(This article was originally written for American Word Magazine)
At 4:00 a.m., most students at American University are either sound asleep or working hard on homework as they pull all-nighters.
However, about 40 students are just starting their days by waking up and heading to practice. American’s Rowing Club leaves at 4:30 a.m. every weekday morning and heads to the Anacostia Community Boathouse on the Anacostia River.
Practice starts at 5:00 a.m., so the team must be ready to work when they arrive. First, they take care of a few chores, such as sweeping the docks or picking up trash. After that, the athletes receive their lineups from their coaches and go out on the boats for about two hours.
This routine also takes place on Saturday mornings, with practices starting at 8:00 a.m. and running until 11:00 a.m. Even though they are a club sports team, the rowers are expected to commit a lot of time.
A student’s first year of collegiate competition is known as his/her “novice” year. This group of rowers participates in a separate category of racing, which gives them the chance to learn with less stiff competition.
“Rowing is one of the most difficult sports, so not just anyone can make it,” said Jasmine Gardner, a member of the women’s varsity team. “Novice year gives those people a chance to see if they can handle the sport before they start competing at higher levels.”
The club is broken up into four sections: women’s varsity, men’s varsity, women’s novice and men’s novice. Each of these sections practice and compete separately during their fall and spring seasons.
The fall season from August to November is a “5k season,” also known as the long distance race for rowing. “Basically, equivalent to the cross country [season] for track,” explained Eileen Anderson, another member of the women’s varsity team.
The spring season begins in March and lasts until May. Even though it’s only a 2k season, it is the more competitive of the two. Anderson said that this is the race that people usually come out to watch.
In between these two seasons, the team participates in winter training, which Anderson described as “a physical and mental hell.”
“One, we are in our erg (rowing machine) room in Letts nearly every morning, rather than being on the water. Two, there are no competitions in our sights, and three, it’s our off season, which means conditioning,” she said.
The team usually attends about three to four regattas (series of boat races) per season due to expenses and the amount of preparation they require. Although the club does not compete in a specific conference, they do compete in the same regattas as many of the Division One schools.
“Rowing is an interesting sport because many competitive programs nationwide are clubs. Olympic gold medalists have walked on to their college teams with no experience,” Gardner said. “Both varsity and club teams race at many collegiate regattas, so funding and resources are one of the only differences between the club and varsity programs.”
While the club gets some funding from the school’s club sport budget, it is nowhere near enough to cover all of their expenses; equipment, regattas and travel all rack up a considerable bill . Therefore, the team charges $300 in dues per semester and holds a variety of fundraisers.
One of their biggest fundraisers is their Rent-a-Rower program. According to their website, for $20, somebody can rent one of the club’s members to help move to a new space, help with yard work or anything else one might think of.
But the club does not let their lack of funds define them. “All that matters is how hard the athletes work and how fast the boats go, not the amount of funding a program has, and I think that that is one of the best things about the sport,” Gardner said.
The dynamic between the team’s members is instead what defines their club.
“The team is a family,” Gardner said. “Even outside of practice, we spend most of our waking hours together, and I’ve met many of my best friends at AU from rowing.”
Anderson agreed. “The AU Rowing team has made me feel a new type of love that I have never felt with anyone else before – one where no matter how different or annoying or distant someone is, you love them unconditionally because they pull you down the river every morning, no matter what exam they had the day before or what kind of week they have had.”
Of course, there are plenty of days when rowing is not easy. “There are definitely hard days where you would rather do anything than sit in a boat or on an erg. It can get monotonous, and it is painful and private a lot of the time,” Gardner said.
But Gardner and other club members would agree that the rewarding aspects of rowing outweigh its challenges.
“I think we all put in the hard work and push through the tough times because sometimes, everything falls into place on the water: the boat is gliding, your body feels good, the sunrise is beautiful, you are perfectly in time with your seven best friends, and you know you would not want to be anywhere else,” said Gardner.
Interested in joining the team or learning more about them? Email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.