October 12, 2017
As water sloshed against the long boats and the sun shone on the murky Fox River, the crew team gingerly slipped into their gear. They donned spandex shorts, shouldered their oars and trudged down the ramp onto the dock. The coxswain put on her headset and jumped into the boat, dwarfed by the male rowers that filed in dutifully behind her. Meanwhile, the same process was occurring in the women’s coxed quadruple scull — the rowing term for a boat that contains four rowers and one coxswain. The men’s captain, junior Owen Phoenix, told me with a laugh, “There’s a whole language to crew that makes absolutely no sense to someone who’s never been in a boat before.” Coxswains, regattas, head races, sprint races, blades — these terms can be disorienting to a newcomer to competitive rowing.
“Crew” is a club sport that involves teams of rowers racing boats down rivers. There are several different types of crew races, or regattas, each with varying distances. Head races range from four to five kilometers, while sprint races are two thousand meters. Boats carry various numbers of rowers as well as a coxswain —the navigator and manager of the boat. In addition, there are two student captains of the current team: the men’s captain, junior Owen Phoenix, and the women’s captain, junior Micaela Braddi. Phoenix described the captains’ role as “making sure everything gets done . . . we run all of the practice schedules and do all of the equipment care, [as well as] make sure that we purchase stuff we need to with the team.”
Captains Phoenix and Braddi lead the team under coach Gary Bohlin, who has coached the team full-time for seven years. Coach Bohlin is one of four individuals to have a boat named in his honor at Oregon State University, where he had a distinguished college career as a Division I rower. He represented the U.S. in the World Championships in Copenhagen, Denmark, according to the Elgin Sports Hall of Fame.
Last week during a sunny Wednesday afternoon practice, Bohlin circled around the long rowing boats in a small but noisy speedboat, his dog Ellie sunning herself on a pile of lifejackets. Megaphone in hand, he barked corrections to the rowers drilling for their regatta this weekend. “I wish I could inject super glue into your wrists to keep them steady on the blades,” he jokingly told one rower. “Cut the cake — cut the cake!” he enjoined moments later, referring to a coordination drill. Ellie barked along in agreement, prompting laughter from the rowers as they strained to perform the difficult muscle training. They were in a good mood; this was a rare afternoon practice. Most of the time, the team meets at the Chrouser Sports Complex at 4:45 in the morning, six days a week. “You get pretty close with people,” Phoenix told me. “[Early mornings] are one thing that scare people off from joining the team but once you’re on the team, it’s this weird sense of pride, like yeah, we do that.”
Joining the crew team certainly requires discipline. Besides early mornings and strenuous three-hour practices, the team competes regularly against Division I schools. Because Wheaton rowing is a club sport, the Wheaton team competes almost exclusively with larger schools, such as Auburn, Texas A&M, University of North Carolina, Florida State and other schools with well-funded crew programs.
And yet, even as the small, 20-person Wheaton team competes with larger, Division I varsity programs, many of the rowers have never had previous experience with rowing. As Phoenix said, “Rowing is not exactly a popular sport in high school . . .You ask people why they joined the team and it seems like everyone has their own [reason]. . .[they say,] ‘I don’t really know how I ended up here,’ and then they join and are hooked and stick with it.” In this integration of diverse backgrounds and experiences, each team member brings something a little different to the team. As Wheaton sophomore and varsity rower Calvin Graham said, “The best part is the playing field is pretty leveled. [One Wheaton alumni had] never rowed before joining the Wheaton crew team, and she was just the lead rower in the U.S. national boat in the international competition last week.” The U.S. national team won fifth place in the international conference.
It all started with a foundation of old-fashioned grit and hard work. During the team’s founding in 1989, very few midwestern colleges had crew teams, so Wheaton’s was one of the first, according to the founding members. Alumna and original team member, Heather Kaiser ‘91, remembered the amount of work the original team captains had to do. “We were a tiny team, but very committed,” she recalled. “We really had no support, and it’s amazing how much the team captains had to organize on their own — finding a boat house, finding a coach, getting us time on the water (remember, we didn’t have our own boats or oars or anything!), registering the team for regattas. We hand painted our first team t-shirts!”
Despite their dedication, the crew team went largely unnoticed on Wheaton’s campus, even as they competed in such prestigious competitions as the U.S. Rowing Midwestern Championships. “No one on campus knew who we were or even what the sport was, so I think some people thought we were like roadies for concerts . . .when they saw “Wheaton Crew” on a sweatshirt,” Kaiser remembered. “Our roommates all thought we were insane for getting up in the dark and freezing cold.”
Even so, the original team’s commitment to crew has left a lasting legacy of dedication for the next three decades of Wheaton rowers to emulate. Stories about the 1989 team still circulate among the current rowers. Phoenix, when talking about the original team, smiled as he remembered that “[the first] boat brought home Wheaton’s first ever gold; they won gold, one out of one. They were the only boat in their race and they won.” This first win set a precedent of success for the team, which has gone on to annually attend the Head of the Charles Regatta in Boston, the largest two-day rowing event in the world, and the Head of the Hooch Regatta in Tennessee, the largest crew event in America.
“We definitely hold our own, and we’ll get middle of the pack a lot of the time, if not medal,” Phoenix said. However, their multiple successes don’t define the team. As Coach Bohlin often says, “Rowing is not about actually winning; it’s about the sport.” As I interviewed him on that balmy Wednesday afternoon, he squinted out over the sun-soaked water and talked about the transcendence of rowing. “There’s such high regard for the sport,” he said dreamily. “It’s bigger than any school, in a way. It’s not so much trying to defeat another boat; it’s the idea of getting closer and closer to the epicness of the sport and the connection that this can cause. [When] you get a boat that’s rowing well and connecting well, you essentially feel like you’re the only one moving the whole boat. It’s a crazy feeling when that happens.” Kaiser also mentioned this profound experience when she talked to me: “It was an incredible experience to have been part of a whole, working as one.”
Every rower that I talked to stated the impact that the “ultimate team sport” had on their personal lives. “What rowing does for you as a person is huge,” Phoenix said. “It’s done more for me, growing as a person in the last two and a half years, than anything has in my entire life. It teaches you so much humility because you come in like you own the boat, and then you are terrible, and everything is so hard, and you just get destroyed, and then it’s all about getting broken down by the sport, and then figuring it out and getting built back up.” Graham added, “You depend on everyone for everything. You can’t row for yourself. You’re learning about working hard for everyone around you, dedication, commitment, time management.”
Even the very foundation of rowing requires trust. The coxswain guides the rowers to victory or crushing defeat, yet the rowers sit with their backs turned towards her or him. They must obey every order given by the coxswain, but they can only rely on the sound of his or her voice to navigate through a race. This exercise builds character, as an alumnus of Wheaton, Matt Robertson ‘16, told me. He first rowed in the novice four-man boat during his junior year, as well as the starboard of the four-man varsity boat during the fall of 2015. “I think the sport itself promotes a proper camaraderie, at least within my time. Placed under the stress of learning the world’s most beautiful sport, my crewmates and I didn’t have the energy to filter our thoughts when discussing anything,” he remembered.
Many rowers row into their 80s, entranced by the beauty of the sport. Coach Bohlin, who is in his 60s, is still rowing with his son. They may even compete this year, he told me, beaming. Once you have an established identity as a rower, you want others to get involved in crew, Bohlin said. “Colleges will loan rowers’ equipment to other colleges just to get them on the water. . . One time Kansas State came up to me, ‘Coach, we’re short of a coxswain in a four race.’ And I said, ‘Sure, take our second best coxswain that is free.’ She poured everything into that boat because of the sport.” He smiled at the memory and again repeated the familiar refrain, “It’s not about the schools, it’s about the sport . . . and that’s so beautiful.”