Senior Essay: Billy Hennrikus


The Harvard varsity lightweights compete perhaps only with the college’s distance runners for distinction as the leanest athletes on campus. Rowing requires strength as well as endurance, but the balance is tipped in favor of the cardiovascular, so the lights do not lift as much as the wrestlers, who also have to make weight. The ideal physique for a light is not skinny, but it might be called “slim.” “Lean” is the best word. In order to compete as a member of the lightweight crew, some athletes drop their body masses briefly to numbers they have not seen since the age of 15 or 16 — a kind of physical reversion to adolescence.

Their sport emphasizes individual training capacity more than most, and they seek motivation wherever it can be found. One afternoon in the dead of winter indoor training, there was an unattributed quote scrawled on the white board in the locker room that read: “Training is like wrestling a bear: You don’t stop when you get tired, you stop when the bear gets tired.” In the months of year long mixed-boat training in preparation for precious few minutes of intercollegiate racing, teammates are the oarsmen’s most frequent competition. They are one another’s bears to wrestle with. Even with the advantage of being one of the larger and more “naturally athletic” members of this team, I have found myself often humbled by younger, smaller, faster bears.

American culture likes to portray adolescence as the stage of life in which a person “grows up.” Self-understanding is associated with maturation of the body. Arriving at Harvard at the age of 19, I mistook myself for a fully formed man. It has been the young men of HVL who have taught me how wrong I was. It is among these students and athletes, these future world movers and Olympians, that I have met the most disciplined and tireless men of my life. They have taught me the value of goals that are worth changing a lifestyle for. They manipulate 24/7 eating, sleeping, social and study habits in order to arrive at Newell Boathouse every day in top form for the pursuit of physical exhaustion. The little vacations they take last about as long as a post-practice shower and a 15-minute walk from the river to the dining hall. Even as a senior on the team, I am continually in awe of my fellow oarsmen.
Why do we do it? Why do we race? It was suggested to me by a former coach that the natural world no longer offers man situations in which a winner and a loser can be clearly defined, in which success and failure can be quantifiably distinguished. We make up these artificial contests in order to determine desert. Is that why we work so hard and sacrifice so much? So we can say that on this day, at this time, with the wind just such and the temperature just so, I moved from here to there in this length of time that was one tenth of a second briefer than the time it took you? Put a shinier piece of metal around my neck and stand me on a higher platform?

But there is more to college sports, and to rowing in particular, which remains an amateur sport even at the highest levels of competition. Victory does not simply prove superior strength, or endurance, or desert. It proves the lessons learned that got you there. It is a sign of education. I have not shrunk over these years with the lights – I have grown up. Slimming down, I have become more complete.

And as I watch the young people of our maturing country shy away from adulthood, delaying the starts of families and settling into careers later and later in life, I thank the lights for helping me in these, the early steps I take toward the man I hope to become. I will remain forever grateful for my grapplings with the 155 pound bears of HVL, and for the coxswains and the coaches who so wisely guided our brotherly tussle. Thank you, fellas. Thank you, coxswains. Thank you, Linda, and thank you, Charley. I will continue to look for you and people like you when our time rowing together has ended. I hope you will look for me.