Bond of brothers
friends, enemies, and  friends  again

By Elisabeth Kramer

Making the 2008 Olympic team was one of the worst days of Marcus McElhenney’s life. “About half the guys on the national team didn’t make the Olympic team,” the coxswain says, “so you’re more concerned about how awful it is that half of your best friends and buddies are not going to go race with you at the Olympics.” But the teammates McElhenney did travel to Beijing with ended up winning the bronze in the men’s eight. Three years later, McElhenney is back at the US Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California — partially for gold, partially for crew’s unique team dynamic.

“It’s weird. They’re your best friends; they’re your teammates. But they’re also your enemies a lot of the time,” McElhenney says. “When you’re lining up on the water, you don’t care who’s in the other boat. Your goal is to beat them.” The moment the race is over, however, “you’re best friends again.”

Due to the small community that is rowing in the United States, most of the men at the Olympic Training Center knew each other long before they arrived in Chula Vista. Some went to college together; others rowed at other facilities; all have sat in rival boats, eager to compete. But you’d never pick up on such contention by simply observing the happy-go-lucky crew. The group scuffles and jokes, keeping one another in line with the playful nips and jabs of brothers. 

“You want to be the best, and if your best friend is standing in the way of you being the best, beat him,” explains Michael Blomquist. “Friendship is not conditional on where you are in the sport.” Blomquist, who recently came out of retirement to make a go for the 2012 Olympic Games, has competed on four national teams and won the famed Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race in 2005. 

What allows best friends to beat one another in the pursuit of perfection is a deep level of respect and understanding. Sacrifice is a common theme among the men at the Olympic Training facility. Each has given up something significant — careers and personal relationships being the most common — to compete at this level. Each rower also lives in a limbo of expectation: Team rosters for major competitions, including the Olympics, aren’t announced until weeks before the event, and the coach can send rowers packing at any time. This makes every day potentially their last, and it makes the men they spend it with all the more worthy of respect.

The nature of amateur sport in the United States also provides the men with a common background. American crew athletes come out of college and face a national system that, unlike most, receives no government funding. “Sport is so big here, but it’s mainly professional,” says Tim McLaren, Head Coach of the US Men’s open weight team. “It’s the NBA; it’s the NFL — it’s all professional sports. So amateur sport really just flies by the seat of its pants.” 

Such a setup means anyone interested in pursuing crew after college enters a world unlikely to accommodate the needs of an aspiring world-class athlete. Limited funding means clubs often don’t employ the professional coaches who could take a collegiate athlete to the next level, and most companies won’t hire employees who have to leave for three-hour stretches twice a day for practices. And so by the very nature of the sport, the group capable of competing at the highest level quickly thins.

“Crew draws a unique type of person,” says sculler Warren Anderson. “There’s a lot more struggle and a lot less reward.” Anderson has participated in other team sports but says their levels of camaraderie are nowhere close to what he’s seen in rowing. “It’s difficult to explain why guys like us would want to commit our lives to doing something where we have to be miserable a majority of the time.” Among teammates, however, explanations aren’t needed.