Thursday, October 6, 2016

Training With Louisville Rowing on Our Club's First Trip

Novice men replace an 8 in the LRC boathouse.
In early November of 1996, MSU Crew made its first trip to row on waters far from our beloved Kentucky Lake. The destination was Louisville and our host was the Louisville Rowing Club. Members of their organization played an important role in consulting Murray State at the very early stages of our club's inception. The purpose of the trip--as I reflect in retrospect--was to demonstrate gratitude for their guidance. To show that their good advice had indeed been heeded.

In the month leading up to the trip, the inaugural team had winnowed down from 170 to about 4 vans worth of novice rowers (two boats for the men and two boats for the women, plus extras--low hanging fruit that neither Steve nor Dan could shake from the tree). Although the ultimate spirit of the trip was one of goodwill, some of us had convinced ourselves that this trip would culminate in a contest to rival the Royal Henley Regatta in its scope and importance. Coaches Steve and Dan didn't do much to tamp down the hyper-competitive spirit among our ranks by their appearance at the club's Halloween party the week before--disguised respectively as a grotesquely overweight Louisville Club rower and his ugly girlfriend [photo unavailable].

The idea that we were on the road to race--AND WIN--was taken to a ridiculous extreme, during a dinner gathering among the guys at Mr. Gatti's. One of our less promising, but most enthusiastic novices gave a stirring, impromptu lecture on the importance of carb-loading that was filled with sound and fury, and earnest urgings of, "eat up, boys. We're going to need these nutrients on race day" (said as pizza grease dribbled down his face, staining his residential college t-shirt).

Realistically, our prospects for winning any contest at that point were pretty slim as most of us had only a few days worth of time on the water. And with only two boats and ALOT of prospective novices, a lot of that precious water time was spent rotating people from the coach's launch. No, this was not an outing for us to bring much braggadocio or hope to beat even the most modestly prepared novice squad. This was a time for MSU Crew to be humble and see with greater clarity, the road that lay ahead.

But it was a fun trip. On the road to Louisville, Lavit had us playing a game were we were yelling "poo poo" when we saw blue cars. I distinctly remember one of our men's team coxswains playing this game with particular enthusiasm.

When we got within range of the cool Louisville radio stations, there was much rejoicing. Murray radio stations weren't exactly on the cutting edge of pop culture (have they ever been?). A stream of 90s alternative hits came on the radio that prompted us to raise our voices in song. I most vividly remember the group's enthusiasm peaking when The Cranberries's "Zombie" came on the air.

When we arrived at our hotel, we divided up the team to occupy a block of hotel rooms. At this point, not everyone trusted each other. Some roommates were less desirable than others. Little Matt and I were especially worried about one of the guys who was supposed to room with us...however with Louisville bars staying open until 4am, we didn't really have to worry about sharing a bed with him....Although there was a brief moment of panic in the very early hours of the morning when I could hear Big Matt open his door in the adjoining room, proclaiming this guy's name after a heartily spoken, "holy shit!"

Seemed as though our teammate had one too many rounds at the bar--through the wall, I heard him say "sex on the beach" at least a dozen times. At some point he found a place to crash--fortunately in a spot where Little Matt and I weren't bothered. This guy was a real piece of work...as Year 1 progressed, he demonstrated time and time again that his heart was usually in the right place...but he always managed to leave a niggling shred of doubt; that he could snap at any minute and murder us in our sleep.

The next morning, we went to the Louisville Crew boathouse. One of their club's senior members presented a beautiful introduction to the sport of rowing, placing it within the broader context of human invention. He showed us many depictions of rowing's prominence in ancient Egyptian, Roman, and Viking cultures. And he showed us examples of how the modern sport evolved (including a clip from a silent era film staring Buster Keaton playing a college boy who sought to win the love of his sweetheart by being his school's coxswain and steering his team's boat to victory).

Then he took us outside to show us how to erg. He provided a lot of individualized attention. This took longer than anyone had planned...there were far more of us at this event than I think anyone had thought there would be at this point, perhaps a testimony to the appeal of our sport and the quality of our people. But at this point in the trip, a lot of us did a lot of standing around. This was a problem. The weather was growing cold.

On the night before, Big Matt had--in his very influential and big-brotherly way-- encouraged the guys to show up "in uniform."

"Guys," I think he said, "we've got to look legit!"

Trouble was, however, we had not yet gotten our team Henleys (or jackets). The money for those didn't come until the spring. So we had to agree to wear outfits that were as close in appearance as possible. Our options severely limited. The best we could do was to show up in dark shorts and white t-shirts. Not the best gear to have on a cold day in Louisville in November.

Then it got colder. There were snow furies. Some of us were miserable.

After the erg clinic, it was time to put boats in the water. I recall Coach Steve telling us before the trip that he had hoped that we could put MSU rowers in 4s and have them do some short-distance racing against each other. But in terms of keeping a boat set, and rowing on the feather, and following a stroke, we were not up to this.

Even still, we got to end the fall season with some quality time on the water. We rowed. Through a chill brought by a greying sky, we rowed in mixed 8s alongside Louisville club squads. Certainly not racing...more like baby ducks following mama. Oh we were so precious in those early days!

I think Steve video recorded us as we were rowing. I recall afterwards looking at film with him later on....having all kinds of bad habits pointed out to me. Some of which I think I have since unlearned; others I worry that I'm still taking into our alumni races.

Before we left Louisville, we stopped at a team member's parent's house. Their family made a huge pot of chili for the whole team. It was a welcome respite from the cold. And with our bellies full and the color restored to our frost bitten faces, we reloaded the team vans and made our way back to Murray. Less boisterous than on the drive out, certainly wiser, and with another 6 months ahead of us to learn the sport before our novice debut at SIRA.

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