On the water: An early morning ride-along with the women’s rowing team

Inside one of the team’s 11 weekly practices.
The GW womens rowing team embarks on an early morning practice down the Potomac River.
The GW women’s rowing team embarks on a daybreak workout down the Potomac River.
Florence Shen | Assistant Photo Editor

The harmonies of singing girls and loud music erupted into the dark sky early Monday morning. The tunes and giggling aren’t the remnants of a Sunday-into-Monday night out — rather, the 6:30 a.m. ruckus is the sound of the women’s rowing team prepping for their first practice of the week.

With Taylor Swift blaring at the Thompson Boat Center — a boathouse on the shore of the Potomac River shared between GW and Georgetown University — the team is diving deep into training to prepare for their fight to repeat last year’s conference championship. Last year’s Atlantic 10 Championship was the team’s first time winning the conference, winning a trip to the NCAA Championship.

But as the team looks to hold onto their momentum, with an all-new coaching staff this year, they’ll first have to endure an 11-practices-per-week regiment as they prepare for their 10-month season.

“We’re trying to build from a really great, really high watermark spot as a program,” said Head Coach Paul Allbright.

Allbright took the helm at GW after former Head Coach Marci Robles left after taking home the hardware to work at a local elementary school in July. Allbright, the former head coach of the Georgetown team, oversees GW’s warmups: a quick stretch and conditioning, 10 feet from the Hoya boats.

Florence Shen | Assistant Photo Editor

In groups of nine, the women make their way to a set of racks in the boathouse — sleek, specialized boats are stacked five high, nearly touching the ceiling. The approximately $60,000 carbon-fiber vessels stretch almost 60 feet long and weigh 200 pounds, requiring eight women to lug the vessel to the dock.

The groups of eight flip the boat from the racks onto their shoulders. With guidance from their respective coxswain — the de facto navigators of the boats who are also tasked with motivating the crew during workouts and races — the teams gingerly veer from the boathouse and downstream to the dock.

The morning darkness is only just beginning to dissipate when the boats enter the water at about 6:45 a.m., a dark gray cloud serving as the transition between night and day. With the morning tapping out at roughly 60 degrees, a headwind gusting down the river meant the temperature felt more like below 50.

The teams settle into their boats, passing around pairs of clip-in shoes as they attach their feet to the vessel and adjust their oars into their oarlocks. Today, the team of almost 40 is splitting into two groups of two boats. One set will go with Assistant Coach Elena Esteban, and the other will ride with Allbright.

Allbright divides the women into groups of nine. At this point in the early season, he aims to even out the talent on each boat, combining rowers across skill levels across boats. Later in the season, he’ll split the women up into skill-based teams for competition. But for now, it’s about making the team better.

Before they can start rowing, the women quietly hold their oars above the water perpendicular to their bodies, ensuring they can balance the boat. If they aren’t balanced, the craft won’t glide straight. The team signals to the coxswain and coach that they’re stabilized and ready to go, so practice begins.

Florence Shen | Assistant Photo Editor

Allbright sits in a specially made launch boat, designed to eliminate its own waves so as to not disrupt the rowers near him. Allbright steers the boat behind the rowers and carries a custom-made megaphone to give motivation and advice to the rowers.

“Being smoother on the water, trying to keep things as positive and empowering as possible with as much transparency and respecting them enough to know they can know some of the plan and that kind of thing,” Allbright said.

The commands are sparse, indicative of his trust for the coxswains who direct their respective boats down the river. The teams communicate in lingo obscure to the inexperienced ear: “Stay long,” “Seek out hinges before knees break” and “Slipping the blade out,” echo over the quiet Potomac.

A headwind forces the rowers to exert more effort. They begin their “full-boat” practice at 7:15 a.m. rowing 18 strokes a minute, bending their body forward then extending backward to pull themselves through the water. Allbright intensifies his instructions, asking rowers to move at 22 strokes per minute for 14-minute, 12-minute and 10-minute intervals, with a 90-second break between sets.

“So with the new coach, I think it’s been a really important part of our shift to continue our championship culture,” sophomore Bianca Rose said. “We won the A-10s for the first time last season. And we appeared at NCAAs for the first time ever, which was super, super exciting. So I think with a whole new coaching staff, it’s been really fun to get to know a different standard and a different level of excitement, training to push ourselves to the next level.”

The on-the-water practice wasn’t the team’s only meeting Monday — they reconvened seven-and-a-half hours later at 4 p.m. for weightlifting practice.

Florence Shen | Assistant Photo Editor

But back on the river on this early morning, Allbright said he adjusted his practice plan because of a storm that had just passed through the District, raising water levels and leaving behind debris. The ensuing conditions forced Allbright to reroute the rowers north.

Normally, the team glides past the monuments during their morning practice in a path toward Reagan National Airport. Instead, the small convoy heads up the river toward the Mount Vernon Campus. The lush green trees along the coast make for a more scenic practice than usual, especially as day breaks and the sun begins to peek from behind the clouds.

The team rows about three miles up the river against the headwinds, forcing longer strokes. They stop at Fletcher’s Boathouse in the Palisades, at which point the coxswain turns the boat around, and the team rows the three miles back.

Florence Shen | Assistant Photo Editor

Arriving back at the Thompson boathouse, the women lift up the vessels up the shore and hose the muck of the Potomac off the boats, before reracking the vessels once again.

Allbright gives a pep talk with advice before the women yell out a GW chant and head toward campus for their 9:35 a.m. classes.

They’ll do it all again in 22 hours.

Updated: Oct. 3, 2023, at 10:26 a.m.

This story has been updated to correct the following:
Due to an editing error, The Hatchet incorrectly reported that Allbright was the head coach at Georgetown. He was the associate head coach. We regret this error.

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