One stroke at a time, VCU crew builds reputation

Mason Brown, left, and Tim Nesselrodt, right, joined VCU Crew their freshman years. The seniors will graduate this spring and leave behind a program in the midst of a culture change. Photo by Chris Conway.

Robert Gary
Contributing Writer

They call it “hell week,” but the nickname of the first seven days of the VCU crew team’s season does not do it justice.

One week of intense training pushes members, new and old, to the limit. Hopefuls run miles through backwoods trails and up and down a steep flight of Church Hill stairs. Students struggle to push their bodies through seemingly endless days of cardio that many cannot endure. Those who fight through the first week’s pain still have to pass a mandatory swim test in the waters of the James to become full-fledged members.

Of the more than 150 students who show up at the beginning of the week, roughly one-third don’t make it through the week. And all of this comes before a single person even thinks about stepping into a boat.

“Hell week” epitomizes everything the VCU crew team stands for: personal fitness, dedication and the testing of physical limits of the human body. It’s a microcosm of the typical training regiment rowers dedicate themselves to week in and week out during the actual season, which will begin with the Head of the Ohio competition on Oct. 5.

A changing culture

Each morning, often before dawn, the crew team launches its fleet of 11 boats near Rocketts Landing, where they share a boathouse with the Virginia Boat Club and practice from 5:30 a.m. to 8 a.m. on weekdays. The club, which supports both men’s and women’s teams, competes throughout the year.

Third-year team president Tim Nesselrodt knows all-too-well the demands of the exhausting practice schedule, but says the ends—as painful and tiresome as they may be—justify the means.

“Everything hurts,” Nesselrodt said. ”You are literally pushing yourself to the very limits every single stroke. It is as demanding as it is rewarding.”

Crew was considered a varsity sport at VCU in the ‘70s before a storm knocked down the boathouse where its equipment was stored, effectively ending it. The club team relaunched in 2002, but it wasn’t until recently that the team got serious about competing.

“When we joined, everyone just liked to hang out,” said Mason Brown, the men’s captain and club vice president. “We’re not here to hang out. We’re here to win.”

Brown and Nesselrodt both joined the club their freshman year with no experience and no expectations. Brown says that Nesselrodt joined because he wanted to be “diesel.” Both quickly learned they were taking up the wrong sport if they wanted to build their upper bodies.

The VCU Crew Club launches its boats into the James River near Rocketts Landing around 5 a.m. every weekday morning. The team practices throughout the year to compete in 10 races in the fall and spring.

The sport of rowing stresses the legs more than the arms, and requires superior cardiovascular conditioning. Athletes who compete in crew crave the adrenaline that is brought about by exerting everything one’s body is capable of, continuing to push the limits after every ounce of energy is gone. Brown insists that the human body isn’t naturally designed to compete in such rigorous cardiovascular activities, but that’s the very reason why he participates in the sport.

Both Nesselrodt and Brown fell in love with the sport and have strived to build the program into what it is today: a dominant club team that’s gaining on the nation’s best.

“Our first two years we maybe won one race,” Brown said. “It just wasn’t worth it.”

The team lacked the competitive drive needed to compete with the premiere clubs in the nation. Developing it would take time and require a culture change that Brown said was necessary.

“We put up the expectation that, even though it’s a club sport, we want to win,” Brown said.

This new level of accountability has shown in the team’s recent success. VCU won two regattas, or races, last year and qualified for an invitation to this year’s light four-man competition at the Head of the Charles on Oct. 19-20 in Boston, Mass. The Head of the Charles is the largest and most prestigious college regatta.

Elite teams from across the country will contend, including the likes of Yale, Navy and Harvard—a team that VCU has set their eyes on defeating. As underdogs, the Rams know that success at the Head of the Charles could help establish VCU as a force to be reckoned with in the rowing world.

The Head of the Charles is just one of the ten races the crew team prepares for each season. The crew season is both in the fall (four races) and the spring (six races), and each brings separate racing styles and its own set of challenges.

“Head” races are held in the fall, and are a time-trial styled race that involves boats navigating their way through checkpoints on the river. The boats are released one at a time in 15 second intervals. These races are five kilometers and test a team’s speed, endurance and maneuverability. The courses are purposely varied with challenging twists and sharp turns that boats have to navigate to reach different checkpoints on the river. Completion times vary depending on the difficulty of the course and weather conditions.

Springtime regattas have boats that race head-to-head over a two kilometer course. Casual fans are most often familiar with this format because it is seen in the Olympics. The races are structured in heats, where the boat with the best time advances round-to-round before a winner is crowned.

Unlike women’s rowing, which has NCAA teams, there are no NCAA divisions for men’s rowing, though certain universities do have university sponsored club teams. The Intercollegiate Rowing Association oversees the dividing of schools and their club teams into different regions that allow for competitions at the club level.  VCU participates in the Southern Collegiate Rowing Association.

Most collegiate regattas have different entries based on the size of the boat and gender of the competitors. The VCU team supports many boat sizes for the men’s and women’s races including eight-man, four-man and even a men’s single. The smaller the boat, the harder it is to maneuver. The eight-man boats are considered the premiere racing boat because the most qualified rowers typically team up to move the boat with precision, speed and timing.

Along with traveling up and down the east coast for competitions, the VCU team hosts its own regatta here in Richmond at Rocketts Landing. The annual event brings schools from all across the state including Old Dominion, William & Mary and George Mason.

As a club team growing its reputation, the VCU squad puts its best rowers in the boat at every regatta.

Rowers’ positions are determined by the use of the “Erg,” or ergonomic, an indoor rowing machine that tracks the distance traveled by each athlete as measured by the amount of work each rower performs. On a typical day, a crew member will row more than 20,000 meters. The devices show coaches who has traveled the greatest distance, allowing them to determine where and in what boat to put specific rowers. Boat placement fuels competition among team members.

“Inner-squad competition is just as important to us,” Brown said. “You push yourselves because you are at each other’s throats the whole time. It makes both boats better.”

Off the water, the crew team has also proven to be successful.

Nesselrodt says that fundraising is key to the club’s development because crew is an expensive sport. VCU does allocate a small amount of money to the team to help pay dues; however, the members of the team are still required to raise funds for boats, tournament entrance fees and traveling accommodations for out-of-state competitions. Each student must pay $180 in dues to join the crew team.

Leaving behind a winning mentality

For Nesselrodt and Brown, their focus is the development of future rowers. Both are happy with the recent turnout despite the lack of experience of most new members. On their squad, it’s one seasoned rower for every ten novices. Even so, they know they can be successful as long as the team dedicates itself to brutal workouts and practice schedules.

In the last season of their collegiate careers, both senior leaders are hopeful that their drive and effort will remain a staple of success within the program.

“We hope at the very least that the people here after we graduate keep our mentality,” Nesselrodt said. “We’re here to win. You have to do everything you can and then some to get there.”

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