rowing crews

By Julie Benezet:

My day began with Atom Ant. After dragging through one depressing news article after another, I raised my eyes toward the lake in search of a vista that did not include murder, mayhem, or mean spiritedness.  I needed inspiration to focus on something positive.

Right on cue, he appeared. Atom Ant, a nickname my husband and I gave him, is an e-foil surfer who regularly zooms across the lake wearing a hooded orange body suit. Aside from the striking outer gear, you can’t miss his elegant form: hands clasped behind his back, shoulders squared, eyes focused straight ahead as he carves a slaloming path.

Nothing distracts Atom from his mission whether the lake is glassy smooth or, as it was this morning, choppy from strong headwinds. He managed to maintain his form, raising his arms occasionally for balance, and kept going.

As I watched him, my mind shifted away from the news to thinking about the heady feeling that comes with having dreams.

Why Bother with Dreams?

In chaotic times, pursuing a dream can feel self-indulgent. How could we look for something new and diverting when there is so much trouble in the world? And yet, that’s exactly what we should be doing, because dreams give us energy to try new things whether they are for personal pleasure, professional growth, or societal change.

The trick is once you circle a dream, how do your convert it into reality? It’s hard enough to start something new when you don’t know how it will end up. The real test is whether you will commit the time needed to arrive there.

According to Malcom Gladwell, high achievers attain their status not from innate genius but, rather, from over 10,000 hours of practice.  Bill Gates coded ad nauseum before generating what became the Microsoft software. The Beatles played in endless German clubs long before coming to America as rockstars. While other researchers have disputed the number of hours or whether hours alone would do it, there is general agreement that excellence requires a major investment of time.

Finding Fuel

Investing time is easier said than done. For many, in between deciding to try something new and accomplishing it rises a tall wall of resistance to the jagged work of learning. To push past it, you need something to fuel your journey. But where can you find that? 

Answer: It depends.

For some people, fueling new adventures comes as naturally as breathing. They were born to strive. They know what they want and will devote a single-minded focus to attaining it.

Atom Ant did not start out as an expert e-foil surfer. To gain competence he had to learn how to navigate on a board with sharp metallic wings over thrashing waters, fall often, and pull himself back up into a standing position with both the water and e-foil moving. Atom surfs alone, and it is likely he learned his craft with little or no help from others. His strong internal drive to achieve excellence fueled his many hours of practice. It paid off, producing the relaxed smooth style we see from our window.

Most people need help finding fuel. Looking inward is complicated, because a dream to try something new competes with an avalanche of fears: How can I justify the time with all I have going on? What makes me think I have the talent for this? What happens if I fail? What happens if I succeed? And so on. The result is the dream stalls out. 

What might break the emotional logjam?

The lake offers valuable examples.

Perfecting the “Swing”

Early in the morning the crew boats descend. They include champion rowers from the University of Washington and rowers with day jobs. What they share is their determination to perfect the “swing,” as described by Dan Brown in his 2013 best-selling The Boys in the Boat.

The Boys in the Boat tells the story of a team of University of Washington students who stunned the world of crew racing by winning the gold medal in Hitler’s 1936 Olympics. They started as a group of nine hard scrabble sons of loggers and farmers with little background in rowing crew, much less crew racing. What they had in common was a history of doing hard physical labor and the leadership of a driven coach.

Al Ulbrickson, the UW coach, is an excellent example of a prime motivating force that gave his team members the fuel they needed to move outside their comfort zones into a world where they achieved more than they ever thought possible. He did it with a combination of exceptional talent, a demand for excellence, and a single-minded focus on what it took to win in crew, which is to convert a collection of individuals into a team that could execute the perfect "swing."

The swing addresses one of the most challenging aspects of rowing. The faster a crew rows, the harder it is to maneuver the boat. The best rowing teams learn how to adjust their strokes exactly to each other’s pacing, allowing them to row efficiently for long periods of time, and win races. To achieve the swing, team cohesion is imperative. The effort of every rower counts.

Ulbrickson’s relentlessness came from a place of deep caring. He watched his team closely, maintained detailed notes of his observations, and regulated his praise to prevent them from getting swollen heads, even when their results justified it. The Olympic gold medal stands as a testimony to the profound impact of his influence.

It is worth noting that all the team members went on to lead successful lives after their time at the UW.

The Power of Team Fuel

Not every rowing team has the gift of a coach like Al Ulbrickson. However, the success of the 1936 UW team depended not just on him but also on the team itself.  Their commitment to building technical skills and team discipline also generated crucial fuel for the team members. The importance of a collective team drive becomes more obvious when there isn’t a coach like Al Ulbrickson at the helm.

I know several people who have day jobs and row crew. They take their careers seriously, each of them devoted to improving the lives of others. Their jobs require energy, and lots of it. They get it from the three days a week they drag themselves out of bed before dawn and shuffle down to the lake to meet their teams, ready to pull out into the lake to work on their swing.

Crew has a complex group dynamic that is critical to achieving the swing. It starts with a heated competition to be selected for a boat and then goes on to being moved around into different positions to compete against other boats. Eventually, the competition merges into an intimate cooperation among the rowers.

As a seasoned rowing friend told me, "The elusive swing has to emerge from all the rowers giving themselves over to the combined momentum of the boat. It is an odd mix of mutual trust, drive, patience, and physical attunement to the team dynamics. However, the things that affect the swing aren’t predictable and can be easily undercut by disruptive emotions."

When the team is working at cross purposes, the situation calls for a capable coach with high emotional intelligence to assess individual strengths and redirect their dynamics to restore a winning flow. In other words, leadership counts, but only if the team puts a high premium on alignment. Both provide essential fuel for the swing.  

Fueling the Future

Whether you are an Atom Ant with a ferocious independent drive or someone who draws impetus from connection to a group or group leader, finding fuel to realize your dreams is essential. It will empower you to spend the many hours of work required to land in exciting new horizons.

e-board surfer


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