Student Stories

Gently Down the Seine

It’s 4 am Tuesday and, as the rest of campus slumbers, 55 Chicago Maroons zip up and head for the cold water to row for four hours before heading to class. Every day but Sunday, the University of Chicago Crew team repeats this routine, beginning at the crack of dawn on the Chicago River. “It’s definitely demanding and it’s a challenge for people. I wouldn’t say I look forward to getting up so early, but I definitely look forward to rowing every day,” said fourth-year biology major Sasha Ostapenko, men’s captain for past two years. Now just beginning to get their feet back into the water, crew wrapped up winter conditioning after an autumn season that produced impressive finishes at major regattas, topped with an unprecedented trip to Paris.  Women’s crew, in particular, saw strong results, opening the season with a 5th place finish at the Head of the Charles Regatta in October 22 and then nabbing 2nd place at the Head of the Eagle Regatta a week later. “We have a really good coach, who’s been with us a for a while and knows us very well. We know what to focus on now. Everyone has been really focused,” said third-year economics major Emily Chen. Chen and Ostapenko, along with fourth-years Emily Lo, Chelsea Steffen, and John Kohler were, traveled to France in late September to row on the River Seine. Chosen for their leadership, experience, and seniority, the five crew members represented the University as the first Americans ever to participate at La Traversée de Paris (the Crossing of Paris), an annual event hosted by the Aviron Marne and Joinville Rowing Clubs that celebrated its 25th anniversary this year. After a day of exploring Paris, the team took their oars into the French water at the Marne, which flows into the Seine. Ostapenko said the Seine is only open for rowing once a year and he noticed even the local teams were awed by the beauty of the city. “But it was double that for us. Half of us hadn’t been to Paris before.  For four hours, we got to row on the Seine, through Paris, around the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, and through the middle of Paris,” said Ostapenko, “Just rowing under the Eiffel Tower and the museums, these places we had toured on foot the day before—it was really awesome.” The decision to traverse the Atlantic and tread into the Seine was last-minute and encouraged by athletic directors Tommy Weingartner and Brian Brock, according to Ostapenko. The Parisian rowing clubs had extended the invitation to U of C Crew in collaboration with the Paris Committee of the Chicago Sister Cities International Program. Ostapenko and crew are optimistic that last year’s trip will be the first of a continuous exchange, with UChicago Crew travelling to Paris every September and hosting the French clubs in July. Though the athletic department funded roughly half of the trip (with the other 50% coming from the team’s own resources), crew remains a financially independent, student-run club sport, relying on membership dues and extensive fundraising to finance travel, coach salaries, and boats (around $40,000 each). As one of the largest club sports and with one of the largest RSO budgets, crew prides itself on its independence. “If we became a varsity sport, we would lose control. Right now, we choose what coaches we hire, what events we row at. We do everything on our own,” said Chen, who serves on Crew’s executive student board as secretary. “Also, right now, we accept everybody—you don’t have to try out, you can just come and row. Everyone is included.” With a retention rate of around 75%, members who join crew (most never having rowed before) spend their first year on a novice team before promotion to varsity. Chen notes that crew members join with similar goals and grow to develop similar habits, owing to the intensive nature of a commitment to crew and the lifestyle required to juggle practice and schoolwork. She adds that many crew members, including her, move off-campus together after a year on the team. Ostapenko agreed that a strong sense of camaraderie exists through the team. “If you ask a lot of the guys who their top two friends are, they’ll probably say someone on the crew team,” he said, “Just going through the practices, waking up early, going through the same challenges brings everyone together and makes us very good friends.”