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Senior Perspective: Men's Lightweight Crew's Martin Eiermann

Senior captains and representatives of varsity teams at Harvard contributed viewpoints based on personal experience from both their senior seasons and full varsity careers at Harvard. Each year the Senior Perspectives are compiled into a book and handed out at the Senior Letterwinner’s Dinner.

Senior Perspectives thus forms a valuable portion of each team’s legacy to sport at Harvard and to the permanent record built here by our varsity athletes. Throughout the summer, these senior essays will be posted to GoCrimson.com for all to see.

We have yet to row the first race of the spring season, so an attempt to recapitulate my rowing experience at Harvard comes prematurely in many regards. Yet in another way, a gaze back in time might be appropriate precisely on the eve of my final season: a look at the lessons learned, a reaffirmation of my commitment to the sport before the championship season. Some of my deepest friendships and fondest memories have been forged on the water. Rowing has been a passion rather than a sport, even when the regimen of practices often made this hard to see. I have gained a lot from it —  athletically as well as personally —  and I remain deeply indebted to the coaches and teammates who have rekindled my love for the sport when it threatened to dim and who have forced me to bring my best to Newell Boathouse every day —  and have fun doing it.

In many ways, rowing is one of the true team sports. One guy can slow a boat down, but only eight rowers can make it fast. Charley says it most distinctly: if you want to break your opponents in a race, you only have to break one of them. If you want to win a race, you only have to find a hundredth of a second per stroke. It does not surprise me that rowing is a welcome metaphor for a teamwork mentality, used in commercials and ads to emphasize the importance of collaborative efforts over individual success. Ask any parent that has watched the boats go by in a race, and has excitedly pointed at an indistinguishable mass of bodies, unable to identify their son or daughter. We are one boat, and one team.

Yet at the same time, there are few things more individualistic than a race. When we line up at the start, six boats across, six buoyed two thousand meter lanes ahead of us, the thought of collaboration offers little comfort. When the lights turn green and the boats take off, nobody can relieve me of the task ahead. Nobody can take the mental pressure off me, the fear of six minutes of anaerobic pain that has made me tremble before every race I ever rowed, and the uncertainty of not knowing how I will cope with it. The start of a race is a very lonely place.

There are not too many situations in our daily lives where so much hinges on so little, where the emotional stakes are so high, and where our decisions can have such a decisive impact. The race is thus necessarily a very personal challenge, a quest that pits thumos against logos and forces us to look down deeply into ourselves. When the gauntlet is flung, who can rise to the occasion? Who is willing and able to compress months of preparation and emotion into two thousand meters of full tilt boogie action? Who is able to give it all when it counts the most? Nobody can answer that question for me, and nobody can free me from the burden of pulling through. And when we cross the finish line, only I will know, deep down, whether I stood tall or gave in. Races are a test of character, and they reveal character at the same time. They are a merciless distiller, separating the bold from the rest. They are won on the water, and —  as Eric Liddell has so eloquently pointed out —  they are won within each of us.

Rowing here at Harvard has taught me a lot about myself, and about the kind of person I am. At the same time that my teammates and coaches have pushed and supported me, they have turned me into a more complete person. The same, I believe, holds true for each of them. We have worked together, won and lost together, and become integral parts in each other’s Harvard experience. As freshmen, we have tried to imitate the varsity; and we have tried to hold subsequent freshman classes at bay as members of the varsity squad. We have beaten each other in seat races, and we have drunk from the same Jope Cup to the success of HVL. While these episodic experiences cannot determine whether or not I will rise to the occasion on race day, they have given me the insights and confidence to do so. I am excited to race again, for one final season. I am still trembling, but I am ready.

 
These effects extend beyond the time spent together on campus and on the Charles River; and they have made me realize, again and again, why six minutes of racing can validate a whole year of practice, and can forge such deep bonds and lasting memories. I am glad to have shared these experiences with the other guys on the team and with Linda and Charley. I will miss their company on and off the water, their grunts on the erg next to me, their enthusiasm before basin scrimmages and Friday race days, or the daily words of wisdom and wittiness bestowed onto us by a man with a shovel and a hard hat. It was a great day for rowing, every day.