Web Exclusives:Features

April 10, 2002:

An Irresistible Pull
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 by.

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 was patience.

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 of it.

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.