The sun is a faint pink presence behind buildings lining the Harlem River as the Fordham crew hits the piers at Peter Sharp Boathouse. It is 6:20 a.m., and a lone seagull perched on a pylon takes flight across the glassy waters as the rowers approach.
For the 50 team members who have traveled here from Rose Hill, this is the first activity of the day. Six days a week, for more than two hours, the men and women haul out their shells, take to the river, and row.
And row some more.
Down the river and under the High Bridge, to Yankee Stadium, then up beyond University Heights. They race each other, starting at moderate stroke speed, gradually upping their strokes to build strength and endurance.
“For a college student, being on crew takes a lot of dedication,” said Ted Bonanno, coach of the men’s club sport and women’s varsity crew. “Not only do they row about 10 miles on the river every morning, but almost all of them come to the Lombardi Center in the afternoon after classes and practice on the rowing machines. It’s work.”
Such hard work led the men’s team to a record-breaking win last year in the Collegiate 4 at the internationally acclaimed Head of the Charles in Boston. On Oct. 23 and 24 of this year, the team returns to defend its title and try for another win—this time perhaps in the Collegiate 8 category.
However, Fordham’s crew already has set its own personal best by receiving bids to participate in five events at the Head of the Charles this year: three men’s categories and two women’s categories. It is the most bids a Fordham crew has ever received.
“We’ve never had so many rowers at the Head of the Charles before, and we’re all excited,” said Angelo Labatte, a Fordham College at Rose Hill junior majoring in history and anthropology. “We’re a pretty young team, but almost all of us should get some experience, and hopefully a win.”
Unlike most team sports, where star players are often singled out, being on crew is being part of a well-oiled machine that works not just in unison but also in tandem. Some have called it the ultimate team sport.
“Crew is unique; I don’t know of any other sport like it,” said John Kriss (FCRH ’62), a member of Fordham’s Board of Trustees and an enthusiastic supporter of both men’s and women’s crew. Of all his experiences at Fordham, said Kriss, crew is the most memorable.
“Crew was the single biggest influence on my life,” said Kriss, who recently bought new shells for the team. “There are eight people pulling together as a unit. You slide together, you dip the oar in the water together, pull back together. You feel the same pain at the same time and you go into oxygen deficit at the same time. There is no room for slackers.
“If you dedicate yourself to that discipline,” Kriss continued, “by the time you graduate and go out into the world you’ll understand what it means to work as a team.”
The one crew position that stands alone is that of coxswain, defined literally as “boat servant.” The coxswain sits at the rear of the boat calling out the stroke rating and the direction for the rowers, who row with their backs to the front of the boat.
On this morning, Fordham coxswains Abigail Paparo, an FCRH junior majoring in Latin American studies, and John Callahan, a freshman in the Gabelli School of Business, also have to whip up motivation: Coach Bonanno has instructed them to take their crew up to a 32-34 rating (strokes per minute) on the last leg of practice.
“The psychological aspect of leading is tough,” said Callahan, a high school coxswain who was recruited to the team just a week after the start of the semester. “You want to get the rowers to empty it, give it all they’ve got, but you also have to make sure they don’t lose their technique when they tire.”
There is also pressure on coxswains, said Paparo, during a race such as the Charles, where the course winds and turns.
“If you don’t have a good grasp of steering and when to cut that turn, and if you can’t make split-second decisions, you could lose a race,” Paparo said. “It often comes down to seconds and inches.”
Bonanno said he expects “great things” from his team this year in skill-building and in competition.
And regardless of the outcome on October 23 and 24, crew members Michael White and Chris Reich, both FCRH juniors who were part of last year’s Head of the Charles Collegiate 4-winning team, say they will have a lifelong ethic of discipline—thanks to the sport.
“Crew has helped me learn to manage my time, with practice, study and classes,” said White, a double major in mathematics and economics.