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Crew Religion: What’s the Deal?

By Yong-yi Zhu


The curse of the Bambino, the ball through Buckner’s legs, and the game winning home run by Aaron Boone: those are all legends. These legends create the religion that is baseball. But there is another religion that looms large not only in Boston, but on college campuses across the nation: crew.

To those of us not terribly familiar to the sport, it is quite easy to miss. Heck, I didn’t know anything about it for the first eighteen years of my life. I met one person back home that did it, and I only got to know her through the lab I worked at after senior year of high school.

All of the sudden, when I arrived at MIT, crew took over as the dominant sport on campus. You didn’t hear that much about people in other sports; only crew seemed to consume a large population of my friends’ lives. How did it just take over?

It begins harmlessly as a way to meet people, a method to get in shape, or an avenue for trying something new. Since college is a time to experience fresh things, people are more willing to join. (No, high school doesn’t even come close in that department.) Harmless enough, right? (Well, at least to athletes. I heard their practice schedule for the first week and was on the verge of fainting. I’ll stick with golf thank you very much.) But after this, the dynamics begin to change.

Crew isn’t a sport that people can do by themselves. The boats are expensive, and not everyone has regular access to them. The newness factor helps to attract members, but the fact that people are on a team keeps the members there. It’s different from basketball or football in that you can’t just have a bench. A particular boat practices and rows together and develops not only a rhythm but also some boat chemistry. A boat usually consists of eight rowers and a coxswain. What is the boat going to do if someone decides to quit? You can’t just pull someone off of another boat, because then that boat will be short. It’s a domino effect if just one person decides to quit. Thus, people stay with it not to disappoint others. Pretty soon, it’s become routine, and the thought of quitting no longer even lingers.

With this increased chemistry within the boat, the team members then allow crew to somewhat take over their lives. Whenever a crew member gets together with another crew member, rowing is the only thing that they talk about. From practice to races, they will talk just about anything crew-related.

There’s really no half committing oneself to the sport, so it seems. Either you’re apathetic to it, or it consumes. The Head of the Charles is a good example. It’s a free event that’s quite major to college crew racing. Yet, you don’t see many people going out just to take a peak at the races that are going on. Instead, you only see die hard fans of the teams standing on the bridges yelling their heads off. Being a non-crew person, I didn’t even realize the magnitude of the event. See how ignorant the rest of us are?

I was walking down the street the other day and saw a bumper sticker saying: “Athletes Row, Everybody Else Plays Games.” I’m sure the person driving that car truly believes it too. It’s somewhat true in a way, in that baseball, football, golf, and other sports all involve a game that “athletes” are trying to play. Crew isn’t anything like that. They just row.

It’s quite fair to call crew a religion. However, it’s quite a different kind of religion from baseball. In baseball, you have a sense of tradition and a sense of history. The fans love to love and love to hate and the same is true with the players. In crew, the love for hard work takes precedent over everything else. If you’ve ever tried erging, you will know exactly what I’m talking about. I can barely do it once a year, much less several times a day.

In fact, if you looked outside your window during the day anytime last weekend, you would have seen the followers of this popular religion. They’re out early in the morning practicing, in the rain, in the cold.

Unlike them, though, my “higher truth” rests with a coke, some popcorn, and Joe Buck and Tim McCarver.