Today, the U.S. women’s eight rowing team won Olympic gold for the second consecutive time. The U.S. women have established a sort of dynasty with this win. Their eight has won six consecutive World Championships since 2006. After watching this race, I’m taking a trip down Memory Lane and re-posting what I wrote about rowing during my one-year study-abroad at Exeter College, Oxford. For those of you who don’t know, I rowed and coxed at Oxford for one year, and coxed at Williams College for two years prior to that.
The Urban Dictionary flippantly defines Crew as “the sport of gods, requires constant physical exertion, perfect poise, balance, timing, awareness, brute force, and a sensitive touch. To err is human, to erg is divine.” But in all serious jesting, I am convinced that if God had a favorite Olympic sport, it would be rowing. Here’s why:
“We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” -Romans 5:3-4
Rowing is among the highly selective group of athletic activities that involves all of the major muscle groups in the body. In fact, rowers have one of the highest power outputs among athletes of all sports, because the standard race distance of 2,000 meters is short enough to feel like a sprint, but long enough to have a huge endurance portion. Moreover, the rowing motion compresses the athletes’ lungs, which limits the amount of oxygen intake forcing the rowers to adjust their breathing to the cadence of the stroke. This sets rowing apart from most other sports where one can breathe without any inhibition. Rowers have often been called the most physically fit athletes in the world—and for good reason.
The ESPN Magazine said this about rowing in May 2000:
“The athlete’s anaerobic threshold, the point at which the body’s muscles have exhausted their oxygen store and start burning other fuel. For regular folks, reaching that threshold is quitting time; anaerobic work is 19 times harder than aerobic work. But rowing is all about harder. Elite rowers fire off the start at sprint speed — 53 strokes per minute. With 95 pounds of force on the blade end, each stroke is a weightlifter’s power clean. Rowers cross their anaerobic threshold with that first stroke. Then there are 225 more to the finish line.”
Rowing is about persevering, continuing when both your body and mind demand that you stop and cave in, compromise, conform. Christian life is also about persevering. Just as rowing is not a one-time performance but involves constant exertion, becoming a Christian does not merely involve a one-time recitation of the Sinner’s Prayer but perseverance in faith (Philippians 2:12-13). Being a Christian is about denying yourself (Matthew 16:24)—denying your degenerated flesh which is prone to lust, greed, anger, envy, slander and hubris (Colossians 3:5-10). It’s about refusing to conform to the patterns of this world (Romans 12:2)—holding firmly to truth in an increasingly relativistic world. It’s about having compassion and executing justice in a cruel and unfair world (Amos 5:24), and “defend[ing] the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain[ing] the rights of the poor and oppressed” (Psalm 82:3). Every sin is rooted in some form of unbelief in God and His promises, so every Christian must persevere in faith.
“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” -1 Corinthians 9:24-27
Rowing is all about discipline. Rowing practices often take place very early in the morning, because the water traffic is not as busy and the water is often most calm at that time. This is the reason for the saying that rowers do more before 7AM than most people do all day.
Rowers do not train aimlessly, and they do not beat the air. They go into very strict training and spend thousands of hours on an erg (short for ergometer, an indoor torture, I mean rowing, machine). They beat their bodies and master them in order to win that prize.
Furthermore, once on the water, only the coxswain (the driver of the boat whose role I’ll explain later) is allowed to talk in the boat, and only the coxswain gets to look around outside of the boat. In a race setting where a split second could make a difference, by looking outside the boat, a rower could tip the balance of the boat and compromise the motion and timing of the stroke. Also, talking in the boat can create confusion and disorder that can be dangerous. All of this requires great discipline.
“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” -Matthew 6:1-4
You probably did not watch the U.S. women’s 8 win the Olympic gold medal. I understand, because rowing is not exactly a spectator sport. Only those who have rowed understand the thrill of a regatta. From the outside, it looks tedious and monotonous. For this reason, rowing requires a lot of integrity. Once the flag is dropped and the horn signals the beginning of the race, everybody is watching from a distance. The coach is not next to you to see how hard you are rowing or how well you are rowing. In the end, no one will know who was slacking. The quality of the race depends solely on the integrity of you and your teammates.
In the headwind, when the wind rushes you toward the catch, you have to control your recovery, stay up tall, and swing back powerfully against the wind. The temptation to compromise the integrity of the stroke is constant and ever-present: To stretch a bit less and lose an inch of water with each stroke, to not push hard through the water and finish the stroke late, to lose focus and rush to the catch and disturb the flow and set of the boat, to not swing back and lose power, to bring the blade out of the water early, possibilities are endless, but a good rower puts everything into each stroke and maintains the integrity of every stroke, not for the pleasure or praise of spectators, but for his teammates, for integrity sake. Results will tell.
Likewise, a Christian lives for the invisible God, not to impress people. Whatever a Christian does, he must work at it with all his heart, as working for the Lord, not for men (Colossians 3:23).
“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body, and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called—one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” -Ephesians 4:3-6
I dare say that rowing, more than any other sport, emphasizes teamwork and unity. Rowing is not the sport for athletes wanting MVP awards and individual recognition.* A rower who tries to stand out or do something differently will only hamper the speed of the boat. Every segment of the stroke must be matched in time with exacting unity. The individuals who sacrifice their personal desires and ambitions for the sake of the crew will win races as a team.
Similarly, every Christian belongs to the Body of Christ–the Church. He does not live to build himself up, but to build up the Church.
*Rowing, by the way, is different from sculling, which one can do alone with one oar in each hand. In sweep rowing, you use two hands to hold one oar, so you need at least two rowers. Each rower takes one side (port/starboard) in a boat of either 2, 4, or 8 rowers.
“As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” -Proverbs 27:17
“Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” -Ecclesiastes 4:12
“Marathon runners talk about hitting ‘the wall’ at the twenty-third mile of the race. What rowers confront isn’t a wall; it’s a hole – an abyss of pain, which opens up in the second minute of the race. Large needles are being driven into your thigh muscles, while your forearms seem to be splitting. Then the pain becomes confused and disorganized, not like the windedness of the runner or the leg burn of the biker but an all-over, savage unpleasantness. As you pass the five-hundred-meter mark, with three-quarters of the race still to row, you realize with dread that you are not going to make it to the finish, but at the same time the idea of letting your teammates down by not rowing your hardest is unthinkable…Therefore, you are going to die. Welcome to this life.” -Ashleigh Teitel, Rower
“Lay it on the line for the guy in front of you and the guy in back of you.” -Peter Cipollone, the coxswain of the 2004 Olympic gold medal-winning U.S. men’s eight rowing team
The unity and teamwork discussed above contribute to the synergy of a crew. Each member of a crew pushes each other to be faster and better, and, as a team, for the sake of the team, the individual rowers can push themselves far beyond their normal limits. As my Williams coach used to say, in an eight’s race, it’s the eight rowers of the crew versus one rower of the opposing boat, the crew needs only to crack one rower of the opposing crew, and they could seize the victory. This kind of mentality drives a crew race. Analogically, one might break a Christian, but one cannot break the Church, for the Lord promised that “the gates of hades will not overcome [the Church]” (Matthew 16:18).
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!” -Philippians 2:3-8
This bit applies more specifically to coxing rather than rowing, so I will take the time now to explain the role of a coxswain.
The word “coxswain” comes from the Saxon “cockes” (‘for or of the boat’) and “swain” (either ‘lover’ or ‘servant’), and thus means, “Servant of the Boat.” A coxswain is usually small and light, and sits in the stern of the crew shell (boat). The role of a coxswain can be compared to that of a conductor in an orchestra. Coxswain is the heartbeat of the boat, as a conductor is for the orchestra. He does not row himself, just as the conductor himself does not play an instrument, but rather, he is the on-water coach of the boat who sets the stroke rating, makes all the commands, gives technical advice, carries out the practice, determines the power and execution of each stroke, and steers the boat, taking into account wakes, wind direction, and other crews (the boat, by the way, does not go straight when you do not steer). It’s a very versatile, high-pressure role, since a coxswain is responsible for the safety of the Crew and the $30,000 boat, and also because he is the only person that is allowed to talk and look outside the boat in a disciplined crew. The coxswain also motivates his crew through the grueling races, while informing them of the position of the boat vis-à-vis the finish line and other boats. His words and the tone of his voice inspire the trust, confidence, and performance of the rowers just as every stroke of the conductor’s baton sways the orchestra.
This combination of responsibility and simultaneous separation from the rowing itself means that the coxswain often takes a little more than the due blame, and little less than the due credit. This type of servant leadership requires great humility and resembles very closely the Christian model of leadership. Jesus Christ bore the full penalty of our disobedience to God so that we can enjoy the rewards of His perfect obedience.
Ultimately, every Olympian strives for a medal that will not last, but a Christian lives for a medal that will last forever (1 Corinthians 9:24-27). This eternal medal, however, cannot be earned with our own strength. No matter how hard rowers row, without a good coxswain, they will steer headlong in the wrong direction. Likewise, no matter how hard we work in our lives, we cannot attain eternal salvation unless we humble ourselves and surrender our control to Jesus Christ. Do you have a coxswain for your boat? Is Jesus Christ driving and directing your life? I sure hope so.