Rowing fosters attention to detail, hard work

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Jorge Conda / THE FLAT HAT

At the College of William and Mary, we tell people when they arrive, “You belong here.” It’s a bold claim. All that makes us “One Tribe” is that we chose the same college. We don’t all share certain traits or interests. We don’t have a sports team that we all follow. About the only thing you can count on sharing with other students is a sense of stress and overcommitment.

Saying, “You belong here” doesn’t make it so. I think we sense that, so we try to join as many groups and activities as we can, hoping that busyness will cure loneliness. I, almost by accident, joined the Club Rowing team last year. I found that loneliness is best fought with depth and not breadth. I’m now part of a group where I’m known personally, and group membership means something. We’ve suffered together.

“Rowing is suffering.” This is a common refrain of our coach. More than that, it’s a serious time commitment. Entering college, neither of these seemed appealing. There’s an appeal to saying “No” to 90 percent of your commitments every weekend. However, I think the freedom these casual clubs offer is overrated. Yes, rowing is difficult and time-consuming, but only on a team with real accountability and goals can you accomplish something meaningful. The very freedom that allows you to miss meetings with no consequence resigns your club — whatever that club may be — to mediocrity. That’s not a put-down, but achievement requires buy-in.

More than pushing mental and physical endurance, rowing tests your character unlike any other sport I’ve played. As my coach often says, “It’s the ultimate team sport.” This may seem a little dramatic, but I think he’s right. In other sports, a superstar can transcend his teammates. Steph Curry is a great shooter, even playing with four children. In rowing, for each stroke — which is about every two seconds — every rower must be in perfect sync. The cliché, “You’re only as strong as your weakest link” is actually true here.

This creates the perfect recipe for self-righteousness. See, every two seconds, you need to take a stroke. Yet, the boat is constantly changing. Maybe last stroke, someone in front of you leaned away and now the boat is down to that side. It’s not “set.” Or, maybe the person behind you is “rushing” and rowing at 22 strokes per minute while you’re determined to hold the rhythm at 18 strokes per minute. All this time, you’re on the water. Every slight mistake tilts the boat back and forth, making your job of rowing smoothly in sync more challenging. This creates a remarkable phenomenon, at least for me. Whenever I take a bad stroke (and when you do, all eight people can feel it), I tell myself, “Well, what else could I do? The boat’s not set, and I’m doing the best I can with a horrible situation.” Then, whenever my teammate takes a bad stroke, I think, “Get it together; you’re ruining our rhythm and set.”

Most team sports have a binary success metric. Did the shot go in? Was the pass caught? Rowing is about inches. At the 2016 Olympics, the men’s single scull was decided by five thousandths of a second. With margins that tight, the slightest move matters. Every stroke, I can take responsibility to set the boat, roll up smoothly and powerfully push no matter what’s going on around me. Those few improvements that I can control matter. Or, I can blame my teammates for rushing or creating an unset boat. What’s the point in pushing hard before the boat’s well-prepared for my power?

I’m glad I’ve found rowing in college. It didn’t take anything to join besides a willingness to work. In it, I’ve found my “tribe,” the place at this school where I do belong. And, I’ve grown up a bit. People talk about making friends and maturing in college. Wanting that doesn’t just make it happen. For me, at least, it took rowing.

Email Ben Christenson at

bchristenson@email.wm.edu.