From land, it looks as if the boat is a gliding swan. In the boat, however, every muscle strains against the water that feels like molasses. Surrounding the boat is a vast, silver lake. For the rowers, however, there exists only their own labored breath and the coxswain’s hypnotic cry. The adrenaline is almost tangible, as the line between pain and beauty melts.
“Crew is the ultimate team sport because you have to row with everyone, exactly as everyone else,” varsity rower senior Annika Heuser said.
The Oakland Strokes rowing club is based in the Oakland Estuary and has middle school programs, competitive high school teams and summer programs, according to the Oakland Strokes website.
Rower junior Sophie Bransfield said that she joined the high school team her sophomore year.
“I had always been really involved in choir so I didn’t really get into a sport until sophomore year,” Bransfield said. “Not having to have any sport experience [to join crew], just jumping in and being at the same level as everyone else was nice.”
Similarly, Heuser said that she joined during the second semester of her sophomore year after the cross country season was over. Heuser’s brother, freshman Liam Heuser, had participated in the middle school program and recommended it to her.
“The reason I like rowing better than running is because it’s more variable. Not every practice is the same in that in cross country, we would just go out and run, but for rowing we’ll go run, then we’ll lift weights, we’ll row,” Annika said.
Oakland Strokes has four high school racing teams: novice women’s, novice men’s, varsity women’s and varsity men’s. Everyone is placed on the novice team their first year, and then promoted to varsity their second year regardless of merit. However once on varsity, rowers compete for spots in boats, Bransfield said.
“We have selection periods, where the coaches have to decide which eight people are put in the boat. In that period of time, we are physically being raced against each other,” Annika said.
Annika said that she was extremely grateful that she got to row in the varsity eight boat, which is the fastest boat, all of this fall season. The eight-seat boats are ranked in order: varsity (1V), junior varsity (2V), 3V, 4V, 5V and so on depending on the number of rowers.
“It is competitive, but no one gets angry at anyone else,” Annika said.
Bransfield also said that this supportive environment is present at practices, which take place six times a week for high school novice and varsity rowers. The practices are two and a half hours every weekday, and four hours Saturday morning starting at 7 a.m.
“Rowing itself is actually pretty complicated, I guess it wouldn’t seem like it because it’s a pretty repetitive motion, but there’s a lot to it,” Annika said. “I go to practice everyday with a goal of improving…it’s different problems everyday, but it’s not just individual problems, as a boat you can have problems too.”
This hard work pays off during the racing season, which for the high school team consists of a short fall season (with only three to four 5K regattas), and a long spring season starting in Feb. and ending in early-May (with 2K races almost every weekend), Bransfield said.
“I personally like the shorter [distance] better because it’s less of a mental journey,” Bransfield said. “In the spring the team also splits into an openweight group (over 130 lbs.) and two light weight boats (under 130 lbs.), so that’s fun too.”
Annika said that this year the Oakland Strokes varsity boats made it to the Head of the Charles regatta, which is an acclaimed national competition in Boston. The men’s varsity eight boat placed first, while the women’s varsity eight placed fifth out of 85 entries.
“We were pretty satisfied with the results,” Annika said. “Oakland Strokes has a pretty big name in the rowing world; we’re kind of on the radar.”
This reputation brings recruiting coaches from top universities to observe practices, Annika said. She said that she plans to continue rowing in college and is currently involved in the recruiting process.
“I want to do bioengineering, so no college can guarantee me admission to their bioengineering program. I have to get in on my own, but I have the coach’s support,” Annika said.
Liam and Bransfield both said that they are unsure whether they want to continue rowing in college, but that they enjoy the sport immensely.
A factor that deters many from continuing through the collegiate level, is injuries. Many rowers suffer from back or rib injuries, but the coaches at Oakland Strokes are very supportive of and attentive to their rowers’ health, Annika said.
Bransfield said that her recent back injuries have not deterred her from continuing rowing throughout high school. She said her main source of motivation is the strong, supportive team spirit that pervades every practice and trip.
“After we do a particularly hard workout or do a 6K test, our coaches assign ‘Badass Points’ to people that the coaches saw really put in the effort or surpassed their goal by a surprising amount,” Bransfield said. “Sometimes, the coaches also put these points towards this team competition we’re doing where everyone is split up into either orange team or green team (Oakland Strokes colors).”
These teams competed on a recent weekend in a series of challenges: Iron Chef, where they had to bake a certain colored dessert; comedic skits; and finally a dance-off, Annika said.
“I really like all the girls on my team, I’m generally excited to row with everyone,” Annika said.