On Rowing: By Trevon Tellor
The decision to row was one of the greatest decisions I ever made. In fact, it may have saved my life. Before I joined the crew team, I had often struggled with a depression that I kept private from anyone in my life. At my lowest point, I even considered suicide. This was a much needed eye opener and I decided I needed to do something to address it. I figured a team sport would be a good place to start. I first learned about crew at summer camp, where I was housed with a group of East coast prep school kids who all rowed. I heard stories of sleek, carbon boats, regattas with rowers from around the country, and they all seemed to share a common passion for the pursuit of winning. It all seemed so appealing, so on the day of sign-ups I walked into the Twin Cities Youth Rowing Boathouse, having no idea what to expect.
I was immediately hit by the pungent smell of stale sweat and rubber from the workout mats on the ground. Around me were 35 varsity rowers, tall and lean yet muscular, and 10 candidates who arrived in all shapes and sizes. The other novices and I instinctively huddled together, intimidated by the varsity guys who had just mounted the rowing machines (known in the rowing world as the erg), and were grunting like angry bulls; the fans of the machines whirring like an engine. After some introductions between ourselves, we met our coach, and he instructed each of us to hop up onto an erg.
Up until this point I viewed rowing as a gentleman’s sport, unaware of the pain or suffering that comes with it. I was quickly proven wrong. Somehow I completed my first 2,000 meter test on the erg… and promptly threw up afterwards. I could barely walk. My limbs felt as if they turned to Jell-O. Strangely, after a few minutes of recovery, I didn’t feel horrible anymore, I felt energized and alive. The repetitive movement and struggle against pain actually felt satisfying. So started my obsession with crew.
Rowing itself is an interesting sport, and very different from what most people think of a team sport. In the boat, all of the rowers must move in perfect rhythm for several thousand meters. A single ill-timed stroke has the effect of throwing a wrench into a well-oiled machine. Moving together in perfect synchronization becomes even harder when every muscle in your body is burning from the lactic acid, and your lungs are crying out for air. This unique mix of agonizing pain and endorphins brings people closely together. The eight men I learned to row with and continue to row with in the top novice boat are my closest friends, and we’ve only known each other for a short time. When you row with someone, you begin to know them inside and out. We all can anticipate each other perfectly on and off the water. When you’re having a bad day, you leave it on the dock. On the water, it’s all business.
The connections I have made through this sport are already among the most memorable in my lifetime. I’ll admit, I’m not your typical rower. I come from a single parent, low income household. Crew, on the other hand, has long been thought of as a sport for those at elite private schools and universities. My boat is made up of well-to-do guys with parents who practically all went to Ivy League schools, earn 6 figure salaries, and live in the nicer suburbs of the Twin Cities. At first, It was extremely intimidating to me. I wondered, “how I could ever fit into the upper class? How will I ever be accepted?” My worries quickly dissolved after seeing how something as simple as a 2k on an erg or a tough row together can completely bring everyone on the level with each other. The erg, only judges what is within you. You get through the pain together. Oftentimes in high school, students will compare and judge each other through their display of status and wealth. In rowing, none of that matters, it’s all about whether you can pull hard, with good technique, and work together as a team. It is a common saying in the rowing world that a boat is only as strong as it’s weakest rower.
Through the friendships I have formed from rowing, I go out to brunch with my teammates, I golf at country clubs, and hangout in beautiful houses. We see each others as equals, brought together by a common purpose, winning that medal at the next regatta, and just maybe, having some fun while doing it. Another beautiful lesson from rowing I have learned is that everyone can contribute something of great importance. Growing up I have been described as gritty, I have had a tough ride through life but I never once gave up. This characteristic was greatly intensified by the sport, and it has helped me immensely to grow as a person.
As my novice squad got closer, people constantly would ask me “How do you do it? You look angry… and you never stop rowing at your hardest. Is anger what fuels your drive?”
This assumption however, is wrong. The reason I never stop is because giving up before the end would make all the pain pointless. If I can carry on for 16 years of struggling with a troubled home and immense losses in my life, I can pull as hard as I’m able for the length of that race. Compared to a lifetime, 8 minutes is nothing. I explained this to my crew mates and could see that it made an impact on them. They too began to take less rest strokes, before we eventually gave up rest strokes as a crew almost entirely. They too have taught me many life lessons for which I am incredibly grateful. I have been able to experience aspects of life I would have never been able to due to my economic status. Their life experiences have also taught me about the world as they have had the opportunity to travel far beyond the Twin Cities. It has helped give me a more complete view of the world beyond the lens of my own experience.
My coaches have also been a major influence on my experience with this sport. Tom, who served as the novice boys coach over the summer, was very quiet but also incredibly wise in his coaching. He rowed for the University of Minnesota Men’s Crew team, and it showed in his temperament and dedication to coaching. It was Tom who started the tradition of the novice boys “friday run test”. This dreaded test was just another metric by which he calculated the prized spots within the boats for practice and races. For me, the run test was hell for the first few months. I started crew weighing in at 235, and running 2 miles while weighing that much and living a sedentary lifestyle was exhausting. Every practice we ran 1 mile as a warm up in line runs. I almost always fell behind in those first few months, but a few of the novice boys would stay behind and run along side me, making sure that I made it to the end and never gave up. My coach during my fall racing season, was a rower for the University of Minnesota’s D1 Women’s Crew team. She is an excellent athlete, which you can tell just by looking at her. After getting to know her however, one learns she also is an amazing coach. She worked us extra hard, and never let up on us that entire season. Because of this, most of us improved extremely well.
In the Fall season, rowing focuses on 6,000m pieces. I had dropped 8 split-seconds—over a minute and a half total—on my 6k test over my first fall season. I also managed to drop 10 splits (40 seconds) on my 2,000m piece. I had finally broken 8 minutes on the 2K which for me was a huge accomplishment being completely new to the sport. When my coach congratulated me it was one of the best feelings of my life.
This winter, I participated my first erg sprint, which is an indoor regatta, with competitors going head to head on rowing machines. I was up against 6 other novices as this erg sprint was somewhat small, nothing like the Crash-Bs in Boston which draw thousands of competitors and spectators. To my dread, the week of the competition I had been struggling with some tendonitis in my elbow, as well as back pain, and as a result had missed most of practice that week. I thought I was going to get crushed. I arrived at 8 AM in preparation for my 1:05 PM start time.
If you’ve ever sat on an erg prior to a test, you’ll know the exact feeling I’m about to describe. I was filled with adrenaline and anxiety, and it took every bit of concentration I had to calm my nerves. I had asked my friend Jack to be my coxswain for the piece, he sat behind me and I hopped up on my assigned erg. The official started us off and I began to pull. I tried to keep my race plan in my head, and stick to it. As the meters began to tick down. I pulled a power 10, and quickly settled into a split of 1:50, 2 splits off of my best time. On my monitor I could see where the other competitors were compared to me. This, combined with adrenaline and Jack screaming behind me, led me to settle in at 1:49.
My breathing finally began to settle, taking in deep inhales on every recovery and breathing out all through the drive. The rower next to me, with whom I was tied, started to drop off as we hit the dreaded 750 meters to go. Seeing him start to falter gave me the motivation I needed to finish the piece. As I went into the last 500 meters, I nearly blacked out. I couldn’t hear or see anything, and all I knew was that to make the pain stop, I had to finish this race.
My average split was a 1:49.0, total time being a 7:15. It hadn’t hit me that I won for a moment as I sat on my erg, gasping for breath. In the last 500, I later learned, most of my team and my coaches were behind me cheering me on as i pulled into the lead. As I got off my erg, weak kneed and gasping for air, my coach looked me in the eye and said “That was a great piece, you took first.” Suddenly all the pain I had felt during the that grueling 2k was worth it. Up to that point I had never came first in any event, on the water or off. I smiled, walked off, sat down, and chugged some water, barely able to believe I had just taken home my first medal.
As “fun” as erging may seem, there is nothing that compares to being on the water. One of my most memorable experiences so far, was racing in my 3rd regatta, the Head of the Mississippi. My eight sat ready at the catch, waiting for the official to start us off with the drop of a flag. My breathing was steady but my veins were pulsing with adrenaline running through me. The starting official made the call: “Sit ready, attention… ROW!” We quickly initiated our start sequence and our coxswain was screaming. Collectively we started swinging together, our stroke ratio became almost perfect. Our coxswains calls encouraging and motivating.
During the race, I had no thoughts other than “pull harder”. With 2,000 meters left, the pain really began to set in. At this point my legs were on fire, my shoulders were heavy and my hands were being continuously blistered and ripped open with every stroke. Yet something about feeling the raw power that allowed us to glide so quickly through the water made me forget the pain. We started our sprint at the 750 meter mark and we were flying. As the bow crossed over the finish line, we heard the horn and collectively let out gasping breaths and moans as we lacked the energy to even take one more stroke. As we paddled past the beach where our team and parents were watching, we felt proud, as we heard that we had in fact beaten a couple of college boats. Never In my life have I found anything more exhilarating than a boat race.
It’s no secret that rowing is expensive. A new eight-man shell costs at least $30,000, and race entries can be in the hundreds of collars, which leads to some fairly high costs for a youth club rower. Due to my family’s financial situation, I had started a job at the same gas station my mother worked at pumping gas, cleaning, and doing tire repairs and learning more about car repairs. I paid my way for a number of regattas, both the Chicago Sprints and the Head of the Rock. My mother paid for the overall season, but this was a large strain our family financials. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to continue rowing due to the cost. My mother reached out to the coaches over the winter, asking if there was any way we could have some assistance. A couple months later, the head coach called up, informing us that an anonymous person had donated some money, and the entire board of directors had decided it should go to sponsoring my season. As my mom told me the news, I was flooded with gratitude for the sport, my friends, and the generosity of the league. The feeling that other people recognize you as an important part of a team and are willing to do anything to keep you with them is indescribable. With money no longer an issue, I can comfortably say I will continue to row through high school, and I hope to God I continue to row in college.
Rowing has changed my life, and very well may have saved my life. I have been able to teach my crewmates life lessons, and they have gladly returned the favor. I have found my closest friends who will stand by my side no matter what. We are a boat, on or off the water, always in synchronization, always there for each other. Crew, in short, not only challenges your body physically, but tests who you really are deep down inside.