April 22, 2020

In a Moving Day of Competition and Reflection, PU Heavyweight Rowers Held Spirited Last Row

LAST DANCE: Members of the Princeton University men’s heavyweight crew enjoy the moment in front of their boathouse on March 12 after they held a spirited last row in their final practice of the season. Before competing against each other in a speed order, the rowers shared their thoughts, reflecting on what they gained from a season halted due to the coronavirus pandemic.

By Bill Alden

On the afternoon of March 11, Greg Hughes spent practice with his Princeton University men’s heavyweight rowing team by discussing the shattering announcement released earlier that day regarding the Ivy League’s decision to cancel spring sports due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

“That was a hard conversation, somebody asked me what I said and I said I don’t really know what I said,” said Princeton head coach Hughes.

“There were tears, it was emotional. I think the hardest emotions were for the seniors. It took a lot more time to digest that and they still are processing it.”

A day later, the team’s final practice of 2020 turned into a moving and joyous day of rowing and reflection.

After Hughes notified his athletes they would get one last day on the water, he sensed it would prove to be a memorable session.

“The guys were pumped, they were so excited,” said Hughes. “What was really neat about that was when we met up and ran our normal warmup, you could see the energy. People truly embraced this opportunity.”

The rowers displayed that energy as they competed hard against each other in a two-minute speed order.

“We basically got all of the seniors into an eight and then we filled out the remaining eights,” said Hughes. “We didn’t go completely by class. We got out there and we lined them up and just let it rip. It was a shorter effort, it was two minutes. It was a drag race for 90 seconds and then in the final 30 seconds, the seniors, whatever they did, they had three or four seats at the end. Then those guys were saying ‘can we just keep going’ and they rowed all the way down to the dam, cruised around, took breaks and just soaked it all in.”

While the racing was impressive, the most memorable aspect of the day came before the boats launched when the rowers took turns reflecting on what they had gained from their experiences on the team.

“There were guys you just think, holy cow, this is where it is for them right now,” said Hughes. “It was amazing. It was such a cool thing to be a part of and I think it really spoke to the intangible value of being on a team and having teammates. We are still really proud of what we have, even though we don’t get to race. It was honestly probably the most powerful conversation I have ever been a part of in my life.”

For Hughes, soaking in that conversation inspired him to broaden his horizons.

“I have always felt that the power of coaching is those intangible experiences you have with the athletes on a more daily basis,” said Hughes. “Having those learning moments is super rewarding; you are able to have elements of risk in your life that I think you don’t get in the same way when you are not in sports. I have been forced to see that there is more risk to be taken in pushing my envelope with how I think about coaching, how I try to support my athletes, and how I communicate with my athletes, how I bond a group together, and how I give them ownership and responsibility for leading in ways that are not so defined. At Princeton everyone wants to go through steps, it is better sometimes when we leave some of that behind.”

As a result, Hughes is advocating a more flexible training regimen for his rowers over the next few months.

“I have given them a program which is really broad, saying these are our overarching goals and it is very different than what we would normally doing this time of year,” said Hughes. “A lot of people have started riding bikes; it is a great release to get outside. It is fun to do, it is engaging, it is challenging, and it is different.”

Since there will be no racing this spring, Hughes is taking a longer range view of preparation for the 2020-21 campaign.

“I made the decision that we are now preparing for next year; that is actually really an awesome opportunity for me as a coach because of the way our schedule is so refined,” said Hughes, whose team never even competed in 2020 as the first regatta was scheduled for late March. “Our base training block is actually kind of small for a sport that is so aerobically based. This gives us the opportunity to do a more international style program. We can look at it as a 16-month block. It truly is aerobic capacity training; that is how we discussed it as a team. We said this is an enormous opportunity for us.”

While Hughes is shifting the training approach, he is keeping one program tradition intact as his rowers have dispersed around the world to wrap up the school year from home.

“At the start of every practice, every afternoon, everybody trickles into the boat bay as they are coming down from class or whatever and by 4:40 we are all there,” explained Hughes. “We huddle up, circle up, and have a quick brief on what the day is going to be and the workout piece and one or two things about something bigger and here we go. We have kept that 4:40 meeting every day. We hop on Zoom for 5-10 minutes; I try to have one or two things to touch on. We have got guys all over the world. The Aussies are waking up and it is 7:00 in the morning for them which is really cool to see and inspiring. The Europeans are staying awake. It is just cool when everybody comes on, their face pops up, people are laughing a little bit and we just talk.”

That upbeat mentality was a hallmark of a squad that had developed a special chemistry as it looked ahead to the spring.

“I think the seniors created a much more open environment that maybe hadn’t existed previously in some years where people had real input to give them the opportunity to be a real role player, physically and verbally,” said Hughes.

“What you were seeing was that people where filling the gaps; they weren’t looking and saying that guy has to do that. They weren’t waiting for somebody to do something for them. They weren’t cloistering themselves in their own channel. They could feel it too in the work we were doing in the last six weeks. The Florida trip was just impressive; the work we did and the quality of it was really high.”

In the view of Hughes, his rowers were primed to translate that environment into some good racing this spring.

“I refer to it in my journal as the sleeper cell, there wasn’t going to be a lot of expectation,” said Hughes.

“It was going to be exciting to watch it from my standpoint. We had to make some changes and people really embraced that. They stuck to it. What was going to be exciting about this year for me was to see how those guys could do that. It is sad that we don’t get the chance to see how it would play out.”

But in the final analysis, Hughes believes that dealing with the coronavirus situation has reinforced the notion that getting the chance to play sports and be part of a team matters more than the final result.

“What this has shown us is that we recognize really why it is important,” said Hughes.

“We are competitors. Winning is fun; I am not going to discredit that, but it is not about that. That is the end product, but how you create that experience is what makes you do it and what keeps you going.”