Shortly after dawn on a brisk April morning, steam rises from the cold, calm surface of Lake Michie. Except for the honking of Canada geese overhead, the lake is quiet. Two wakeless launches—quiet motorboats—shear through the water.
“Make sure you’re rowing as straight as you can!” yells the woman piloting one of the boats. She has a megaphone.
“Roll it hard!” barks the hoarse-sounding man, steering the other. “Legs! Legs! Harder, legs!”
Nearby, two carbon-fiber racing hulls, each containing nine women—eight rowers and a coxswain—cut the water, propelled not by motors, but by the catch and release of the oars. Directing them is Megan Cooke Carcagno, who last July became head coach of the Duke women’s rowing team, only the second coach in the squad’s eighteen-year history. A University of California graduate and former member of the U.S. National Team, she spent seven years at Wisconsin, where she served as freshman coach, a varsity assistant, and associate head coach.
Six mornings a week, from September through May, Carcagno, her two assistant coaches, Chuck Rodosky and Chase Graham, and thirty-seven rowers arrive at sunrise to train at a rural paradise in northern Durham County. “We deal with wind, rain, and sun,” Carcagno says, dressed in a polar coat, her face tan from hours on the water, even though it’s only March. A mallard skims the water in front of the boat. “It’s harsh but beautiful.”
This morning, the unranked women’s team prepares for a race against Virginia, the best team in the ACC and number four in the nation. “We work on rhythm”—thirty-five strokes per minute—“ and come together as a boat,” says Rodosky, a former assistant at Ohio State and a Big Ten and NCAA champion. The practice pits the second varsity team, known as the 2V8, against the first varsity team, V8, in a simulated race: two kilometers in less than seven minutes.
“Come on, you have 500 meters to hold them off,” Rodosky says.
The V8, which intentionally started the race a few meters behind, pulls even. Its stern edges ahead.
“Less than ninety seconds!” yells Carcagno.
The V8 surges and wins by about a half length.
THE MOON, in its last quarter, is still up. The sun breaks over the treeline, dousing the lake in gold. Today Carcagno is working with the developmental team, women new to rowing. All of them played other sports in high school—swimming, soccer, cross country—and all have two attributes in common: “Legs and lungs,” Carcagno says.
The key, she explains, is “you need to move the boat, not the water.” Small motions make a big difference: the placement of the thumb on the handle, the position of the shoulders, the angle of the collarbone to the oar. And it all has to be done in unison. She compares rowing to “running a mile with seven of your friends at the same pace and step.”
That level of concentration makes it very internal, she says. “You’re like a ninja, and then you’re like a wildebeest.”
Among NCAA sports, rowing might be the only one in which walk-ons and newcomers have a genuine chance to excel. For example, nineteen of the women who competed in rowing in the 2012 London Olympics started the sport in college.
Senior Mary Wilson was a walk-on, but played field hockey, swam, and rowed in high school. She chose to try out for the Duke rowing team, she says, because “being an athlete would make me a better student, and being a student would make me a better athlete.” The South Carolina native, who is studying psychology and neuroscience, already has the requisite mental toughness: “Swimming taught me to go to that excruciating place. And stay there.”
Hunched in the stern of a boat is the coxswain of the V8 squad, Simone Pitre. An All-ACC Academic and senior from Ontario, Pitre stands just five-foot-three, and like most coxswains, she is the smallest— and loudest—person on the team. In addition to steering the boat with a rudder, she guides and encourages the rowers on the water.
“One of the most challenging parts of being a coxswain is figuring out where to draw the line between being an authoritative figure in the boat and being a friend and teammate,” Pitre says. “When I get too excited and frantic with my voice, the rowers get frazzled and are all over the place. My motivations and calls have to be a balance of rhythmic words and positive feedback to get the boat moving the way we want.”
In many ways, rowing is a metaphor for life. Sometimes the water is calm; in other moments, the waves are choppy, with whitecaps. “Rowing has taught me to be my own coxswain,” Pitre says, “to motivate myself during the tough times and to push on to that finish line.”