The Olympics and my own journey to be active in Mumbai have made me realize just how much I miss rowing. This is a piece I wrote and shot for a class last semester. I figured now is a good time to post it.
The early morning calls of a coxswain instructing her crew to bring it up in two for ten… ONE, TWO. The silhouette of a boat against the brightness of the rising sun. A brief stop to watch a boat glide out from under the Mass. Ave bridge, in sync, one rower following the one in front of her. These brief glimpses are the most the MIT community sees into the lives of the early morning athletes who make up MIT Crew.
6:15 am. The MIT Pierce Boathouse is already teeming with activity as athletes from the Institute’s four varsity rowing teams pour in and begin layering on spandex to combat the early morning chill. Early arrivers line oars up along the edge of the dock, eight per boat, ready for the morning’s workout. Stragglers continue to lock up bicycles along the rail separating the river from land before going inside, the only indication to runners on the river path of the activity inside the unassuming structure. While the student-athletes arrive at a time when many of their colleagues have yet to go to sleep, preparations for the morning’s row began at 4:30am, long before the first students arrived. Holly Metcalf, the head coach of the openweight women’s team, wakes at her home in Newton, Mass. at 4am and arrives at 409 Memorial Drive by 4:30am every day to spend the pre-practice hours preparing the day’s workout, and dealing with the paperwork and bureaucracy that fuels the team and its relationship with the Institute.
Each practice, six mornings out of seven, begin downstairs in the boat bay. The lower level of the structure, not visible from the street, holds singles, doubles, fours and eights, the longest of which measures over fifty feet in length, but less than two feet in width. Less than 200 pounds, these rowing shells are the fundamental pieces of equipment for these varsity teams, human-powered and coxswain-steered. The boathouse and its minders are crucial to the rowers being able to overcome the 20 feet between the storage bays and the docks, poised for launching. While the public watches the seemingly effortless work put forth by the student-athletes on the Charles River, the coaches and boatmen are the well-oiled gears that allow the team to train and compete.
Deep in the bowels of the Pierce Boathouse are dark spaces filled with spare shoes, extra riggers, and boxes of nuts and bolts piled next to life vests neatly packaged in nines, enough for an eight man crew and the coxswain. Next to the controls for the indoor moving water rowing tank is a bicycle suspended in mid-disrepair. These spaces are the domain of John Pratt and Jeff Barrett, the boatmen in charge of keeping the MIT varsity rowing teams rigged and in good repair.
John Pratt is in his workshop before 6am, completing any lingering repairs or rigging changes necessary for the day’s practice. He looks the part of a typical boatman, a tight-knit community along the Charles River, and among collegiate crews. JP, as he is affectionately known to the rowers, admits that most boatmen have similar personalities. His daily uniform of cargo shorts, hiking boots with tall woolen socks and coke bottle glasses belies his incredible expertise and ability to understand boats and anticipate their needs. A sailor at heart, John Pratt is master boat builder, renowned for building some of the fastest sailboats in the world. While he admits to having rowed once or twice in his life, he is an International Sailing Umpire who has presided over International Sailing Federation team racing world championships. A natural competitor, always on the lookout for an adrenaline rush, he still sails weekly, but only when there is an opportunity to race (and win). Having grown up on the South Shore, he got his start out of college, building rowing shells, and transferred his passion for building boats to go fast from sailing to rowing. He arrived at MIT in 1995 to a dysfunctional program where the coaches were always in some type of row. The Mother Institute, as he affectionately refers to MIT, was doing little to help her crews, with a history dating back since rowing began at Boston Tech, MIT’s predecessor, in the early 1900s. But the 17 years since John Pratt arrived have brought changes in coaching staff, and more cooperation within the boathouse, if not from the Mother institute. But he continues to care for his boats and as Metcalf explains, “To John, the shells are not just equipment. He thinks of them in relation to the athletes like a horse to its rider. The shells are live and essential to the team, as if the shell needs to be fed and watered. He thinks about the livelihood of boats and the effect on the athletes, and hopes the athletes think about them that way too”.
Holly Metcalf arrived at MIT five years ago at the behest of Tony Kilbridge, the director of rowing and head coach of the men’s heavyweight team. The goal was to bring stability to the women’s side and to rebuild a team that suffered from low membership numbers and poor performance. A six-time USA national/ Olympic rowing team member, who won a gold medal in the women’s eight at the 1984 Summer Olympics and later coached the 1990 national women’s team to a Silver Medal in the World Championships, Metcalf left competitive coaching because of the drama and lack of passion she experienced among coaches and athletes. She continued her own passion, however, and founded several non-profits centered on the idea of empowerment for women and girls through rowing.
Metcalf explained that she was drawn back to coach at MIT because she sees the students at the Institute as visionary in everything they do. MIT students, she explained, are not limited by traditional notions of what may be possible, but are open to the possibilities of what rowing can be. Different from other programs she has coached, student-athletes at MIT have intensity as a fundamental part of their nature, and bring their passion across from the academic campus onto the river.
It is very evident that Holly, also known as Hols or Harriet to her athletes, has brought a new level of training, technique and whimsicalness to the boathouse. She coaches through feel, “imagine you are throwing a discus at the finish”, or a favorite of the athletes, “imagine you are in a full-body cast: turn from the waist!”. One drill ends with the entire boat flapping their arms like birds, holding the oar with a foot. But these crazy drills, and her passionate speeches, have helped develop the program into a team, and into a family. Her partner jokes and calls the first varsity 8 her fourth child, a title she doesn’t deny. But the women’s openweight crew is no longer the laughingstock of the Eastern Sprints League, a league MIT helped start, but only four years ago was in danger of being kicked out of for lack of performance.
12am. A green Peter Pan bus, MIT emblazoned on the front, pulls into the bus bay in front of the Pierce Boathouse. The team groggily scrummages around the cold grey floor to collect their belongings and sleepily pile off of the bus. Back from another race of the most successful season the crew has had in its Division I program history, 11 seasons, many spent fighting not to be last. Finally a season where the goal was to be in the top.
Monday will bring the last trailer unloading of the season. All hands are on deck, half on the trailer, half on the ground, to bring the 55-foot boats from the top rack, 10 feet off the ground, to the ground and back into the bowels of the boathouse. The bow swings into Memorial Drive, avoiding oncoming traffic, garnering inquisitive looks from passers-by. The boats will be washed and stored, riggers separate, to await the return of the rowers in the fall. Even as athletes disperse, the coaches and boatmen, the constant presence within a program that sees athletes come and go, will continue their work, making repairs and preparations for the upcoming season. Paperwork and schedules, bowballs and repairs, preparing a new boat and beginning the recruiting process; these are the cogs in the machine that is MIT Crew.