging” more and more often, and the feeling is impossible to describe. The sound of eight oars moving through the water can have its own harmony. But more than all of this, you hurdle through the water at breakneck speeds, with a combination of grace and grit, at a jarring pace that fits well with the rest of life at Oxford. In rowing, like with many other things at the university, you don’t want to slow down because the balance is working just right, and you don’t want it to end.