The majority of Duke’s population is sound asleep. There’s not much noise ringing throughout campus, save for the birds, the buses and the constant whirring of the erg machines in Wilson Gym. Each rush of water through the machine is accompanied by the heavy breaths of the quietest team on campus—the Blue Devil crew team.
In its 16th year, the rowing team has managed to expand to nearly to six times the size of the original roster, picking up top recruits and building an expansive, state-of-the-art boathouse along the way. And despite the early mornings and late afternoons of practice and the lack of on-campus notoriety regardless of the recent success they’ve had—the Blue Devils just defeated No. 20 Oregon State at its home course and have broken into the top 20 previously this season—they still remain one of the most dedicated squads in Duke athletics.
“What makes being a rower and athlete so meaningful is the work ethic, dedication and commitment to something way bigger than yourself. And that’s something I haven’t found in my other activities at Duke,” senior Elizabeth Howell said. “Everybody’s doing 10 million things, but the nice thing about rowing is this is your thing, this is what we do. You are so wholeheartedly committed to one thing and I think that’s one thing a lot of students lose when they go to college.”
Building from the dock up
In order to understand a day in the life of a Blue Devil crew member, one must first understand their leader. Head coach Robyn Horner essentially is Duke rowing. After walking on to the crew team at Minnesota and earning a degree in chemical engineering, Horner felt something was missing following seven years working as an engineer. After coaching stints with the Gophers and Williams, Horner was ready to take on something new and challenging. As if on cue, Duke contacted her regarding starting a rowing program in 1997.
“When Duke was starting a program down here, I thought it would be an awesome experience to start a program from scratch,” Horner said. ”The first year that I was here I hadn’t recruited any athletes, and we had eight athletes on the team and less equipment than we needed. So it’s been a process.”
What Horner has been able to do in 16 years at the helm is achieve success, which is why she has been the only rowing head coach in Blue Devil history. Twelve of the 16 seasons have resulted in top-three finishes in the ACC for Duke, with two of those campaigns garnering her ACC Coach of the Year honors.
But one of the biggest goals the Blue Devils have been able to accomplish didn’t even occur on the water. It happened last Saturday in front of a crowd of alumni, family and the team. After 14 years of planning, searching and fundraising, Horner was finally able to see the official opening of a Division I-caliber boathouse for the Duke program.
“[Saturday’s official opening was] just extremely rewarding,” Horner said. “We can still do our sport without it, but just having that home that we can really be proud of, it just makes our functional ability go up and also from a recruiting standpoint it will be a huge tool for us.”
The previous boat house had been cramped and a “turnoff” for recruits, Horner said. Horner referenced a senior who said her high school’s boathouse had been bigger and more well-kept than the one the Blue Devils previously called home.
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With the new facility, Duke can supplement the strong reputation it has been building as recruits such as sophomore Katie Dukovich have taken notice of the Blue Devils' quick rise to prominence.
Dukovich hails from Pittsburgh and attended Hampton High School where she led her team to a third-place finish at nationals as a senior and broke the team-erg record each year. These performances, paired with her work on the U.S. National Team in Berlin in 2011, captured Horner's attention.
“I was like, ‘Well, I can only go here if you help me pay for it because my parents are financially unstable,’" Dukovich said. "[Horner] goes, ‘Yo, we’ll pay for all of it!’ And then she got up and hugged me, and I was like okay, I’ll go here, and then that was it. My mom didn’t talk to me for about six months. My mom really wanted me to go to Notre Dame. She likes Irish people.”
Luckily for Duke, Dukovich chose Durham, and her talent has translated to the Division I scene. A rarity, she started in the top boat as a freshman and went on to earn the ACC Freshman of the Year award.
But one wouldn’t be able to know this by talking with Dukovich. As one of the few rowers that is on a full scholarship, Dukovich is quick to sing the praises of her teammates who put in the same effort but are not on scholarship.
“Other people do not understand what it takes to do six morning practices and five afternoon practices a week," Dukovich said. "But all of our teammates do."
A day on the lake
Five days a week, the team piles onto a bus driven by team-favorite Lonzell, who takes the Blue Devils on a 25-minute trip to the boats at Lake Michie in Bahama, N.C.
After warming up, the team piles into the boats in casual workout gear and sans shoes—rowing boats have the shoes built into the floor to maximize footing. Horner, Howell and a pair of rowers take their place in the watch boat.
The following two hours are nothing less than stunning to a first-time crew spectator. The boats traverse a long stretch of the lake during this time, with Horner giving out the calls to the V8 squads as to what stroke-rate they will be pulling at as well as for how long. The coxswains listen attentively and relay these orders via a headset that is hooked to speakers wired throughout their boats. Howell controls the stopwatch and gives Horner, who mans the megaphone, a countdown for each set.
When the clock hits zero, Horner yells and the coxswains whip their boats into action. Each synchronized stroke pulls the boats forward yards at a time and as the coxswains give directions, the rowers repeat the motions, seemingly faster with each stroke.
By the time the team finishes, it's close to 7 p.m., so many of them go off to dinner before heading back to get schoolwork done. Coupled with their three-hour morning session, the Blue Devils rack up seven total hours of practice.
(No) Crew love
One thing rowing will never be called is a glory sport. The crew members know they participate in one of the least spectator-friendly sports—especially when basketball reigns supreme in the region.
“[Having less fans] used to bother me a lot in high school,” Dukovich said. “But then after a deep realization that I’m actually doing more work than these people and that this team is so big with 50 girls that we end up being our own cheerleaders... I could have fans or not have fans, I don’t care.”
But no matter how much the team doesn’t mind the lack of fans, it is hard to overlook the other downfall of being a Division I rower—the injuries.
Howell, who sports a slighter frame than most rowers, found this out the hard way. After rowing throughout high school and choosing Duke instead of Dartmouth, Brown and Emory for Horner’s willingness to let her compete, Howell came into the program her first two years and powered the V4 boat to consecutive second-place finishes at the ACC Championships.
Then her junior year came around—along with the back pain. After a long diagnostic process, the doctors discovered that Howell had actually fractured her spine due to the repetitive motion of rowing and would be finished rowing for the remainder of her time at Duke. The official diagnosis was spondylosis, which is a deterioration of the joints between the spinal vertebrae.
Despite the injury, Howell has stuck around, not letting it get the best of her. She has gone to every practice and serves as a team captain in her senior campaign.
“I would really miss it if I weren’t at practice everyday," Howell said. "I’m still very motivated by watching my teammates perform and watching them work so hard. And it is frustrating and I feel a little guilty not being physically part of the effort, but what I see my role as is whatever I can still contribute, it’s my obligation.”
Howell's injury is not a normal one, but injuries to the back, shoulders and ribs have become commonplace in the rowing world. After every practice, the rowers are given ice bags to cool down these oft-used stress points.
“In our sport, we don’t have acute injuries. It’s not like one day, ‘Boom! It just happened.’ It’s over time what your body can sustain and endure,” Horner said. "Lower back is common because we’re constantly bending and flexing."
Respect the rowers
Even with the apparent wear and tear crew takes on one's body, the dedication to maintaining perfection both on the water and in the classroom—the rowing team boasts the highest GPA of any Duke athletic team—defines this squad.
Day in and day out, they throw themselves into their sport with a reckless abandon viewed only by their fellow team members, which is fine with them.
"We all go through something that is so horrible, and we suffer all the time. But that pain makes us so close that you can’t even compare that bond to anything else," Dukovich said. "I want everyone to know that I have played almost every sport and rowing is by far the hardest but most rewarding."