WILLIAMSTOWN, MASS. – Eph men's head crew coach Marc Mandel enters his fourth season, uncertain when his team will next be on the water. The spring portion of the 2019-20 racing year was halted last March 13 when the COVID-19 worldwide pandemic stopped all Eph winter teams either competing in NCAA Championship events and spring teams just beginning their seasons.
While Williams College has opened its campus for classes and also is offering remote study, indoor athletic facilities, including the team's boathouse on Onota Lake in Pittsfield, remain closed through December, resulting in a fall season for men's crew that looks quite different from past years.
The 2020 fall men's crew roster of students on campus features the return of nine members of the senior class, seven juniors, and eleven sophomores. Additionally, the team has welcomed seven first-year athletes with high school rowing experience. "Despite a lack of competition and the ability to row on the water, our goals for this fall are very intentional," noted Mandel. "First and foremost, we want to provide a varied structure for our athletes to train together, supporting their mental and physical health. Second, our athletes took ownership of their training over the past six months while we were apart, with many taking up cycling or upping their weekly running mileage, so we want to continue to create space for them to pursue these other means of training. Finally, at some point in the future, we will line up on the water against other crews, so we will continue to be thoughtful in how we approach our rowing-specific training on the erg, paying particular attention to continuing to develop our feel for the rowing stroke."
Senior Cameron Edgar stated, "The biggest difference between this year and previous ones is not only not being able to row on the water, but also not experiencing the daily bus rides to and from our lake with my teammates -- a key aspect of our team building process. Instead, we've had to do most of our bonding at outdoor meals in smaller groups, which have been somewhat of a welcome change from crowded dining hall excursions, but still are much more difficult for building relationships between all members of such a large team.
"The focus of our fall races was always on experience and chemistry that we could later apply in our spring season rather than the actual race results, so that aspect doesn't feel too different. I'd say that the weirdest part is training without knowing what our status will be for the spring. As a senior, it feels weird that I may or may not be preparing for a spring season in which I may never get to participate. Regardless, we are all committed to making each other faster and getting each other in the best shape to compete, independent of whenever that may be.
"Life on campus is undoubtedly different during this pandemic. In the context of rowing, it feels odd not to be able to approach teammates in order to motivate them through a tough piece or congratulate them upon completion -- a huge element of our past practices -- but is still refreshing to train in the same space as everyone again. The coaching staff and captains have also done an excellent job of hosting conversations and ice breakers to welcome the first years while still following social distancing guidelines. I feel that we've made the best out of the situation and will continue to do so throughout the fall."
For now, the team will take advantage of the space available at the college's Weston Field Athletic Complex, where they have stored many ergs, have the ability to train on the Lee Family Track, and have access to the nearby Williams Sports Performance Tent. "Generally, this fall our weekly schedule will include three erg sessions, two strength training sessions, one trail running session, and any additional running, cycling, or hiking our athletes pursue in the beautiful Berkshires," Mandel noted.
Junior Sam Holmes remarked, "Training this fall for crew is a very different experience than it was in past years. I think the idea of not getting on a bus each afternoon and heading to Onota Lake and instead, going to erg outside by the track, has been very weird. I definitely miss being able to actually row, but I think that erging, especially outside, has helped to soften a lot of the blow.
"The nice thing is that we are still a team and still are able to hang out, although in smaller groups, which is great because my teammates have always been my favorite part of being on crew. Training this fall, knowing that we don't have races, is a different experience. It feels more like usual winter training or like I am training to be in shape in general, not training for crew. But overall I think that adjusting to campus this year has been easier than I expected. Even though it is super weird to have to wear masks and not be able to gather with the team as usual."
Sophomore Robin Lamb commented, "Compared to my freshman year last year it's been very different, but this difference feels isolated to certain aspects of life on campus. When I'm with my pod or in an in-person class, the experience feels very similar, if not the same as last year. On the other hand, interacting with people outside my pod feels very strange this year given the need to social distance and how much social norms have had to change. Perhaps the most different though is practice as normally we'd be getting on a packed bus and going to a lake, versus this year walking to Weston.
"Not having any races in the fall is certainly strange, but in many ways it's been nice to have a period of time where the focus is just on rowing for the sake of it, as well as to have the opportunity to take a really long term approach to the spring racing season without
"I had been out of quarantine for a while before classes started, but once they did finding a rhythm was harder given the mix of in person and remote commitments. In person classes were perhaps the hardest thing to readjust to as I was so out of the habit of needing to bring anything to class. That said after a few weeks on campus things are starting to feel normal and it's really nice to be back at Williams and see my friends and teammates again, and to be part of the Williams community.
Another side effect of the COVID-19 pandemic is that it eliminated the traditional version of the First Days orientation program, which in the past has provided the team a unique environment to present the opportunity of rowing to first year students. "Walk-on novice athletes are an important part of our team, and you can find athletes who at some point learned to row at Williams mixed throughout all of our boats, from our first boat to our equally important fourth boat," Mandel remarked. "Our athletes row for the relationships our sport fosters, the day to day improvement that comes from patient training, and of course the thrill of racing in a shell with eight other athletes." It is not unusual for a former high school athlete who competed in another sport other than rowing to pick up rowing in college as a way to continue to compete and belong to a group of dedicated athletes. "Despite not having our traditional recruiting events on campus, the level of interest has been strong," Mandel said. "That being said, for athletes brand new to the sport, starting their career restricted to rowing machines will be challenging in more ways than one. The "why" that has hooked and fueled so many of our athletes will be very different in the short-run, so a trust in the process and forming connections with new teammates will be invaluable."
First year Trevor Eckler stated, "The biggest difference between my high school rowing experience and my limited experience on the Williams crew team is the team's cohesiveness. In high school I was close with the other athletes in my boat and had many friends within the team, but in my short experience at Williams so far the connections between athletes span across all years and ability. The upperclassmen on the team have put in a lot of effort to get to know the first years and it has made the transition from high school rowing to collegiate rowing easier than expected.
Throughout the college process, Williams was always at the top of my list, and after my visit to campus where I got to attend classes and meet many different people from the Williams community, I knew it was a great fit. I was able to see myself at Williams as both a student and as an athlete, and that combination made choosing Williams an easy decision."
Recruiting experienced high school crew athletes during the pandemic is also much different than the pre-pandemic days. "With the realization that we wouldn't able to host students for overnight visits on campus this fall, we were much more proactive in getting to know prospective student-athletes via Zoom calls this summer," Mandel added. "We also made sure to connect them with some of our current team members for an informal Zoom conversation -- similar to what they might experience in the dining hall or common room during a campus visit. At this point we've developed meaningful relationships with many talented rowing student athletes, and are excited about the prospects for the future. We also will welcome two students who were initially slated to join the Class of '24, who are on gap years."