When a boatman learns that practice makes victory
By Jay Paris '71
During freshman week, he saw his first racing shell. The crew
captain was recruiting and stepped forward to introduce him to it.
The magnificent lines of the shell seemed perfectly sculpted. How
could a boat be so beautiful and narrow, the freshman thought. The
captain said it was 64 feet long, and held eight men. The freshman
noticed the captain's weathered face and his developed quadriceps.
When they shook hands, the freshman felt the captain's calluses.
Come row, the captain said.
The freshman went to the boathouse and tried it. His first float
onto the river filled him with pleasure. He assessed the world from
his sliding seat. The river was wide and gray. His coach told him
that soon he would learn every turn of it. He liked the idea of
being a river man but knew little of what it meant.
He began long rows, experiencing the yoke of the river. When he
pulled hard, his oar dove too deep into the currents. He concentrated
on rhythm. The coxswain banged the stroke count on the gunnels.
Slowly, he learned to pull with power. Afternoon practices ended
in early darkness. Half the freshmen quit, in doubt. The captain
said everyone must pull harder.
At Christmas, he shook his father's hand and his father commented
on his blisters. He tried to talk about rowing but his tongue grew
swollen and dull.
In April, the skim ice buckled the shoreline. His boat launched
in light snow. The varsity shaved their heads and wore T-shirts.
At spring break, he stayed for double practice. His legs were always
tired. In sleep, he dreamed uneasily about water, of the river scrolling
His family came to the first race. They stood a mile and a quarter
from the start. Because of a bend in the river, they only saw the
last 20 strokes. In victory, they thought it looked easy. Two men
vomited. The freshman's sister said she would never come again.
He threw the coxswain into the river and the shirt that he wagered
he collected from the opposition. It was washed in collegiate sweat.
It was the finest trophy he had ever seen, and he wore it for a
week. Sophomore year, only six of his boat returned. He was still
green, and the competition was greater. He, too, thought of quitting.
He still resisted the river and blamed her when it hurt. He imagined
that his face looked troubled. He wondered how much more he could
give. He saw the upperclassmen pull hard, sometimes even with pleasure.
He didn't know what he was learning, but he suspected the lesson
In the junior year he rowed on the varsity. They wagered and won
many shirts. He accepted the equation of practice to victory. He
grew mature about pain and work. He saw the river as a strict teacher,
helping him grow stronger. His technique was exemplary. But he did
not row to win. He rowed for a motion called swing. In swing he
found a clearing to rise above grueling circumstances. He suspected
it was transcendental, where life became more than it seemed. He
suspected that if he got to know this clearing, he could find it
again, away from the river.
He started his last year aware of an ending. He went to the gym
during freshman week and stood by a new shell with his quadriceps
bulging. His lobster hands engulfed the hands of recruits. He was
tanned and steady. He was cordial but did not try to tell them why
he rowed. Instead, he explained the boat and the river.
In his fourth fall, he was bored. He became intrigued with the
perfect stroke. His roommate studied physics, so they spent a week
diagramming torque. They discussed an oar's effect on ultimate boat
speed. They placed values on leg drive and arm strength, and he
graphed the motion on paper. He was tested for body fat and had
almost none. He was training harder than ever because he could not
do less. The river was ever-changing but he trusted her mass. He
saw a picture of the Harvard crew in Sports Illustrated and wondered
about the Olympics. Then he looked at the seven-man and wanted his
shirt. His boat was chosen to win the league. They won races, but
the swing was elusive. He sensed that there was a struggle in the
bow seats, but nothing was said. His coach studied the ancient Greeks.
The motto of the boathouse was When dying, die in virtue. But first,
they were taught to endure. Then they could die. Of the two, enduring
seemed more difficult.
Before his last race, the river was brown and foaming. In a practice
-start the bowman crabbed his oar, throwing the boat to port. He
heard the strike to the bowman's ribs.
They drifted in the current, waiting. They had bet shirts, winners
take all. The opponents rowed by to impress them. He stared at the
seven man, measuring the size of his shirt, a tall basketball washout
from Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
A race is six minutes. Thus, a season is 36 minutes. But he had
practiced two hours a day, from September to June. When icicles
dripped from the oar locks, they went to Florida to row double sessions.
In addition, he ran stadium steps, lifted weights, and practiced
in the tanks. It seemed a dismal, inequitable sequence. Before the
start his stomach hurt. He eased up the slide, legs sprung. He heard
the ripping of the water. Waiting was harder than pulling, harder
to contain. His heart, which had strained to starting commands for
four seasons pounded for the gun. When the pistol cracked he lashed
out in relief.
At 500 meters, the race was even and he longed for swing. The
starting sprint was over, but the coxswain had kept the cadence
too high. The boat struggled, not yet fluid. He knew fatigue came
in stages, but there was already too much in his legs. Steadily,
he shadowed the stroke before him. His ears filled with static.
He wondered if the bowman was pulling.
At a thousand meters the coxswain wanted more. At each catch the
boat jumped and he felt awake, heightened. They responded - all
eight - with legs and backs in symphonic motion. The coxswain rapped
the gunnels, sounding the beat with his hands. He wanted more lead
- another deck length - but the rowers only wanted rhythm, to hold
the cadence, to extend their pleasure.
At the 1500 meter mark, there was a wake. The boat twisted in
port; and in a moment, they felt the swing depart. With new pain,
he searched the shoreline for clues. How much farther? How much
longer? How much more? The stroke gasped to raise the beat by two;
but slipping, it only went one. His legs were gone, his back burned,
his throat was numb.
With 20 strokes to go, he heard another coxswain yell that they
were dying. He thanked him, needing anger to penetrate his numbness.
He began counting but thought that 20 was too far. He told himself
to quit at 10 - quit the race, quit rowing. He was in deep suffering.
He once dreamed of falling off bridges in locked cars. He was now
back in the river, on the bottom; the inexcusable swim to the surface
was far. On the eighth stroke, he heard his raspy coxswain hoarse
from a season's yelling, calling his men to their oars. The voice
was without pain. It reminded him of his connection with the others.
He renegotiated with his legs, which hurt the most. He asked his
heart for tolerance, his back to bend.
He counted each stroke to the finish. He felt his own last surge,
making the oar shaft bend.
They drifted to regain their breathing. Their coach yelled that
they had won by a foot. They wondered when, in their years on the
river, they had learned to go that much faster.
At the dock, a small crowd was cheering. After throwing in the
coxswain, then the coach, the oarsmen quickly jumped in. Himself,
he floated in the brisk current, looking at his family on the bank.
The water was cold beneath the surface but he barely felt it. He
was certain that this race was his last, then he thought better
Jay Paris began rowing at the Belmont Hill School in Massachusetts
in the early 1960s, and continued at Princeton and the Union Boat
Club in Boston. After two national championships and various victories
and defeats on the club circuit, he retired to an ergometer, which
he still races in his basement to strain for endurance runs with
his wife and business partner, Carmi Zoha-Paris.
Jay and Carmi publish a national travel magazine called "Outbound
Traveler" on Marblehead, Massachusetts, and recently wrote a book
titled, Walking Nova Scotia.