Visible merely from the light of the robust moon reflecting off the glass-like water of Claytor Lake, the faint figure of our coach utters: “It’s a great morning to learn to row.” Every morning, without fail, we hear these words through the coach’s megaphone, and then again from the echoes reverberating off the jagged tree line. “We are but a speck of dust in the midst of the cosmos,” he continues, gesturing up at the countless stars above us so often obscured by light pollution. “What we do this morning has no real impact on the universe, so make it worth something to you.”
Established in 1993, the Virginia Tech Crew team is a student-run organization that competes all across the East coast, from Boston to Augusta, Ga. Whereas rowing is often more popular than football in some Northeast states, it can be highly misunderstood south of the Mason-Dixon Line. A typical racing boat is made up of eight rowers and one coxswain. The coxswain, generally the most underestimated position, is the commander of the boat and its rowers. A good coxswain must be consistent and articulate and have a knack for motivating and inspiring the rowers to perform. And no, he doesn’t pound a drum. Between rowers, every movement and stroke has to be in sync, and every ounce of power has to be applied simultaneously. As a result, rowing relies heavily on trust. By stepping into a boat, a rower makes a promise to his or her teammates to row their hardest every stroke so that the boat as a whole can move forward together. There is no personal glory. Either the boat wins, or it doesn’t.
Each race is 2,000 meters long and takes about six minutes and 30 seconds to finish. Mental fortitude and focus during these races is as important as physical strength, as there are no water breaks, no time outs and no substitutions. For those 2,000 meters, every second counts. Even a single curious glance at the competition in the heat of a race can slow the boat or cause the rest of the rowers to become unbalanced. Daniel James Brown, author of “Boys in the Boat”, relates rowing a 2,000 meter race to “the same physiological toll as playing two basketball games back-to-back in [approximately] six minutes.” The question is not whether or not it will hurt, or how much it will hurt. It’s a question of what will you do, or how well you will do it, when pain occurs.
But, of course, rowing isn’t all torture; and in fact, there is truly something indescribable about the sport. Rowing well presents the perfect combination of effort, rhythm and teamwork. And when a crew can find all of these things, it’s pure pleasure. It’s what makes waking up before 5 a.m. worthwhile. As Brown describes it: “It’s a great art, is rowing. It’s the finest art there is. It’s a symphony of motion. And when you’re rowing well, why it’s nearing perfection. And when you near perfection, you’re touching the Divine. It touches the you of yous. Which is your soul.”
Our team is composed mainly of Virginia Tech students, from our rowers to our coach. Marcos Carzolio, our head coach, is a Ph.D. candidate in the statistics department. Academically, our average team GPA is 3.45, with many rowers on track to graduate Summa Cum Laude. In addition, rowers participate in a vast array of extra-curricular activities, from designing and building an autonomous submarine for the College of Engineering to investing $5 million into the bond and security market for the Pamplin College of Business. Most recently, we’ve had several rowers participate in internships at places like NASA and DuPont; and even in different areas of the world, with one rower having just returned from a research program in Chile.
One of the greatest challenges faced by many collegiate rowing teams is lack of funding, and ours is no exception. There’s a reason rowing is typically portrayed in TV and film as reserved for preppy ivy leaguers – boats can cost anywhere from $10,000 to $30,000. To help raise funds, we work concessions for many of the Virginia Tech football games, in addition to having percentage nights at restaurants in the Blacksburg area. Additionally, our biggest community outreach is our “Rent-a-Rower” program, in which our team completes house and yard work for hire (our going rate is $10 per rower hour).
Rowing is a sport and a way of life. It requires determination and passion, but teaches teamwork, focus and persistence that remain long after practice ends. After the 5 a.m. wakeup calls and countless hours spent training, rowing becomes “something more than just the boat or its crew.” It becomes a union of rower, coxswain, boat and experience, pulling each other ever forward while forming bonds that will last for years to come.

Text by Neill E. Frazier and Alex T. Gagliano

Neill E. Frazier, majoring in Applied Agriculture and Economics, and Alex T. Gagliano, a Computational Modeling and Data Analytics major, are both second year VT Crew rowers and members of the Class of 2017.