FEATURE: Tartan Crew


It is dark outside. There is no pre-dawn glow or that gentle yellowing of the sky that creates the feeling of “sunrise” even before it happens. It is dark. So dark it feels like night, even though it is 5:30 am and technically the new day is beginning. Not to mention the cold. The cold that comes unexpectedly because, well, it was 70 degrees yesterday at a reasonable hour, wasn’t it? But this is the hour when you stumble around your room in darkness, knowing that a dropped pin will waken your roommate; the hour when a shower starts off the way a pool does on a summer day — perfect for swimming, horrible for bathing. At this hour, there are few cars outside and fewer people, and the feeling that washes up is, “Why doesn’t Safewalk run past two?” No one is up at this hour, save one crazed reporter and a few stray cats. But as if out of nowhere, the Tartan Crew team marches by in slow progression toward Skibo Gym, shadowed by the declining moonlight.

The team practices on the lower level of Skibo Gym, complete with crayon-box blue walls and an equally vibrant green carpet upon which sits a few CDs and scattered weights alongside 30 or so “ergometers”, or, as they are commonly called by the coach and team members, “ergs.” Just being indoors doesn’t save the team for very long; they are quickly directed by Donald Webber-Plank [SP?, I think it might be Weber-Plank, if so change all instances-asg] the Head Coach, to run a lap outside.

An empty gym is one of the loneliest places on earth, and in Skibo's case one of the dirtiest and draftiest. The crew members probably don’t often see the gym empty. Webber-Plank bringing up the rear, they proceed back downstairs to the practice room. First they are all enlightened by the Head Coach as to why there will be no river practice today: The river has quickly risen due to rain and the water is moving so fast as to be dangerous. It becomes something like a board meeting; Webber-Plank addresses issues of attendance [DECLINING ATTENDANCE? -ajo], stopping to chat about upcoming events. At one point there is some banter back and forth from some of the teammates.

For the outsider, the things that Webber-Plank talks about seem like mysterious jargon. He mentions the “tase trauma,” something which is defined later as a type of workout split into three 10-minute pieces. A piece, however, is simply a period of time that one rows. The practice is all indoors, and it lends a distinctly mundane flair to the team’s workout. First everyone stands. There are a few sniffles, but they watch attentively as Webber-Plank goes through the motions of the proper technique for doing various things with the boat. Such as standing up, which is not simple when you’re on a boat. The practice is more boring than brutal; about 30 minutes of pure rowing technique and very basic hand and arm motions, which would certainly make the weary want to sleep. Perhaps from conditioning, however, the whole team looks more or less awake; maybe it was that lap they did outside.

After an eternity of just talking and the slow, painful progression of hand and arm stretches to mimic the act of rowing, they finally sit down on the cumbersome “ergs.” Slowly, almost painstakingly, Webber-Plank runs them through the motions: arms pulled back, arms thrust forward. There isn’t much difference between these positions and the ones that they did without the machines, but it’s certain that this was the intent. This time, though, each person on an “erg” has a “mirror,” a person mimicking their motions in front of them. Finally, after the feeling of utter dullness has permeated everything, the practice ends with a sort of question and answer session between the coach and his team.

Stephanie Busi, a senior in history and the coach of the women’s team, and Erica Shelver, a sophomore in Mechanical Engineering and the publicity chair for the team, had a chance to speak to why they would ever desire to be a large part of this seemingly bitter sport. Both Busi and Shelver agreed that you don’t really join to be a part of winter training. According to Busi the water has a great appeal, and being out on the water is what gives a lot of draw to the sport. The two got into the sport at different times in their lives, Busi has been on a crew team since her sophomore year in high school. In high school, the practices were after classes, but according to Shelver every university goes to practice at this ungodly time of morning. According to Shelver, rowing out of water has little appeal. But the team goes out and “4 miles and thirty minutes later we watch the sunrise.” This is certainly unique to the crew team; however, some would wonder if it is worth the cost of rising, and rowing, at 5:30 or 6 in the morning.

The emphasis that Shelver puts on the situation, though, is that you are obliged to go out every day and it becomes impossible to slack off at the sport. “You don’t ever want to go out there and not push yourself. It’s got to be working your ass off every single morning.”

So what about those things that outside world wonders about? Do they ever fall in the river? Yes, they are given a test in which they must purposely fall into the river. Busi indicated that though she has never accidentally fallen, many other rowers have. What about the gigantic oars, which connote Vikings and barbarians? According to Shelver and Busi, they are not particularly heavy. Still, many are skeptical. [MANY WHO? -ajo]

Believe it or not, though, the early morning practices are not completely relegated to the weekdays. Last Saturday there was a fitness test, an untold luxury at 7:30 am rather than the usual time. Justin Samuels might wish that he missed the fitness test. Samuels is vice president of the team’s board, as well as being a senior in materials science and engineering. He occasionally broke into fits of coughing during the interview, a tic he blamed on the rigorous test administered that morning. The test is intended, he explained, to decide which people should be assigned to each boat. If the coach wants to put out the strongest boat possible for an important competition, he must test all the members of the team to see where they stand. Samuels let in on a distinctly different flavor to the crew experience than Busi and Shelver had. Though he echoed their sentiments on the inability not to give the sport your all, Samuels also mentioned that some people can’t get used to the hours.

“My body hates it,” he indicated. On why anyone would want to do crew at Carnegie Mellon: Samuels said that sometimes the school is the reason. “There’s some school pride involved [in] beating the bigger teams,” he said. Apparently, the Tartan crew has, at least recently, placed much better and more often than the University of Pittsburgh’s and Duquesne’s teams have.

Samuels also explained the details of how the team is split up. From a practice one might get the sense that the team members are a jumble. However, they are grouped among Novice and Varsity divisions, each of which has a men’s and a women’s team. The varsity group is further split into a heavyweight and a lightweight category; Samuels belongs to the heavyweight group.

Despite the sunrise and the beauty of the water, there are some distinct conflicts that arise from being involved in Tartan Crew. “The large time commitment really does affect your life. To do crew all-out you can’t really do other activities,” said Samuels. Other than the personal problems of committing time to the crew, he mentioned that the team has a large amount of turnover. “You think, over the summer, ‘Is this what I want to do with my life?’ There’re [also] a lot of people who quit that say ‘I don’t have time for this.’ ”

Apparently, after four years Samuels does not feel this way. He came to crew in his first year of college simply because someone randomly accosted him from a booth on the Cut. Four years later he is highly involved in the team, an opportunity which is open to him in part because crew is a club sport. Being on the Board of Directors of the team allows Samuels to have the chance to have a say in the larger aspects of the team, such as feelings towards the coach and the allocation of funds. He indicated that if the team decided upon the matter, they could theoretically fire their coach. The main activities of the board, though, are trying to come up with the large amount of money to support the team. The school, Samuels noted, only gives crew about a quarter of what its yearly costs are.

Four years of hard work have led to some great times for Justin Samuels. He started crew, he says, because “I kind of wanted to prove to my friends at home that I could become good at some sport.” Instead, Samuels has found a group that has given him some of his best friends, a fact he attributes to the “ten weekends and every weekday of the year” that he spends with them.

Tartan Crew has been around since 1987, but it’s uncertain whether anyone knows much about the close-knit group of people that slog their way to the gym or the river every morning to participate in this demanding sport.