Reshaping the Rowing Narrative

The University of Michigan Men's Rowing team has brought home 10 consecutive National Championships wins and holds a history of success on the water - but their athletes are anything but the stereotypical private school rowing jocks.

Joshua Greenberg
October 18, 2017
in Sail

Rowing is often misrepresented as a sport exclusively for snobbish prep school types. But at the University of Michigan, the Men’s Rowing Team is reshaping the rowing narrative.

Although one of the oldest collegiate sports, rowing is still today considered one of the most obscure in comparison to more traditional team sports like football, soccer, or ice hockey. Despite this inconvenient fact, Rowing is one of few sports that carefully uses its obscurity as an advantage. To those outside of the rowing community, the sport has its fair share of history, mystery, and controversy, which draws an appeal to outsiders.

What is it about rowing that compels college students to wake up when the stars are still hanging around in the sky? What is it about rowing that makes obsession seem like passion, and frustration appear commonplace? What could it be that drives this athlete to exploit every sinew of his body in exchange for milliseconds of time?

© Benji Bear Photography / @Benji_Bear_Photography

For the uninitiated, the answers to these questions seem likely related to the reputation that rowers obtain. Rowers are ambitious, loyal, muscular, hard-working, and above all, respected.

Prior to enrolling at the University of Michigan, I was not a rower. The first time I even saw the sport was while watching The Social Network, which depicted a towering group of Harvard men racing in England against a Dutch team. Their faces twisted with every stroke, but their composure was incredible. This was a sport, I thought, that belongs to a class of people who are born to succeed. The second time I witnessed rowing reinforced this belief. There is a scene in Dead Poets Society that shows some schoolboys rowing on the river beside their distinguished private school. Their parents are all lawyers and doctors and business executives. Boys from private school and men from Harvard.

Growing up in public schools, I didn’t know anybody in my town that rowed, and certainly didn’t know that it was a sport available to somebody in my position. Rowing was a sport for them – the elite – and not for me.

But I haven’t felt that way since my third day of school at the University of Michigan. During my freshman year, on my way back from orientation activities, a tall senior, holding an oar that doubled his height, approached me. Dead-smack in the middle of his shirt was the big, blocky, maize-colored M that signified Michigan. The blade of the oar was colored blue and maize, not crimson and white. Instantly, I was reminded of the films that I had watched, and figured that he had me mistaken for somebody he knew that rowed. To my surprise, the rower extended an invitation to try out, handed me a sign-up sheet, and told me when I could meet the coach and start learning how it was all done.

© Benji Bear Photography / @Benji_Bear_Photography

For the uninitiated, the appeal of the sport of rowing has to be the glory that rowers obtain. The opportunity to represent one’s school or country, to win a gold medal, to be in unison alongside a team…

I arrived for the first practice and was shocked by the diverse size and experience of some of the guys next to me. One was 6’4”, 210 lbs, and was a four-year varsity level rower in high school; he had the build of a football player! Another was 6’5”, and played basketball and lacrosse. On the smaller side, one guy was 5’7” and ran cross-country in high school, and another was 6’0” and admitted he was just looking for a way to make more friends. I was pleased to see that I was not the only newcomer to the team or to the sport.

The crowd of men gathered in the Michigan boathouse were far from what I expected a crew to look like. Most of the guys, including myself, came to the team because it sounded interesting, and wanted to give this mysterious sport a try. Talking to the people around me, I found out that a few had come from farm towns in Michigan. These were not the prep school boys I imagined I would be surrounded by on a rowing team. And I could hardly have guessed that given this group of men, success would be a hallmark of the Michigan Men’s Rowing Team.

© Benji Bear Photography / @Benji_Bear_Photography

For those initiated to a crew, the reputation and the glory fuel the fire, but it is the hunger to succeed that drives us.

The Michigan Men’s Rowing program has a history of self-starting, and self-motivating. Despite the fact that rowing is one of the oldest collegiate sports, the Michigan team does not boast a 200 year history. It is easy to relate to our founders when surrounded by the idea that it all began a little over forty years ago with a river, a group of guys and girls that wanted to try out a new sport, and a few hundred dollars in their pockets. As a sport known for glory and reputation, little is said of the days where crews would have to scavenge for old boats, a coach, some oars, and a place to put all of it; however, at Michigan, these early days are an important part of our team’s culture.

© Benji Bear Photography / @Benji_Bear_Photography

As a crew that falls outside of the norm, we pride ourselves on continuing to build an organization, upgrade equipment, make a name in the community, and forge lifelong friendships along the way. For us, it is about seeking greater challenges, racing bigger schools, failing fast, but gaining ground faster. Reflecting on narrow margins won and trying to forget the larger ones lost.

As a Michigan rower, it is hard to forget where you start because you constantly find yourself wondering how you can go further, and then in a moment’s time you strap your feet into a boat without thinking twice.

This is not a team of people born into success. It is a team born to think and perform critically – and when done right, success is earned.

This is the team that reshapes the rowing narrative.

Story by Joshua Greenberg, University of Michigan ’19

Photography © Benji Bear Photography / @Benj_Bear_Photography

Sincerest thanks to the University of Michigan Men’s Rowing Team

Joshua Greenberg

Josh Greenberg has had the honor of being a member of two consecutive ACRA National Championship crews at the University of Michigan, where he is also a third year Philosophy student in the honors program. His hobbies include reading about history, cycling, being outdoors with friends, and finding good places to eat around town.

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