If you follow me on Instagram then you probably saw my story from early December of the black-tie banquet that I spent most of the fall helping plan and organize. One of the bigger parts of the evening was honoring our “crew of the year” – shout out to the women’s varsity four – and one of our alums as “alumni of the year”. The alum that was chosen gave a really stirring speech that I thought you’d be interested in reading so that’s what today’s post is. I think that regardless of who we row for or where we’re all at in our rowing careers, there’s something in here that we can relate to. I hope you find something that speaks to you that you can carry with you throughout 2018, both on and off the water.
“Good evening fellow Columbians and most welcome guests.
I am humbled to stand before you here tonight and wonder why you would choose to honor me, for I have not come close to matching the generosity of Tom Cornacchia or Dean Dakolias for Columbia Rowing. Nor can I claim to have represented our program on a national team like Nick LaCava or Libby Peters or my classmate Juan Felix. I was never in a Varsity Heavyweight Eight that won the Child’s or Blackwell Cups. I did not contribute to the glory of winning the IRA like that great Lightweight Crew in 2016.
I consider my own accomplishments as a Varsity Oarsman at Columbia to be rather ordinary. Nevertheless, as I contemplate my life since graduating from Columbia, it is clear to me that the experience of rowing at Columbia has been the foundation and the forge of whatever I may have achieved in my life since leaving this great University.
We are here tonight because we share an abiding affection for both rowing and our Alma Mater.
The sport of rowing is not really easy to explain to anyone who has not invested the time necessary to overcome those early awkward moments of uncertainty and instability that are apparent when sitting in an eight and while the mechanics of the stroke itself are not especially complex, mastering the execution of the stroke in synchronicity to create power and propulsion requires a level of skill and sensitivity that may not be obvious to someone watching a shell moving through the water at speed. There are layers of mystery and subtlety that shroud our sport from the comprehension of non-rowers.
This may be one of the reasons why rowing lends itself so well to romantic imagery in poetry, photography and painting. The world of rowing is populated by arcane words and unique rituals and routines. Day after day, we laid our “hands on” the shell, lowering it to our shoulders, “counting down” from the bow, “shoving off” from the dock, and waiting to hear “ready all row”. The comforting and terrifying voice of the coxswain exhorting us to give him or her a “power ten”, obediently raising the stroke rate by going “up two in two” and then “up two more”, while waiting to hear with desperate anticipation for the “last twenty” and the final relief of “paddle” and “weigh enough”.
But I did not come here tonight to reminisce about these gentle memories or to tease you with the imagery of those tiny ephemeral whirlpools and the concentric puddles our oars left behind our sterns or the magical sounds of bubbles dancing along the hull when our boats had achieved that perfect set of balance and precision and power and speed.
A painting by Tomas Eakins we all probably first saw in our Art Hum class cannot satisfy my urge to articulate to you tonight what I felt when rowed. I need a different medium to explain what rowing for Columbia meant to me, a medium that accurately illustrates the violent and extreme feelings that I confronted as an oarsman and which have irrevocably shaped my character ever since.
The vehicle I chose to offer you this evening that I believe expresses these feelings best is The Iliad of Homer, a text I believe should be familiar to all Columbians. Tonight I would like to give you an interpretation of this great epic through the eyes of a Columbia Oarsman, who was a “walk on” to the Freshman Crew Team in September of 1976.
Now I have to confess that I was rather chubby at that time in my life and my previous athletic experiences were limited to long walks with 14 clubs over my shoulder on municipal golf courses. I assure you that I was by no means considered “first boat material” by our coach, Ted Bonnano, when I showed up for that first day of practice in the tanks below this very stage where I stand tonight.
One of the first things I noticed was the ever present underlying competitiveness of rowing. Weight training, running stairs in Pupin Hall, the Hill at Baker Field, the Double Hill at Baker Field, the Loop in Central Park and worst of all, erg tests in that dark and rancid cave off the running track in Dodge were all different metrics to establish where I stood against all the other members of our crew and which boat I would be assigned to sit in. And once in those boats we learned to race. First against each other, day after day, in that diabolical device known as “seat racing”. Next we raced against the Varsity Heavies, or the JV Heavies or the Lightweight Eights and finally against Princeton, Penn, Navy, and MIT. To row was to race and races were meant to be won.
The next and most lasting impression I had in those early days of my rowing career was the level of pain we must endure in rowing, from the first twenty strokes at the start to the final sprint. The level of pain sustained throughout a 2000 meter race is indescribable and inescapable. The burning of lactic acid and the sting of adrenaline in the back of my throat were sensations I had not been familiar with in my previous life as a golfer when serious stress may have been sweaty palms from time to time when confronting a four foot putt for a birdie. At some point around Spring Break of my Freshman Year I remember asking myself a very important question:
“Why would anyone, particularly, chubby Phil Adkins, willingly and enthusiastically participate in a sporting endeavor that is essentially a contest of who could sustain the most pain for the longest possible time?”
Looking back now I realize that what motivated me. What I relished the most, for the first time in my life, were my adversaries. Their presence in my life was a great gift and they served to fuel my deepest desires to dominate and defeat them. For me the most effective antidote for pain was the feral feelings of fury and rage that consumed me whenever I pulled on an oar.
And Homer nailed it from the very first line of The Iliad: “Sing oh Muse of the Rage of Achilles”. For me, rage worked.
Revisit for a moment your own recollections of backing down your eight into the stake boat at the start of a race, the quick glance out of the corner of your eye at your opposite number across that narrow stretch of water as the boats line up, all the while your heart is pounding and your sinews stretch in anticipation of those explosive words: “Get ready … row”.
Compare your own intimate thoughts at that moment of brutal confrontation with the words of Achilles when he squared off against Hector as their final battle commenced and shouted: “I only wish my fury would compel me to cut away your flesh and eat it raw”. As you know, things did not go well for Hector that day.
The Iliad is filled with battles, not all of them with fatal consequences and Homer had a very deep bench of adversaries and protagonists. But the essential theme of the poem is not necessarily rage and revenge. The more significant lesson of the poem is transcendent and another fight in particular reveals to us a deeper, more human and compassionate relationship between combatants that resonates well with our fundamental human need to ultimately reconcile rage with respect for our opponents.
There is a duel between Ajax and Hector that captures these two extremes perfectly and takes us well beyond the sullen and beastly raging of Achilles. The mighty Ajax says to Hector when they meet on the plain between the walls of Troy and the beached ships of the Greeks:
“Come then let us give each other glorious presents, so that any of the Greeks or Trojans my say of us ‘These two fought each other with heart consuming hate, then joined with each other in close friendship before they were parted’”.
Any of us who have exchanged shirts with our opponents or raced in England where opposing crews cheer each other after they race with the thrice shouted salute of “hip hip hooray” may wish to consider the ancient battlefield origins of these unique conventions in our sport as examples of how we can overcome rage and hatred with respect and affection.
As for me, Pain, Rage, and Fury all aptly describe how I felt when I learned to row and to race and to win. But I love the way Homer so beautifully transforms “heart consuming hate” into “close friendship” and through his poem I perceive a much more satisfying understanding of how to compete.
The “close friendship” Homer proposes to us ultimately manifests itself in the idea of camaraderie. And the camaraderie of rowers is special. It is a wonderful thing to see the different boats assembled each year at The Head of the Charles representing Columbia. In recent years I have enjoyed the privilege of rowing around the world and racing out of many boathouses. I have met former foes from Princeton and Penn and reveled in the memories of old and recent races. I never cease to be amazed by the warm welcome I have received around the world within the community of rowing when I introduce myself with great pride when I say “I rowed for Columbia”. I have received the respect of strangers for the accomplishments of our teams over the years.
Tonight I am especially grateful for the generosity of the past generations of Columbians, like the Remners, the Davenports, the Sanfords, and all great Columbians from the IRA Championship Boat of 1928 who after leaving Columbia contributed year after year to our program. They set an example of selflessness and sacrifice none of us have yet to match and one we should never forget. The greatest privilege of my life was to have rowed for Columbia where I learned to defend my seat every day I sat in the boat. I graduated from Columbia University in the City of New York, acutely aware of the consequences of losing my seat to an opponent who was prepared to work harder to take it away from me. Defending “my seat in the boat” became a metaphor for my life.