15 September 2022
By Chris Williams
What follows is a personal reflection on being a stroke in an eight through my four years at Cornell. The high point and final collegiate chapter came in 1967, our undefeated season, when we won all our collegiate and Henley races by open water. My greatest satisfaction and source of pleasure in that championship season was being the stroke/catalyst who enabled all of us to cross the finish line first. But were it not for these guys, that may have never happened. This write up is dedicated to them. Their names, from stern to bow:
- Ron Kaye (’67), coxswain. His steady hand and control were respected by all of us. We roomed together for three years. We were and remain good friends.
- Bill Cromwell (’67), 7-man. He was a very smooth rower and translated perfectly the stroke’s rhythm to the starboard side. His untimely death eight years ago, in 2014, caused me to cry uncontrollably for several days. He was my roommate for two years.
- Dave Stout (’68), 6-man. Undeniably strong and responded well to admonitions on his timing, which were key to optimizing our boat’s speed.
- Dennis Koza (’67), 5-man. A lightweight legend as he came to rowing as a freshman at 6’ 4” but weighing only 148 pounds. Somehow, but not easily, he managed to make weight at the 160-pound maximum as his frame filled out. He died of cancer, two and a half years after Bill. About a month before his death and as he faced more surgery, he called and left a message asking how I was doing. When I called back and asked how he was doing, he said “me, not so much.” Understated, as was his character. A big loss in more ways than one.
- Larry Dean (‘69), 4-man. He made the boat as a Sophomore. He was quiet, worked hard but I did not know him that well at the time due to the age difference.
- Al Hoyt (’67), 3-man. Al and I shared that “underdog” sentiment. At one time he was told he was not strong enough to make the boat. Through hard work and tenacity, he proved everyone wrong. Like Ron, he and I remain good friends.
- Bob DeRoo (’67), 2-man. Bob came to rowing as a two-year Aggie, making him ineligible to row in any formal races. He stuck with the program, converted to a four-year Aggie and made the boat about halfway through the ’67 season. He made weight at the low end of the scale but pound for pound he was one tough dude.
- Frank Rose (’69), bow. As in the case of Larry Dean, he made the boat as a Sophomore but I did not know him well at the time due to the age difference. He was a skilled and tough oarsman as it takes that type to row bow.
We all still stay in touch frequently and meet for a reunion every five years. Any sentence or thought left unfinished from the prior reunion is picked up and continued at the next one. Our bond is tight as glue.
Our coach through my Sophomore, Junior and Senior years was Todd Jesdale. I was once asked by someone seeking to re-hire him what I thought about his coaching. The only thought that came to mind was what legendary coach Bear Bryant (Alabama) said of legendary coach Daryl Royal (Texas): “He can take his’uns and beat your’uns and then he can take your’uns and beat his’uns”. It never clicked with us that Todd was the class of 1961, barely 6 years older than us. And he had already coached the Varsity for three years when we were Sophomores.
The beginning of “Being the Stroke”
In the spring of 1962, Junior year at Kent School in Kent, Connecticut, my chosen Spring sport was tennis. Not that I knew how to play but rather because I had tried rowing the prior two seasons with limited success. For perspective, there were three “club” crews, each having 4 or 5 eight-oared boats. I was in boat number 4 or 5 of one of those clubs. Yes, these were the feeder boats for getting to be one of the rowing “gods”, a spot on the JV or Varsity. Not a chance….
Senior year had me rooming with a tall, strong athlete who was a lock for the Varsity crew. As we got closer to the start of Spring sports, he encouraged me to take a long shot and try out for the JV crew, saying “What do you have to lose?” The clear answer was nothing. So, I started training with the other aspirants – rowing on hydraulic machines in the attic of one of the dorms, doing pull-ups and weights, all under the watchful eye of the legendary Varsity coach Tote Walker and the later-to-be legendary JV coach, Hart Perry.
When the ice broke on the Housatonic River, those of us remaining were assigned to three boats – the likely Varsity and JV, with the aspirants in the third boat. I don’t recall much of the preseason rows but clearly recall that I was the very last entry to the JV boat and won a spot in the four seat. It was an amazing, undefeated season, culminating in a final victory at the New England Interscholastic Rowing Association Regatta in Worcester, Massachusetts.
The following Fall I enrolled at Cornell University, completely unaware that Cornell rowing was a big deal. As I stood in line at Barton Hall for registration, I saw individuals with red rowing jackets walking up and down the lines, recruiting individuals of certain body types – around 6 feet tall and with the semblance of athleticism. When I was passed by, I went after one the recruiters with a “hey – what about me! I rowed at Kent! We were very good! I have experience!” He said the cigarette in my hand made him pass me by. After assuring him that I was an occasional off-season smoker, he relented and gave me instructions on when to show up at Cornell’s Collyer Boathouse on the inlet to Cayuga Lake.
At the appointed time I arrived at the boathouse – along with the numerous recruits, most of whom were both unfamiliar with rowing and had never seen a shell. Unstated, I knew that I obviously did not belong with that group. I had experience! I rowed on an undefeated crew from a prominent boarding school! However, being the egalitarians that they were, they assigned me and all the other Freshman to row on the “barge,” a large floating platform on which the coaches could walk on a board in the center and give basic instructions on how to pull an oar. The added benefit was that the barge would not capsize.
Once the Freshman coach, Lew Evans, felt comfortable with the progress, he assigned us to individual eight-oared shells. At this point I knew but one thing: I wanted to be the Stroke, knowing that it was the most prestigious position and carried with it the responsibility of making the boat successful. I did not want to rely on someone else holding that key to my success. There is a certain amount of admitted arrogance in that statement – but it is truthful.
I don’t remember much about our Fall season – it was mostly about learning how to row as, in that era (the ‘60s), there was no external competition. Then, after we got off the water in late October, we started our indoor training regime which consisted of weights two days a week and rowing in the tanks three days a week. As well as running the stadium steps, on our own, at Schoellkopf Field.
When Spring – defined as “the ice has broken” – finally arrived we were back on the water and the Coach had a fairly good idea of who he wanted as his first, second, third and fourth boat candidates, and in which seats. The good news for me was that I was the Stroke!; the bad news was that it was either for the fourth or third boat – don’t recall which. Several things were now at work: being at the bottom of the ladder, we got very little of the Coach’s attention; and, the (perceived) poorest rowers were in the lower-ranked boats. However, I was the Stroke! Having rowed in a fast boat at Kent, I knew what a boat should feel like when it was moving well. And I believed I could translate that feel to the entire boat.
Since we did not receive a lot of attention from the Coach, we spent time on our own, rowing behind the 2nd and 1st boat. During this time, I could sense when we put together some good strokes and when we did not. It is all about timing. The easiest explanation to a layman about “timing” is to imagine holding a wheel at the spoke and then spinning it by giving impetus at the rim. That impetus, a flick of the wrist and finger on to the wheel, should come with regularity but not so early as to interrupt the established momentum nor so late as to lose the established momentum. The similarity in rowing is that there is the catch; the pull in the water; the release; and the return or glide back to the catch. Done well, the shell should lose as little momentum as possible on the return. And the cycle starts again. That cycle is also known as the “ratio”.
Everyone – well almost everyone – who has rowed knows when the boat “sings” – the strokes seem less exhausting, the rhythm self-perpetuating and the boat “flies”, almost effortlessly. But…. there are eight people in the boat, plus the coxswain. And each one has to be in perfect synchronicity with the person in front of him, until, of course, you come to the stroke, who has no rower in front in front of him – only the cox. That perfect synchronicity does not and cannot happen by accident. The responsibility rests with the stroke. He must know, must know if the boat is achieving that perfect timing and ratio. And he must know it by feel – there is no other way. As an example, two boats with the same horsepower (relative strength) could both be rowing a perfect 35 strokes per minute, but one boat could be decidedly faster than the other. Or, one boat could be rowing 35 strokes per minute and the other could be faster while rowing at 33 strokes per minute. Another example could be swapping strokes and seeing that one boat goes faster with that one stroke. As an aside, I’ve always thought that anyone in the stroke seat should be a good “rock & roll” dancer – someone who can be immersed in the beat and know and show it.
So, back to Freshman year. I was the stroke of the third boat. The oarsmen therein had already been appointed least likely to succeed by dint of their presence. But we consistently managed to pass the second boat in practice pieces. This led to my promotion to stroke of the second boat. The Coach’s dilemma now was that the physically weaker second boat could challenge and beat the bigger 1st boat. He was fit to be tied and decided to sort it out by having the 1st and 2nd boats do a time trial early in the morning and promised to use the results to decide who would stroke the first boat. It was a gutsy call on his part, and I am forever grateful to have had that opportunity. We won. I was promoted to stroke of the 1st boat.
I’ll later get into the lessons learned stroking the 1st Freshman; the JV as a Sophomore; the Varsity and then the JV (yes, a demotion) as a Junior; and, the Varsity my Senior year, by any objective measure the best ever collegiate lightweight crew.
But, the original intent of this writing is to lay out those items important to this Stroke to enable the boat to reach peak efficiency. These are:
- You must feel and command the rhythm that makes the boat achieve perfect “swing”. I was never successful in an impromptu boating as my rhythm was one that took a bit of time for the other rowers to adjust to it.
- Your pull through the water sets the rhythm and feel for everyone. When graphed, the power exerted forms an almost perfect parabola as the maximum power that can be generated is in the middle of the stroke. That is when the strongest parts of your body, legs and back, can provide the most power. This is when the boat “jumps”. Everyone can feel this.
- You cannot let another oarsman, usually the seven or 6-man, try to “stroke” the boat by imperceptibly jumping or delaying the timing of your catch. It is not usually done purposefully but rather out of exuberance.
- You must always have perfect timing from both the seven and the 6-man. If either is late, it is very physically painful to the stroke. For me, it was like a knife in the back.
- You must let the cox know when you physically feel the lack of timing by any oarsman. That way he can look for the issue and communicate the needed correction.
- You must be the toughest guy in the boat – no one should be able to outwork you.
- It is hugely important for the stroke not to let the rate drift. If you are to be at a 36, it can’t drift down to a 35. Similarly, if you are at a 38 in the last 500 meters and asked to “take it up 2”, you have to hit and hold a 40, not matter the cost to the body.
- As you take the stroke up or down, the stroke length must remain the same. You can’t “cheat” by moving from a 34 to a 36 with a shorter stroke length. That affects the ratio and the boat synchronicity and thus its swing.
- You must be able to withstand the pain of a race better than anyone in the boat. You’re the leader. The oarsmen rowing behind you will stay with you to death if they know that there is no way you will “die” first.
Part II of Chris Williams’s “On Being the Stroke” will be published tomorrow.