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Through crew’s eyes: from dusk til dawn

Crew during practice. (Willoughby Smith)

At 4 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon, Katie Crownover was still dressed in her practice clothes from earlier that morning. She looked tired, and judging by the amount of books she had with her, her day was far from over. But the minute we started talking about crew, Crownover’s face lit up and she was nothing but smiles.

“It’s really a rewarding experience,” the sophomore creative writing major said. “It takes a lot of planning ahead, but it’s worth it.”

Crownover joined the crew team when she came to Mills College as a first-year just to stay active. She didn’t think she’d stick with it for more than two weeks.

“I was so tired, and it was intimidating at first – practicing with the upperclassmen.”

It wasn’t until the team went out for its first practice on the water that she fell in love with the sport.

“There are the tense days, of course, but then there are the really awesome ones,” she said.

At the end of her first crew season on the novice team, she was nominated for the Golden M award for crew, which acknowledges a team member for her committment and dedication to her particular team.

According to Crownover, being nominated justified the hard work she had been putting into the sport, and was an incentive for her to return the following season.

But that isn’t the only incentive.

“I get to see the stars and the sunrise six days a week,” she said.

The team practices on Briones, a public-owned reservoir in Orinda, Calif.

Now getting up for crew’s infamous 5:30 a.m. practices is part of her daily routine.

“I pack my bag the night before and, if I don’t, I forget something essential, like sneakers or a water bottle, which makes practice really uncomfortable,” Crownover said.

After waking up at 4:45 a.m. and eating a cereal bar or a piece of fruit, Crownover heads to Haas Pavilion to hop in the team van and head to practice.

Just as the van turns onto the road leading into Briones, Head Coach Carrie Davis lets the rowers out and they jog the final 1/2 mile. Once they arrive, the rowers stretch, tape their hand to prevent blisters, go over the plan for that morning’s practice and carry their boats down to the dock.

After morning practice, many of the team’s rowers and coxswains head to Founders Commons for a team breakfast. The athletes’ meals consist of a variety of proteins and complex carbohydrates, which means lots of eggs, oatmeal, spinach and fruit. Depending on their class schedules, coffee may not be a bad idea, either.

Later on in the day, Crownover has a little free time to shower, finish homework or take a nap. After eating dinner, she does homework until 9 p.m. and is in bed by 9:30 or 10 p.m. on a good night. One night a week, Crownover has a night class, during which she says it is hard to stay awake and focused.

“But you make it work,” she said. “No matter what time you go to bed some nights, you’re still going to be up and at practice early the next morning.”

The time practice begins differs each morning depending on the team’s race schedule, but it doesn’t officially start until approximately 6 a.m., when the team gets out on the water.

Practice begins with a series of warm-up drills in short intervals, which are geared to target specific strokes. Then the rowers practice what they call “pieces,” which occur in longer intervals and either replicate sections of a race or an entire race. The rowers repeat these sections until they fall into sync and get them right.

Crownover sits in the stroke seat – also known as eight seat – in the stern (front) of the boat. Rowers in the stroke seat are leaders, responsible for setting the pace. The rower has to have strong technical skills to set and keep that pace.

At the beginning of second semester last year, Crownover started keeping a practice log, which she uses to keep track of how her practices progress, her erg goals and everything she eats each day. Ergometers, ergs for short, are indoor rowing machines that simulate rowing on the water.

“It helps me notice trends in what I need to work on and what I’m succeeding at,” she said.

Because crew practices in the morning, Crownover’s daily routine requires intensive scheduling. She has her class times and homework syllabi written in a planner, on her cellphone and on a white board in her room. “Otherwise,” she said, “I know I would forget about something.”

Aside from crew and classes, Crownover is a member of the Student Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC), which she said is important to her because it increases her involvement in athletic events on campus.

“Athletics at Mills are underground,” she said. “It’s good to see how much support we have here.”

Crownover believes support comes from Davis.

“Carrie built up a lot of trust with us in a short amount of time,” said Crownover. “She knows when we need to be pushed and encouraged, and she knows when we just need a break.”