Crew Cut | Health + Fitness | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Published October 13, 2004 at 4:00 p.m.

Just before daybreak, the Lamoille River curves through Milton like a black satin ribbon, reflecting cobalt blue from the waning moon. A squadron of sweatshirt-clad figures emerges from a red barn on the riverbank and marches through the dark toward the water, carrying a white sliver of a boat over their heads. "Everybody down!" yells the coxswain, fiddling with the mouthpiece that will help him bark orders from the stern. After stamping their feet for warmth, the eight men step lightly into the Vespoli shell, grip their yellow-and-green oars and push off onto the pitch-black river.

Mist rises from the smooth surface; were it not for the red-flashing headlamps of the coxswains and the oars' glimmer, it would be difficult to see any of the four boats out here. Coach Shane Kenney motors alongside the "men's eight" in an aluminum launch, shouting advice in a Massachusetts accent straight out of Good Will Hunting: "Drive with youah legs! Keep youah shoulders relaxed!" His voice carries echoes of Boston's renowned Head of the Charles rowing races held every October -- the American version of the even more prestigious Henley Royal Regatta, which has tempted princes to the Thames since 1839.

The sport romances participants and spectators alike, but it comes calling awfully early in the day. From 5:30 to 7 a.m., when the water is calm, members of the University of Vermont crew team gather on the Lamoille to practice. Unlike the school's recognized "varsity" athletes -- such as basketball or hockey players -- the rowers have no special privileges enabling them to choose classes that leave plenty of time for their athletic endeavors. Some of them must be back on campus by 8 a.m.

But these athletes are clearly of varsity, if not otherworldly, caliber. They stumble out of bed at 4:30, careful not to wake their roommates, to throw on clothes and trudge to the gym, where the carpools meet to drive to the river. While most of us are still fumbling with the snooze button on our alarm clocks, they're ratcheting their heart rates up to 180 beats per minute -- about the effort it takes Lance Armstrong to race uphill in the Tour de France. And as occupants of farmhouses along the Lamoille begin to switch on kitchen lights and prepare their breakfasts, some of the UVM rowers look as if they're about to lose their lunch from the extraordinary amount of exertion.

"Every morning you ask yourself why you do it," says aptly-named senior Michele Lareau. "And if it weren't for the other girls, and the team, I probably wouldn't."

As the dawn sky begins to turn strawberry pink, the boats click into such a smooth rhythm that a great blue heron remains standing just a few feet away, unperturbed. A duck perches on one leg and flaps its wings, as if dancing for his fellow birds; gulls wing overhead. Eight sets of oars slice through the water in perfect synchronicity, the result of intense teamwork.

Since its founding as one of UVM's student-run organizations in 1986, the crew club has started to see some of that teamwork pay off. In this season's inaugural race on October 3 at Lowell, Massa-chusetts, the varsity women's eight won the gold medal, cruising through the 3.25-mile course in 21 minutes and 36 seconds. While UVM's rugby team, another club sport, was getting sacked in an alcohol-related suspension, the women's crew team topped such powerhouse schools as MIT and Tufts University, which hail from the rowing-obsessed Boston area and its Charles River.

What makes UVM's crew do so well? Their success surely isn't the result of comfort -- the athletes crash on friends' and families' living room floors when traveling. Nor can it be ascribed to diet -- with no stipend, they dine on only what they can afford. Their achievement may be due, at least in part, to a unique relationship the team has developed with the Chittenden County community.

The Rent-a-Rower program, now in its second decade, dispatches brawny boatmen and women to folks who need help around the house. Fifteen dollars an hour buys the same shoulders that hoist hulls down to the water every day, the same legs that drive such powerful strokes, and the same minds that remain focused on grueling tasks until the last oar has been stored properly in the red barn. "We once raked leaves for four hours!" says sophomore Rachelle St. Onge.

In addition to raking leaves for single mothers or moving furniture for retirees, the crew team has built sheds, mowed lawns, stacked wood, painted houses, even just babysat. "There are very few jobs we won't do," says Lareau. "This weekend we're going to North Ferrisburgh -- we're desperate!"

Some residents have become regulars of -- even addicted to -- their rented rowers. One weekend last year, a woman called in two athletes to paint a couple rooms in her house. A few days after they finished, she called the UVM crew office again -- to have the walls repainted in a different color. Oh, and to accent the rooms with a sponge soaked in the first color. "She tried that, and didn't like it, so I had to paint over those sections again," says junior Martha Robles. "I like painting, so it wasn't too bad -- but I was so scared I would drip somewhere."

Lucky handymen and women might return to campus well-fueled, as some clients will cook lunch or bake banana bread or cookies for their crew. They also bring back bucks that will help fund the sport's high price -- Vespoli shells sell for about $20,000, while a single oar can cost $250. To gain an edge on the spring season, which features the adrenaline-filled sprints of 2000 meters, the team also saves for its March-break training in South Carolina.

As a student-run organization, the team has its own board, which meets regularly to discuss issues such as financing. "It takes a lot of money to get a crew club up and running," says Kenney, who relocated from Boston College to coach the men. "And these guys take the initiative to get everything done -- it's amazingly efficiently run."

The rowers walk away from their jobs with something other than community interaction and money: a new alliance. Crew requires occupants of each boat to be completely in tune with each other, or the shell will be off balance -- and slow. "When we went to move wood, there were three novice girls there," says Robles. "I remember being worried about splinters and stacking the wood wrong, but what I remember most were the conversations, and how the new girls weren't strangers anymore." m

It may sound saccharine, but such an approach will ultimately help UVM continue to smash the competition. There may be something masochistic in college students who wake at 4:30 a.m., attend board meetings between classes and spend free weekend time stacking wood or raking leaves, but it's working. "I always feel a sense of pride as we roll up and walk to our trailer of boats," says Robles. "It's like, 'That's right, I row and I love it and we're going to kick some ass today.'"