Crew dinners row me towards a new life


Media: Nate Whittemore '23

Nate Whittemore ’23 cruises down the river in the boat with his teammates

I had done a two-week long “learn to Row” camp before I arrived at Hill. Little did I know that it would ignite a passion within me. Although it was considered a basic introduction to the sport, it was enough to convince me to give rowing a shot in high school. When I arrived at Hill, fall rowing was not yet established, so I reluctantly joined cross country. I was not, and in many ways still am not, a good runner. Having never really done sports at a serious level before, cross country was the boot that kicked down my fragile, weak-willed body. I did not complete a single race in my 3rd form year. I would always fall back on the classic side stitch or dehydration: any excuse that would get me out of running. Eventually Lawrenceville weekend came and went. I did actually finish at Lawrenceville; it just took me something like 27 minutes. 

Why am I telling you all of this? Well, I didn’t really do anything at Hill. I was a recluse who spent much of his time inside his room. I rarely visited the dining hall and felt disconnected from the social and athletic aspects of Hill. That was until one day I walked into winter crew and met the program that would make me the person I am today. Practice was not the part that mattered though. It wasn’t the circuits, the brutal erg pyramids, or that 2Ks that convinced me to I stuck around– it was the team dinner. No matter what year, no matter the experience, girls team or boys, we all ate together. It seemed that finally I had a place at Hill. I still wasn’t terribly athletic, outgoing, or self-confident; but the small invitation to eat with a group of Gods among men that made up the 2019-2020 team was enough to keep me going through my first year.  

Of course, my 3rd form year didn’t have a happy ending. My time with Hill crew abruptly ended in the spring while we were in Texas for spring practices when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. While those last 48 hours in Texas with the crew team are some of the best memories I’ll ever have, the great crusade of the season was not meant to be.  

My 4th form fall was an odd time. It was filled with 6 feet signs, a strange 3 class day schedule made up of too much free time and 80-minute classes. Rowing acted as my anchor of stability in those confusing times. While the athletics at Hill were dysfunctional and paralyzed, I was having relatively normal practices out on the water, learning to row a single. Towards the end of fall, I had quite the chip on my shoulder from my singles experience. While we couldn’t keep doing team dinners, we kept the closeness and accepting nature of our program together.  

Spring came and I thought I was king of the castle among the other first-year rowers. When we raced Blair in early 2021, I was severely humbled. I was in the stroke seat of the second varsity boat. However, my inability to set rhythm and lack of confidence meant that after the race I got bumped down to our much less, in my eyes, prestigious Novice 8. I had still not accepted my fate to row the rest of the season with the novices, until our third practice. We were standing around waiting to launch and I made a condescending comment about how “you all don’t know how to hold the boat right” or maybe it was “you guys’ can’t do (insert some random tasks here) correctly.” When Colin McClenaghan ’24 corrected me. “It’s our boat. You’re in it same as us.” I sheepishly shut my mouth. 

Then and there, I committed to that boat and changed my attitude. I was stroke seat of that boat. It was my boat. Each victory would be the collective work of all oarsmen, and Benji, who is our Coxswain. Every loss felt like my personal failing to keep my boys on rate. That one comment by a fellow rower was enough to set me on the path of team and boat responsibility. That novice 8 would be my charge. Through all the upset, Trace, wristbands, face masks, social distancing, and general instability, the crew team held firm.  

It comes as no surprise that when I think of my time at Hill, I recall two very different experiences. Life at Hill: school, dorms, social life, dining hall food, study hall. The other is rowing. While I’ve had 4 different schedules in 4 years, I’ve only had 1 crew team. As the world, and Hill, were broken by COVID, the crew team offered a sanctuary of normalcy. I would not have been able to survive the Hill without the drive, passion, community, family, that the team has offered me.  

As I close out my time on the team, I think of all it gave me growing up as an insecure, lazy, boring 14–16-year-old. It gave me purpose, and safety. It helped me carve out a place at Hill. It gave me a family away from my own. Nothing less than a home away from home. Of course, I have fallen in love with the sport itself, but without those dinners my first year, I would have quit after COVID hit. It was through the small act of a dinner invitation that gave me everything. So, I implore all of you, if for no other reason than because you may have no one else to eat with, invite a third former to join you for dinner; it might change their life.