Crew Works Hard at the ‘Truest Team Sport’

October 21, 2016 | By Tim Pratt

The St. John's Crew team rows in the Severn River before sunrise.
Members of the St. John's College Crew team row in the Severn River as the sun rises to the east.

It’s about an hour before sunrise, but nearly two dozen St. John’s College students are headed across the Annapolis campus to the Hodson Boathouse.

They gather on the lower level, among the boats and oars and rowing machines. The doors are open. A breeze wafts in from College Creek, dark and still in the pre-dawn morning hours.

While their classmates sleep, the St. John’s Crew team is at it again.

Rowing is a sport that takes dedication, endurance and a willingness to learn. While some of the Johnnies rowed for years before joining the team—one of four intercollegiate programs at the college—others had little or no experience.

But that’s OK, team members say. Many of the teams at St. John’s, from intramurals to intercollegiate sports, feature beginner athletes. The veterans and coaches help them get better.

“I’ve never done a team sport, so being on a team is very important to me,” says Crew team member Jack Cooper, a junior from Los Angeles, now in his second season. “And it’s awesome getting to see the sun rise every morning”.

The Johnnies practice from 6-8 a.m., three days a week.

Annapolis Crew 2016
The St. John's College Crew team rows in the Severn River.

On this particular morning, joggers cross the Route 450 bridge over College Creek as the Johnnies do their own warmup near the water’s edge. Then the team goes over the plan for the day, a workout that will take them up the nearby Severn River, beyond the Severn River Bridge.

Together, the team carries its boats from the boathouse down the ramp to College Creek. The Johnnies then climb in and row slowly away from the dock, heading carefully beneath a series of bridges on the way to the Severn. Red and green lights shine on the bow of each boat.

Coach MaryEllen Markuske (A15) operates the launch boat, which she uses to motor around and give instructions. Several team members ride with her, ready to switch places with teammates.

While two groups take part in a workout, rowing determinedly up the river, their coxswains call out instructions. Markuske spends much of her time working with some of the less experienced members.

“Don’t worry if you miss a couple strokes,” Markuske says. “It’s going to happen. Just let it go and set up for the next stroke.”

MaryEllen Markuske and Jake Cooper watch the Crew team row.
Coach MaryEllen Markuske (left) and team member Jake Cooper keep an eye on the rowers as they move along the Severn River.

The concept is easy, says freshman Kate Wall, of Colorado. It’s not difficult to row. But the technique—how to angle the oar, for example—takes practice.

Cat Baldwin, one of the team’s captains, calls rowing the “truest team sport.”

“When you do it right, it’s like flying,” says the junior from New Jersey. “It’s one of the most beautiful feelings in the world.”

The water this morning has a little chop. A slight breeze cools the air. A passing boat creates a wake, forcing the Johnnies to hang on tightly, but they laugh it off and quickly resume rowing.

The morning workout is invigorating, says freshman Marie Divine, also a member of the St. John’s Sailing team. It energizes her for the rest of the day.

It’s also a great way to stay fit, says junior Jen Ongley, the other team captain.

The Johnnies feel a sense of camaraderie, team members say. They laugh and tell jokes, and even named two herons they see regularly: Harold and Harriett.

Crew team member Kate Wall rides in the launch boat as her teammates row behind her.
Freshman Kate Wall rides in the launch boat as her teammates row behind her on College Creek.

Near the end of the practice, with the sun now up and traffic flowing heavier across the nearby bridges, the team heads back toward the college. The strain starts to show on some of their faces.

“Take a deep breath and sit up tall,” Markuske says. “I know it’s been a long morning. Sitting up tall will make it hurt less.”

When they’re done, the team pulls their boats from the water and carries them back up the ramp to the boathouse. They load the boats back on the racks from which they came. Everything is done with a series of instructions.

Markuske talks to the Johnnies briefly after the workout. The team then gathers in a circle, puts their hands in the middle and lets out a cheer. Another practice is in the books.

Now it’s time for breakfast.