It’s hard to keep a sunrise from being beautiful, but you would think the North Shore Channel is trying its best. As the Northwestern Women’s Crew Team enthusiastically notes, signs everywhere along the channel warn swimmers about its toxicity (that didn’t stop one heroic member of the Men’s Crew Team from diving in to rescue a sinking motor from a coach’s boat), and the periodic skyline interruptions in the form of highway overpasses and El tracks leave little to be desired.
Nonetheless, the sun still rises beautifully, and once it does the women’s team has been out on the water for almost 45 minutes. Every weekday during the fall and spring quarters, Northwestern Crew takes to the channel before dawn for practice. And when they do take to the water, the rowers could not be further from Evanston life.
“It’s really foreign to a lot of people,” says SESP senior Rebecca Stith, the team’s captain. “For me, I didn’t do it in high school. It’s a really big commitment for us, and people on campus wouldn’t know that since they don’t see this.”
Stith is referring to the team dutifully shouldering their boat at 5 a.m. on a Wednesday (as Weinberg sophomore Alanna Henry puts it, “if you miss practice, we know that you’re sleeping”). Senior coxswain Izzy Rodriguez barks orders that seem far too imposing for her 5-foot-2-inch form, leading her rowers down from the boathouse to the channel (a coxswain serves as the boat’s de facto captain, steering and setting the pace for the rowers). They hit the water under cover of darkness, flanked by a second boat with men from the Chicago Rowing Union that practices with the team. Anthony Chacon, a technology manager at the University of Chicago by day, coaches both teams from a motorboat, making liberal use of a flashlight and megaphone.
“Race with your brain, not with your muscles,” Chacon calls out after one stretch of intense rowing. The team is in heavy preparation for the Head of the Rock Regatta on Oct. 9 in Rockford, Ill., and Chacon is trying to fix a balance problem the boat is having. Chacon’s coaching is half-psychology, half-physiology: Whether he’s egging the rowers on with allusions to the “amazons” from a rival school or attempting to eradicate a particularly troublesome flaw in a rower’s stroke (today all of them are struggling with their hips), the rapport between the team and Chacon is strong.
It needs to be, as the Northwestern program operates with a heavy handicap. Many of the programs they compete against have the luxury of scholarships and heavy funding from their school, while Northwestern’s team members raise their own funds and pay their own coach. The vast majority of the team started rowing after they arrived on campus.
When they arrive on dry land at 6:55 a.m., having rowed from Skokie down northeast past Ryan Field and back, the exhaustion sets in. The complete product of rowing crew is elegant, with smooth boats gliding seemingly effortlessly along the water, but the individual effort is strikingly primal and intense. When asked what makes the extraordinary toil that takes place everyday in Skokie worthwhile, Rodriguez hesitates momentarily, nearly defeated by the cold wet morning, but she almost instantaneously recovers.
“I get a lot of satisfaction from putting this much time and work into something, and then seeing it pay off in a race,” she says, beaming. “Knowing that we’re kind of an underdog team, not as funded as other teams and without as many members or equipment, that we can still go out there and win regardless, I think that’s pretty cool.”