American Club Rowing Experience, Part 10: The Boys in the Boat

It's go time (Photo: Hannah Wagner)

Being in the right place at the right time doesn't feel so good when it's only because someone else was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

That's a circuitous way of saying that your author, the 'super-sub,' is now about to cross the ocean. Not as a spectator, but as a replacement rowing in the big show. The short version is that Spencer blew his back out; Spencer, our five-seat, an Alexandria, Virginia native and TC Williams grad, a former Naval Academy oarsman, one of the first guys to come visit my wife and I after we brought our baby home, isn't going to Henley—and I am.

Actually, that's the long version. The short version is that life's not fair sometimes, and I am benefiting from the misfortune of one of my closest friends and one of the best teammates I've ever had.

No pressure though.

But here's the thing: several weeks ago, during selection, I could have easily murdered Spencer with my bare hands. I was bending pine with metaphorical violence; an animalistic, unbridled savagery, all directed at him and his boat. And then over the gunwales I went, and the hate was pointed at someone else. And so on.

So has the run-up to Henley been brutal? You bet. We went through a whole month of 'murder one day, hugs the next,' and that's become who we are; 'we' being the Wyfold four, Thames eight, and Henley Masters crews.

This means that anyone in these crews has to really, really want to be in them. No one came by their seat easily. There were fundraising minimums ($250 per person to even get a shot at seat racing), practice requirements (every day and you better get that 30' rate 22 in), and logistical realities (best case, five days of vacation you're not spending with your family at the Outer Banks) that guaranteed training for this regatta wasn't just a 5:30-7:00, five days per week gig for anyone either. And there were plenty of casualties along the way.

For every guy who made a boat there are three more that have worked just as hard, sacrificed just as much, and wanted it just as bad—but they won't be popping melatonin as they sit down on Wednesday night's red eye to Heathrow. They will be at practice on Thursday, ready for three minute pieces. Yes, we're sending several crews to England, but the home team still has work to do. Club Nationals are around the corner.

"So has the run-up to Henley been brutal? You bet. We went through a whole month of 'murder one day, hugs the next,' and that's become who we are; 'we' being the Wyfold four, Thames eight, and Henley Masters crews."

Sunday, the Potomac Women's Sweep team graciously organized a send-off barbecue for the Henley group. That morning, we all gathered to give the Potomac ramps a fresh coat of paint—depending on who you talk to, as a gesture that was part thank you to the club, and part Andy Dufresne tarring the roof of Shawshank. The positive energy of the two halves of the day did some good; we found out, between shovelfuls of Tolsun’s Famous Pulled Pork, that both the Thames and Wyfold crews had been selected.

Potomac Henley Blazers (Photo: Hannah Wagner)

David, the four-seat in the Thames eight, came to the team as a sophomore at Colby—then returned after graduation. He sums it up:

"The first day of spring practice over 6 years ago during my freshman year, I noticed a picture in our boathouse of Colby's first and only Henley trip [the Temple Challenge Cup in 2005]. Colby's own Steve Whelpley was pictured in that crew. I wanted to be like Steve and row fast even though I had just started rowing and Steve was by then training to qualify the Men’s Double for the London Olympics. Since then, rowing at Henley has been a goal of mine and that's why I haven't stopped. I'm not done solidifying my rowing career."

David, like most of this crew, decided that Henley was a goal several years ago. In our late 20s and early 30s, these opportunities don't come easily. For most guys, this'll be their first and only chance to compete.

Your author is one of only a few in the crews to have raced at Henley before and, at 33, the oldest of the bunch amongst the Wyfold and Thames boys. It should be said, though, that in the Henley Masters crew is an Oxford Blue who's been more times than he can remember. (Though he will tell you about every single time that he does remember—something something, "five Sundays with no pots to show for it." It’s all very idiomatic.)

We listed our colleges and high schools and junior and U23 teams and erg scores for the Stewards, and while there's a lot we're proud of there... this is the first crew I've ever been in at Potomac where guys talk about rowing at Cornell or Yale or Gonzaga only after they mention Potomac.

Patch, our Wyfold two-seat, sums it up:

"Why Potomac? After limiting myself to a summer of masters rowing and a record-setting (for one whole year) Alumni Eights win at HOCR 2016 in the six years since graduating, I wanted to make boats go fast again. I wanted to rip 5x5' on the erg, crush steady state miles in the icy late winter waters, and hear the boat sing in the last 500m of a 4x2K. I wanted to compete with dudes who are stronger than me on the erg and row better than me, stick my nose in there, and see if I could make 22-year old me sweat at the idea of seat racing 28-year old me. Coming to Potomac seemed like the best way to do that, and I was not disappointed."

For a long time, it seemed the right move for the whole sweep team was to hype the big names—celebrate the well-known and successful programs represented by some of our members. Brag about this or that Yale or Dartmouth guy, mention to every recruit that we have ex-U23s and ex-senior national teamers on the roster... even if that was rarely plural, and sometimes not really true at all. The thinking was that this would attract more talent, maybe encourage egos to meet or exceed expectations, or maybe we could just convince ourselves we were an Eastern Sprints-quality outfit despite New England-level speed (and that only rarely).

But this year more than any other, that stuff matters less—if at all. Guys have come up and made an impact in surprising ways, and the hierarchy of different college programs or international experience has been leveled out more this year than ever. This is the first time at the club I've felt a true 'team' identity—attitude, goals, enthusiasm—that isn't just the sum of where everyone came from.

Except of course for Matt, who won't shut up about The Prep.

-Peter Clements

Coming up next: The Eagle Has Landed

Note: This series will be regularly published on Tuesdays between now and 2018 Henley Royal Regatta. View all posts in this series by clicking the label 'ACE Series.'


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