A plunge into the frigid waters of Port Jefferson was a celebration of the hard-earned success and determination of the Stony Brook University Rowing Club.
The “Polar Plunge” tradition called for participants to jump into into 55 degree water after the Stony Brook Women’s Rowing team won the Women’s Collegiate Novice four race at the this year’s Bill Braxton Memorial Regatta, held on Nov. 8.
Usually, only the steersman of the boat (called a coxswain) is pushed in, but this was a rare moment for the club team, which has been working its way to first place in regattas for years fighting against teams with deeper pockets and more experienced rowers.
Practice at the Port Jeff Yacht Club starts as early as 5:30 a.m. for these devoted rowers. The club members spend weeks refining their skills on land before they have the opportunity to get their feet wet at water practices. The early mornings consist of working out on rowing machines in the recreation center and little conversation.
“It’s a non-verbal agreement that we are all there for a good reason,” Shashank Gupta, a sophomore biomedical engineering major who has been rowing with the team for a year and a half, said. “If you can wake up at 6 a.m. and go everyday, you’re committed enough to be on the team.”
That commitment is not consistent throughout the team. Many of the newer rowers interested in the club attend a practice or two and do not return, according to the club president, Sean Kreitzer. Eventually, the fluctuations cease and a crew team emerges. Those who stick around are put into women’s or men’s boats and can compete.
Competition is the only time men and women are separated. The club practices together, rides to regattas together and shares a coach, Walker Bradshaw.
“Anyone who’s ever been on a crew team knows the kind of bond that forms between athletes,” Bradshaw said. “Maybe it’s the grueling 6 a.m. workouts that they suffer together or the races they win together, but the crew team is pretty special.”
The bonds the team builds are crucial to success in competition, according to Gupta, because rowing requires each team member to be in near perfect synchronization with their boat. The team must maintain an equal speed, hold their oars at equal heights and account for wind resistance to match the mechanics needed to win.
“Strong but collected,” Gupta said. “That’s what successful boats are.”
The rowing club has been working toward this success for decades. The crew program began on the original Oyster Bay campus around 1958 before the Stony Brook campus was built.
The first boat donated to the program was damaged during transportation to the team.
The club’s “newest” boat is 14-years-old and was recently acquired by the club’s president Kreitzer, a senior political science major who has rowed with the team for three years. The boat came as part of a plan to update and improve on the club.
“Having better equipment would inspire more confidence in the athletes” Kreitzer said. “It would boost team morale.”
He said competing with other teams who have better equipment can be discouraging and has even led to rowers quitting the club.
In order to make the upgrade a reality, fewer regattas were planned for this semester. Each regatta comes with its own costs of entry, transportation and other expenses.
Since it is a campus club, it is supported financially by the Undergraduate Student Government. The $29,501.45 the club receives from USG, along with donations, has been enough to keep the club afloat, but not enough to allow for separate coaches or new equipment that could boost the club into higher competitive levels.
“It’s a club team putting in serious effort to become something more,” Bradshaw said. “When I first got here they were your typical club team with not a lot of organization, but they have really transformed and learned the ins and outs of what a successful program looks like.”