Campus Currents

The Ultimate Team Sport
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Crew, photo by Perry Smith/UNH Photographic Services
UNH Crew Team

There are April mornings when the rising sun makes the mist above Mendum's Pond sparkle—the kind of dawn it's a privilege to see. This is not one of those mornings. The 5:30 a.m. air is chilly, the sky gray. There is no sun, just a slow lessening of darkness, so slow you hardly notice.

But the 57 UNH students aren't there for the view. "Ready, lift. Shoulders, ready, split. Side-step it toward me. Walk it down," commands coxswain Caroline Vieten '09.

Eight women hoist to their shoulders the 65-foot, 200-pound Phoenix, a name that reflects, according to Vieten, the "heart, drive and a whole lot of fire" that has kept the team going despite a fiscally driven move from varsity back to club status in 2006.

"Down to waist. Ready, down. Out—and in," and the women carefully slip the boat into the pond. The men's rowing team and the rest of the women already have their boats in the water.

Leaving behind on the dock a jumble of sneakers and shoes, chatter and jokes, the women take their places, settling their socked feet on top of the athletic shoes screwed to sliding boards in front of them. Only later will they be allowed to put their feet into the shoes, a delay that forces them to keep their weight evenly distributed and not lean back as they row.

Throughout practice they will maintain silence, a forward gaze and intense focus. It's like being in church, says Dan Leatherbee '09. "You kind of get into a trance," he says. "It's like that for two hours. You leave everything else behind. When you're rowing right, it's awesome."

Winning can also be awesome. When the women's team beat top-seeded Trinity and Bates in 2007, Vieten says she knew by the 20th stroke that "this would be the race of our lives. We beat them by open water and we'll never forget it. It was a perfect race." When the men's team won silver at the New England Championship in 2006, Leatherbee and his boatmates wore their medals around their necks for a week, even in the shower.

Crew was the first intercollegiate athletic event in the United States: 1852, Harvard v. Yale, on Lake Winnipesauke. But it wasn't a UNH sport until the 1970s. That first team included Liz Hills O'Leary '76, who rowed on the first two Olympic women's crew teams.

Still, rowing remains a minor sport in popularity, perhaps because of its rigors. Rowers spend almost every fall and spring weekend on the road. They suffer pulled muscles, cold mornings, callused hands; they train six days a week, on the water, the ergometer, the track.

Rowing is the ultimate team sport; it requires a high degree of cooperation. "Everything you do in rowing is for something bigger than yourself," says Elizabeth Lyons '09. "We don't just put our oars in the water together; we breathe at the same time. We are one."

That kind of cooperation can be felt and sometimes can be heard—not in the roar of a crowd but the swish of water. "There's a special trickle sound when the boat is perfectly set, perfectly balanced, and you all take the stroke correctly," says Leatherbee. "The sound comes directly down the middle of the boat. And you know you are doing it right."

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