The zen of rowing



Cal men’s varsity oarsmen train each weekday afternoon on the Oakland Estuary. Under the leadership of coach Steve Gladstone, the team won the national intercollegiate rowing championship in 1999 and 2000.
Peg Skorpinski photo

22 March 2001 | A pair of 60-foot rowing shells speeds down the Oakland Estuary, past stacked cargo containers, forests of sailboat masts, the sun-drenched sides of a cement factory. In each boat, one man steers; eight more catch, draw, recover, catch, draw, recover — 18 times per minute when they’re on the mark.

A white fiberglass launch crosses their wakes, guns its engine and comes up parallel to the racers. At the helm, coach Steve Gladstone studies each athlete’s oarsmanship — with what coxswain Joe Manion refers to as “an unbelievable eye.”

Gladstone raises his bullhorn, urges introspection: “As your eyes inform your body, check and feel, observe and feel. Are you pushing the cadence? Are you being patient in drawing each stroke off?” A rhetorical question.

He tells Manion — who’s observing his teammates from the bow of the launch — to check their cadence. The sophomore aims a stroke watch at the boat named for Don Blessing, the coxswain who led Cal to a gold medal in the 1928 Olympics. Franco Arieta is steering the Don Blessing this afternoon; according to the stroke watch, it’s two beats high. In this drill, designed to heighten the oarsmen’s awareness of their boat and their bodies, mindfulness trumps speed.

“You’re at 20, Franco!” Gladstone says. “We need an efficient 18!”

He urges the oarsmen, once more, to pay meticulous attention to their oars. “Study the blade. It’s where the information is. Watch the blade enter. Looking at the blade is not a sign of being a neophyte.”

The Cal team has taken the national intercollegiate rowing championship for the past two years. Eleven current and past Cal oarsmen competed last fall in the Sydney Olympics, where senior Sebastian Bea garnered a silver medal in the men’s coxless pair.

In The Gospel According to Gladstone, reaching this level of perfection in the consummate team sport starts, ironically, with the mental state of each athlete.

“The reality is that rowing requires enormous endurance, technique and strength,” he says. “But the mind set is the underpinning of the whole process.”

He traces his approach to the legendary oarsman Steve Fairbairn, a “brilliant teacher” whose “Notes on Rowing”— documenting training sessions of the crew at Jesus College, Cambridge University in the late 1800s — revolutionized the sport.

“Fairbairn talked about the subjective unconscious, about putting your attention to the oar, rather than posing in the boat,” Gladstone says.

In daily drills on the Oakland Estuary, he asks no less of his team.

Six miles and two hours into today’s practice, twilight falls over Jack London Square, and the first stars become visible in the sky.

“Quite a few of you are attending to your work,” Gladstone tells the oarsmen, as they turn their shells around and begin the return leg. “Those in Franco’s boat, when you’re that far behind, staying with what you’re doing makes no sense. Do an analysis.”

The men in Val’s boat are ahead because they’re rowing more efficiently, says Gladstone. “It’s not how hard they’re pulling.”

His voice wafts across the channel, driving his message home one last time today — as 16 exhausted rowers, pulling in unison, speed south in the darkness toward the boathouse.

“Close Encounters” is an occasional column documenting unofficial moments in campus life. If you have an idea for a column, contact Berkeleyan writer Cathy Cockrell at or 643-9259.


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