Wake up at 5 a.m. Get on the rowing machine. Go to class. Get on the rowing machine.
“This is the base of what we do,” Pitt Crew Vice President Helen Ann Lawless said.
The Pittsburgh club rowing team doesn’t take time off. Pitt rowers spend four months of the cold, dismal and gray Pittsburgh winter season inside, using between two and four hours a day, six days a week, to bulk up or tone down in Bellefield Hall.
The training room in Bellefield is small with wooden floors, 25 rowing machines and some assorted weights that the team’s president, Matt Huff, said are just for show. Winters are spent on the rowing machines, or “ergs” as the team calls them.
“Winter training is more physically and 100 percent more mentally demanding,” Lawless said.
Although Pitt Crew is technically a “club team,” the rowers are determined not to let people underestimate their ability. At the onset of its season, Pitt Crew meets up with over one hundred other college and university teams — many of them school-sponsored Division I programs.
“When you put the word club in front of anything, people think we do less than we do,” Lawless said.
The team members said it’s simple: if they don’t take themselves seriously, they’ll fall to teams that do.
Despite this hardened goal, the hours spent inside still take a lot out of each team member. February, Lawless said, is an exceptionally tough month.
“We call February burnout month,” Lawless said. “People start to lose sight of the fact that spring is just around the corner.”
The goal is to row 20 to 25 km on an erg each day, with one or two practices a day, except on Sundays. That’s the team’s only off day.
Winter training for the team means logging tens of thousands of meters each week. The men’s team members usually each hit approximately 120,000 meters a week, and the women’s team members mark close to 100,000 meters.
“For us in the winter, we’ve just got to get those meters,” Huff, a senior biology major, said. “It’s the equivalent of running a half marathon every day.”
Members pay dues to stay in the club and fund some of the extra expenses, Lawless said, while the Student Government Board, the University and some intense fundraising cover extra costs.
The money, combined with the arduous effort they put into training — team captain Alex Snyder said rowing takes up 60 to 75 percent of his free time — is offset by the relationships the teammates form.
“The guys I row with are some of my best friends,” Snyder said. “You rely on your teammates more than anything to keep you going.”
Huff started rowing when he was in high school, but many people, according to Lawless, just come to the sport in college, decide they love it and never leave.
Perhaps the most enticing aspect of the sport is that it takes no experience, just a willingness to work hard. Most of the Pitt rowers, on both the novice and the varsity team, come in with no experience.
But some of the toughest days aren’t the most physically strenuous.
When Pittsburgh’s gray skies dissipate and the river begins to thaw, the team still cannot get out on the water. Rowers remain inside on the rowing machines, staring out the window.
“The river isn’t ready for us to go back,” Lawless said. “It is such a tease for us.”
To relieve some of the stress, Pitt rowing also has an intramural basketball team that competes against other Pittsburgh intramural teams. Snyder said the basketball team provides an opportunity for less demanding exercise and for team building.
For Snyder, the tallest rower at 6 feet 7 inches, the basketball team is the perfect way to unwind.
“I just chuck up threes and try to dunk it,” Snyder said.
In the beginning of March, they find a glimmer of hope down south. Pitt Crew uses spring break to find a sunnier workout locale at Camp Bob Cooper, a lake retreat in Summerton, South Carolina.
While there, they practice three times a day most days, logging 250 km out on the water by the end of the week.
“All of it is really beautiful,” Lawless said. “It kind of gives you hope.”
The biggest payoff for the rowers’ work comes in Philadelphia in May, with the national championship of rowing, the Dad Vail Regatta.
The Regatta is a two-day rowing extravaganza complete with more than 100 colleges and universities from across the country.
Competition at the Dad Vail Regatta is intense — powerhouse teams like Drexel and Michigan lead the pack.
Teams from all across the country compete, and many of them are Division I teams, unlike Pitt’s club team.
“This year, I’m expecting to make semis,” Huff said.
Each hour on the rowing machine works toward a better finish at the Dad Vail Regatta.
“If you do well, you know it was you,” Snyder said. “If the team did well, then we all worked hard.”