Even When You’re Out In Front, Things Can Be Better: Columbia Lightweights

by Row360

Words: Noah Buckley

The catch leads to the drive which leads to the release which leads to the recovery which leads back to the catch. Each segment of the stroke flows seamlessly into the next. This continuity creates a relationship where doing something right anywhere in the stroke leads to an improvement in the whole. A strong build of pressure on the face of the blade during the drive allows for a powerful send and time to patiently release the blade from the water so as to not disturb the run of the shell. This sets the stage for a smooth recovery that allows the boat to continue gliding over the water as rowers prepare their blades for a decisive catch. The cycle builds upon itself. If you’re doing something right, you’re doing everything better. Likewise, if you’re doing something wrong, it dampens the rest of the stroke.

“If you do skip a workout, people know. And people talk.”

You have to constantly work at perfecting the nuances and minute details of your stroke. Of your physiology. Of your life as a whole. To remain the same is to remain stagnant. If you fail to improve, in effect you become worse relative to the competition. But the more heretical outcome is that you cease growing as a person.

Above: Nich Parker, Columbia Lightweights Head Coach

These are the standards expected of every athlete in the Columbia Lightweight Rowing Program. One that asks you to be brutally honest with yourself in order to grow in all aspects of your life. A place where you don’t deserve anything. Where you must earn everything. These principles have redefined the team culture for the lightweights, leading to an unprecedented run of success. When Nich Parker assumed the mantle of head coach from Scott Alwin in the fall of 2013, he eliminated every rule governing the team, replacing them with three inviolable tenets. “You’re responsible for your own development,” says Parker, “You’re responsible for your own performance, and you’re responsible for making your teammates better.”

This deeply engrained sense of personal responsibility is apparent from the moment the team bus rolls into Overpeck Park for practice. Rather than meandering, every lightweight runs with alacrity from the bus to the boats. Water time is sacred and not to be wasted. Every minute represents an opportunity to improve oneself and to push your teammates beyond their previous limitations.

This trust in the individual athletes extends beyond organized team practices. “We’re really upfront with our recruits,” explains Parker. “Columbia is a stressful school and I think that stress, while challenging, is a huge positive of the institution. There’s not a lot of hand-holding [here]…Half of your workouts over the course of the year are going to be on your own or with a teammate.”

Parker instituted these flexible schedules partially to individualize workouts and tailor them to athletes’ different physiological needs, but also to make sure that rowers could take advantage of all the classes they want to pursue during their time at Columbia. Depending on their schedule, various groups of lightweights will make their way to the on-campus erg room for their daily land workout. While there is no punishment for missing an individual workout, Parker assured that “If you do skip a workout, people know. And people talk.”

The athletes have responded well to the faith placed in them by their coaches and teammates. They continue to thrive in both their athletic and academic pursuits. Even amongst their esteemed peers at Columbia, a greater proportion of lightweights consistently make the Dean’s List than their esteemed peers in the general undergraduate population.

But this relentless standard of self-improvement extends beyond the athletes. Head Coach Nich Parker came to the sport of rowing late as a walk-on at Ohio State University. Perhaps in an effort to make up for lost time, Parker has shown a voracious hunger in his desire to learn and evolve as a rowing coach. It was this desire that took him from OSU to Purdue to Yale to Columbia and finally to the head coaching position. At each stop, Parker has placed himself in an environment to add new perspectives to his coaching repertoire. He’s currently working on his Ph.D. in Biomechanics at Columbia, an effort that he says has greatly helped in his understanding of neural connections – of how the brain and body learns and how to perform a demanding skill such as rowing under the extreme stress and fatigue placed upon them during race situations.

“You don’t deserve anything. You must earn everything. You have to constantly work at perfecting the details.”

“One thing that was really nice about Nich as a coach was that he definitely knew his limitations,” says 2015 captain Griffin Whitlock. “He knew what he didn’t know and he wasn’t ashamed to outsource that [to outside experts].”

One of these key additions to the lightweight staff has been core specialist Regan Sur, who Parker found through mutual training partners. Parker brought Sur in for Pilates-based core endurance training that has helped not just to dramatically reduce injuries, but also helped rowers learn how to connect, engage, and move from a position of power that is so critical to the rowing stroke.

Another key innovation was brought to the lightweights by former Assistant Coach Jesse Foglia (now at Harvard), who pushed for the program to acquire its first RowPerfect machines after his time coaching with the junior national team. These machines have helped revolutionize the way the program teaches power application, allowing athletes to visualize their acceleration and power curves throughout the stroke and forging a smoother, more unified, efficient Columbia rowing stroke.

“[The RowPerfects] helped so much to get everyone rowing on the same page off the water,” explained Whitlock. “Usually erging is the death of technique, but they really helped to mitigate that.”

Columbia crews have traditionally rowed on the Harlem River out of their boathouse on the northern tip of Manhattan opposite the picturesque Columbia C Rock. But lightweight crews now row almost exclusively at Overpeck Park, a location just across the George Washington Bridge in New Jersey first discovered by Alwin in 2011. Unlike the Harlem River, which is a tidal straight, Overpeck has no current allowing for more accurate seat racing and intensive focus on technique. It has allowed the team to dramatically improve their small boat skills and the lightweights acquired a fleet of singles at Parker’s insistence that every rower be able to scull. The body of water has been such a boon to the rowing program that Columbia Athletics is in the opening talks with the county to build a permanent race course and boathouse at the park.

These changes to the program’s culture coupled with the coaching staff’s willingness to evolve and seek out new methods of coaching has helped usher in a new epoch for the lightweights with four straight IRA medals culminating in their first IRA Championship since 1929.

Historically, success for the Columbia Lightweight Rowing Program has been fleeting. The sporadic victories such as the 1964 Freshmen’s Eastern Sprints Championship and the 1971 Henley trip were followed by nearly two decades in which the varsity only twice reached the grand finals at Eastern Sprints.

The measures of program success slowly began to rise with the hiring of Mike Zimmer as the first full-time lightweight coach in 1991. A crew’s success was no longer measured in making a grand final, but in medaling. The period between 1996 and 2003 represented Columbia’s previous golden standard with varsity crews winning seven Eastern Sprints and IRA medals during the period, highlighted by a 2000 Eastern Sprints Championship.

But Columbia failed to capitalize on this era. Instead of continuing to improve and build the foundation for lasting success, the program stagnated and cycled back into the lower depths of the league. A well-meaning colleague went so far as to tell Parker that he was “committing career suicide” when he left Yale for the school and that “Columbia just wasn’t ever going to win again. It’s not possible there. It can’t be done.”

“You’re responsible for your own performance, and you’re responsible for making your teammates better.”

While the individual talent wasn’t lacking in the period preceding Parker’s reign—with Bob Duff ’10 and Dan Kirrane ’12 both making the national team and Nick LaCava ’09 rowing in the Olympic lightweight four in London—it wasn’t always applied to its fullest extent. Depth was certainly an issue in the immediate years before Columbia’s current run. Kirrane was the only member of his recruited class that did not deal with back injuries at some point in his collegiate career. This coupled with the subsequent recruiting class of only four rowers culminated in a 2011 squad that could only field one and a half eights worth of recruits.

With the ascension of the 2014 class to the varsity level and the 2012 rule change that allowed freshman to race in varsity boats, these depth issues became an archaic problem of the past.

“I hated the freshman restriction, personally. I felt completely handicapped,” said Whitlock who was a member of the last class to row in freshman boats separate from the varsity before going on to win three straight IRA medals. “It really hindered the programs that can’t recruit a full eight of talented recruits.”

Whitlock described his year struggling in a freshman boat as “a hazing year” and admitted that it was the only time he considered quitting the sport.

The ability to row with the varsity instilled a sense of purpose that was often lost in the isolation of rowing in freshman boats. Even the freshman who may not be ready to row in the varsity are pushing for 2V and 3V seats. “The success of the varsity boat is a program-wide effort,” explains Parker, “and that depth pushes everyone to be better.”

That program-wide push has led to an unprecedented era of success for the entire program. While the four year run of varsity medals at the IRA may garner more attention, Parker is quick to point out the success of his Second and Third Varsity crews, highlighting both crews’ 2014 Eastern Sprints Championships. The team as a whole has netted eleven medals over the past four years. It’s this success that really displays the depth of a program and its chances for long-term prosperity.

But what happens after the Gordian Knot has been cut? What goals lie beyond an IRA Championship?

It remains to be seen whether Columbia will continue to capitalize on its recent success. Whether history will look back on this era as the foundation for a greater tradition or, like the late 90s, it will be seen as an anomaly before the program stagnates into another dark age. Classes of great rowers will graduate. Great assistant coaches will leave to seek opportunity elsewhere. But if Nich Parker’s response to his crew’s 2016 IRA Championship is any indication, the program won’t rest on its laurels.

“The rowing stroke is cyclical. It has no true finish. So too is the building of a rowing program.”

“We were watching the IRA race when we were in Spain training for Henley that summer and we were like ‘There are some things we could be doing better in that race.’ We have a group of guys who believe that even when you’re out in front, things can be better.”

The rowing stroke is cyclical. It has no true finish. So too is the building of a rowing program. One season doesn’t end, it simply progresses into the next one. Each stroke represents a new opportunity to do a tiny thing better—something that will improve the rest of the stroke. Each day represents the opportunity to do something better—a small action that will reverberate through your life, your team, your school, your world. With the culture of constant improvement instilled by the Columbia Lightweight Program, its easy to foresee them taking full advantage of any opportunities that will come their way.

Noah Buckley graduated from Columbia in 2012. He currently works as a freelance writer and Assistant Rowing Coach at Seattle Rowing Center.

This article first appeared in Row360 Issue #16 | March 2017

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