Before sunrise: Brandeis crew practices before campus awakes

Meet the Brandeis rowers, the first of the early birds, who practice in the early morning hours

For Elizabeth “Bess” Alshvang ’16, standing on the banks of the Charles River in Cambridge alongside elite rowers from around the globe was as humbling as it was surreal.
It was the day before the 2014 Head of the Charles Regatta—the largest two-day boat race in the world—and she and her Brandeis crew teammates were preparing to row the course alongside boats that included some of the 2012 London Olympians who inspired her to take up the sport.
“Here we all were, next to some of the best rowers in the world,” Alshvang, the team’s co-president, recalled thinking. “And the campus didn’t know Brandeis students were with them, right there on the Charles. When I got back to campus, I was in disbelief.”
In many ways, the accomplishments of the Judges crew program, which is a Brandeis club sport, sneak right by the campus community every day.
Unlike most Brandeis sports teams, which practice in the late afternoon and early evening while in season, crew practices start before sunrise. The team gathers outside the Gosman Sports and Convocation Center at 5 a.m., departs for Lasell College’s Riverside Boathouse at 5:15 a.m. sharp, and then, after an aerobic warm-up on the Charles River shore, puts their boats in the water just before 6 a.m.
Nights get longer as the semester progresses, so the team gets increasingly less daylight for practices. To counter this, the boats are equipped with lights on the bow and each coxswain wears a headlamp to spot objects in the water that, if unseen, have the potential to pierce the shell’s hull, which in some places is less than one centimeter thick.
Practice begins at the boathouse, which is situated under an Interstate-90 overpass, and continues eastward. As the sun comes up, the Judges pass by riverside homes before approaching the Charles River apartment residence halls. The course includes views of Usen Castle’s highest tower and the Shapiro Science Center’s observatory before it finishes at the dam just past the Watch Factory and Moody Street in downtown Waltham.
The team is surrounded by beauty as it heads downriver—coach Catharine Davie ’12 noted that the foliage gets better every day—but there is no time for sightseeing. All 42 athletes, whether novice rowers or on the varsity squad, are focused on refining their technique and communications with their boat mates.
“The rowers have to figure out teamwork,” Davie said. “If something’s not going right, they can either fix it themselves or rely on someone else. If one person gets frustrated, the whole boat gets frustrated, so they have to learn to make suggestions and stay positive.”
Under Davie’s tutelage, the Judges have notched some impressive results. Earlier this month, Alshvang and her teammate Mozelle Shamash-Rosenthal took third place in the women’s pair at the Textile Regatta in Lowell, Massachusetts. Last spring, the Alexandra Libstag and Elise Sobotka reached the semifinals of the women’s pair at the Dad Vail Regatta in Philadelphia. Up next is the Head of the Fish Regatta on Oct. 31 and Nov. 1, in Saratoga Springs, New York.
“I’m leading four novices, all freshman, in the regatta,” said coxswain Samuel Chakmakjian ‘17. “I want them to experience the togetherness that comes with working with a group of people that you otherwise wouldn’t be connected to for a common goal. I hope they can feel that power and physically feel the boat move when they complete each action.”
The Head of the Fish marks the end of the fall season’s races, though the rowers will only have one week of reprieve before beginning their winter training and continuing to prepare for the spring season regattas, including the New England Rowing Championships in April.
Looking ahead, Davie said while Brandeis often competes against other schools that have larger, better-funded programs with more coaches, she believes the Judges are well positioned to race competitively in pair races. “We purchased a brand new pair of boats last year, one of which we named the Margo in honor of Alexandra Libstag's mother, who passed away after a battle with cancer. Our athletes are inspired from the strength and bravery that Alexandra and Margo showed us and are honored to carry that name on our boat through their toughest races.”

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