Back on the Water, a Shrunk GDS Crew Team Is Staying Afloat

The nine GDS crew novices carry their boat onto the dock at the Thompson Boat Center in Georgetown. Photos by Ethan Wolin.

It was 6:17 a.m. when the five girls who constitute GDS’ women’s varsity crew team pushed off from the dock of the Thompson Boat Center, which was bustling with rowers of all ages as the rising sun illuminated the Kennedy Center’s marble facade. “Nice job,” senior Alyssa West said through her amplifying microphone to the four teammates facing her in the boat.

Six minutes later, it was the nine novices’ boat drifting out on the flat, glistening water. Head coach Alan Burch and I trailed behind them in a modest motorboat owned by the school labeled “GDS 1.” “6:23,” Burch announced to his rowers, as if marking as an accomplishment the time when they made it out. “Not bad at all.”

The co-ed novice group, composed of freshmen and sophomores, rowed a long, narrow boat called the Green Lightning; the women took the Hopper Clipper. (The men’s varsity squad wasn’t there, since a coaching vacancy prevents more than two squads from rowing on the river at once.) While almost all of the community remained asleep on this recent Tuesday morning, the crew team was representing GDS on the Potomac. 

Reconstituted for a truncated spring season after a year entirely “shut down,” in Burch’s words, the team now counts fewer than 20 members in its ranks, down from over 30 in the mid-2010s. But for the small but dedicated cadre of rowers and their two coaches, a sense of camaraderie remains. A morning on the water with them convinced me that GDS crew is all about timing—and team spirit. 

Burch, several rowers and I had gathered at the high school’s 42nd Street doors at 5:35, pulled away a minute after 5:40 and rode through the dark on a GDS bus, where conversation was convivial if sparse, to meet the rest of the team at the Swedish embassy at 6. 

On the water for only the sixth time this spring, the novices took turns rowing four at a time. Burch stood in the motorboat, giving tips on technique through his megaphone above the whir of the motor and the splashing water. 

“Eyes to the stern” (the back of the boat), Burch instructed one freshman who was frequently turning to watch her oar slice into the water. And, a few minutes later: “We’re gonna put you in a blindfold one of these days; that’ll teach you.” Looking to the side “just takes you away from your teammates,” he explained. It detracts from the larger goal: getting in sync. 

Coach Alan Burch speaks to the novice rowers through a megaphone from his small motorboat.

That day was freshman Aidan Mostashari’s first time serving as coxswain—the person facing forward responsible for directing the rowers and steering the boat. The leading role was “really stressful” at first, but he was able to “hit his stride,” Mostashari said in an interview later.

Meanwhile, the varsity women—led by their coxswain, West—did a workout with alternating intervals at varied paces, then ran through their precise sequence of strokes for starting races. The crew team won’t compete in any formal regattas this spring, but Burch said he is scheduling scrimmages against other schools that practice nearby. 

Women’s coach Josh Gazdik, into whose boat I moved midway through the practice, explained as we passed by the Lincoln Memorial that GDS teams rarely make the podium at regattas. But he said he thinks GDS students are drawn to crew because it’s “a team sport in the truest sense”: Success depends on hard work and no superstar can dominate. 

Rowing is also a challenge—both physically and technically. “It’s as difficult as perfecting a golf swing while you’re standing on a log in a river,” Burch said in an interview, “except you got to be doing it at the same time as all of your teammates.”

Burch called the early-morning practices on the river, traditional for crew, “magical,” but acknowledged they’re a deterrent to many prospective rowers. “You got to organize your whole life around that,” he said. “And that’s part of what makes it such an intense experience.”

Practice time isn’t the only thing that distinguishes the crew team from the rest of GDS athletics: Crew doesn’t compete in the Mid-Atlantic Conference or the Independent School League, but rather has its own bare-bones organizing body, the Washington Metropolitan Interscholastic Rowing Association. It’s also particularly expensive. 

Normally, rowers are required to pay a $500 membership fee (with financial aid available) and raise money to cover part of the team’s costs, which include those associated with regattas, a spring-break pre-season in South Carolina and storing equipment at the boathouse. (A parent association, the Georgetown Day High School Crew Club, Inc., organizes those expenses and volunteering duties.) 

This season, there is no such surcharge, as GDS is footing the entire (reduced) bill. “The school has never shied away from supporting the crew team,” Burch said.

Burch and Gazdik rowed in college and found their way to coaching GDS crew in 2014 and 2016, respectively. And they both have day jobs in the federal government, Burch at the Justice Department and Gazdik at the Department of Defense.

The women’s varsity squad, led by coxswain Alyssa West, passes by the Kennedy Center.

Mostashari said he doesn’t have any worries about how the crew team will bounce back from the pandemic. “I’m more just excited for once we’re going to be able to race and put all our practice to use, because so far it feels like there isn’t really a main goal.”

The two GDS boats made their way back to the dock by 7:45. After racking theirs, the novices returned to the steps of the Swedish embassy and showed off the calluses on their hands.

Walking back to the bus, senior Emily Scarrow, the women’s captain, told me that “crew is kind of the worst, kind of the best.” The workouts are hard, she said, but people stay for the close-knit team and its unique camaraderie. In a normal season, that even involves Friday night dinners at teammates’ homes before Saturday regattas.

The city was just waking up while the crew team rode back to GDS, having finished the day’s exercise. One rower ate oatmeal; another, sophomore Liam Zeilinger, handed out baby wipes for them to clean themselves in lieu of showers in the now-closed locker room.

As we passed through Georgetown, I moved to the front of the bus to hear from Michelle Harrington, the GDS bus driver who has taken the crew team to early morning practices for over a decade. Driving them, Harrington said, she’s observed how “driven” the rowers are, and how full of energy they seem when she lets them into the bus each morning. 

The night before each practice, Burch checks the weather to see if he’ll have to call it off, and Harrington hopes for the best—that is, that crew practice, the basis for her morning routine, will go on as planned.

I was confused, so she repeated herself: “I hope I don’t get a text that says ‘no crew.’”

After a year of turbulent waters—a year of no crew—that routine is back on.

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