Around The Yard: Olivia Farrar

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Olivia Farrar
Women's Lightweight Crew
September, 5, 2018

“What are you doing this summer?”

As summer break winds to a close and students begin gradually repopulating the campus, it’s always worthwhile to reflect back on the answer you gave to this subtly-loaded question while sipping an iced mocha at Peet’s back in April. It’s a familiar question, one that seems to weave its way into every other conversation beginning as early as January of each spring term. In the dialectical vernacular of the average Harvard kid, “What are you doing this summer?” is a far more common expression of small talk than any offhand remark about the weather (maybe, though, that’s because we know that the weather is—and will remain—predictably bad).

When I was hit with this pleasant, well-meant interrogation throughout the spring semester, I’d bumble my way through some vague response about how I was hoping to row. “Ah,” my conversation partner would usually respond, “That’s fun!” and the conversation would generally change directions. Unless I was talking to another rower, most people weren’t impressed to hear that I planned to spend my summer sweaty, pulling on large sticks day in and day out, instead of wearing heels and plumping up my resume/wallet by working at Goldman Sachs. The truth is, there’s nothing particularly glamorous about rowing. It’s a lot of work. It doesn’t pay. It’s a bit less intellectual than investment banking. The tan lines are bad.

Regardless, I knew it was how I wanted to spend my summer. As an athlete on the Harvard-Radcliffe lightweight crew team, I finished the spring competitive season satisfied, but still hungry. My teammate Brigid Kennedy and I had received invitations to the first ever official United States U23 Lightweight Women’s National Team Selection Camp, run through Union Boat Club out of DeWolfe Boathouse, and so I returned to Boston immediately after the IRA National Championships to start camp. Selection camp was composed of ten of the top U23 lightweight women from colleges all around the country—Stanford, Columbia, Boston University, Georgetown, the University of Wisconsin, MIT, and Harvard. We’d competed against one another just days beforehand at IRAs while representing our colleges, and now we were supposed to compete against one another again, this time as individuals. The purpose of camp was to select the four women who would be representing the United States in the Lightweight Women’s 4x at the 2018 World Championships in Poznan, Poland. With the stakes so high, competition was extremely intense. Yet, simultaneously, even as we vied against one another for a limited number of National Team positions, a sense of solidarity immediately grew. Arguably, nothing builds camaraderie like shouldering the burden of shared expectation. We all had the same singular dream of representing the USA on the world stage, and we all knew that regardless of which women were ultimately selected for the 4x, that dream would be collectively safeguarded. Gradually, I came to realize that even if my individual goals were left unfulfilled by the end of camp, those goals would by carried forward by another strong, determined, and gutsy woman, one who had earned the privilege to wear the stars and stripes.

The long, sweaty mornings turned into busy Charles River afternoons, and the days passed in a sort of Sisyphusian cycle. We practiced twice a day, often up to eight hours every day. With a training schedule so intense, the workouts became about mental fortitude as much as physical strength. It’s easy to reflect back on the experience with simple adjectives like “endurance” or “resilience,” but it’s harder to capture the reality of how it felt to climb into bed at the end of every single day, body aching, mentally wiped, knowing I had to wake up with the sun the next morning and repeat it all over again. Finally, after almost four weeks of selection, the 4x was named—and I was on it. As difficult as it is to describe how challenging the process was, it’s far harder to explain how incredible the result felt.

A few days later, the remaining six women from camp who did not make the selection 4x traveled to New Jersey for United States Trials, to compete against other crews from around the country for the right to represent the U.S. in several smaller boats: the U23 Lightweight 2x, 2-, and 1x. This was the first year of an official United States Lightweight Women’s Selection Camp, and it became a trailblazing year for elite lightweight women’s rowing. Our camp won every single entry at Trials. Not only did we each win the honor to live out our singular dreams, a group of women from different collegiate teams and backgrounds suddenly became a unit—a unit representing something far greater than the sum of its parts.

The 2018 U23 World Championships took place a few weeks later, halfway across the globe in Poznan, Poland. I had previously competed at Worlds in 2016 and 2017, in the U.S. U23 Lightweight Women’s 2x. Something felt different this year, though. When I qualified for the National Team at Trials the past two summers, I had gone to the World Championships without knowing the other members of Team USA aside from my doubles partner. This year, I was amongst friends. The nine of us were there for each other from day one of racing through the finals, sharing in both the moments of discomfort and indescribable joy.

As I sat at the start line of the Grand Final at the World Championships, parallel to career National Team crews from Italy, Germany, China, the Netherlands, and France, I remember suddenly thinking about…cats. I’m a cat lover, but I wasn’t thinking about my pets at home. I was thinking about lions. Not many people realize this, but lionesses actually do about 90 percent of the hunting for their prides, working together in groups to stalk and tackle their prey. A lion alone is a formidable hunter—but by hunting cooperatively, lionesses are able to kill animals that would be too quick and elusive for any single cat. When the announcer’s voice crackled over the megaphone, breaking my reverie as he prepared to call the start of the race, I felt no nerves. The poignancy of this metaphor is twofold, because the name for a group of lionesses is a “pride”—and in that singular moment when the announcer called “Attention…row!”, I felt only pride, for myself, my teammates, and my country.

From an outside perspective, rowing probably seems like a far cry from most characteristically “Harvard” pursuits. When you strip away the superficial differences, though, rowing perfectly embodies the Harvard ethos—an ethos that I believe is best understood as a commitment, both personal and communal, towards becoming the best version of yourself and your group or community. Too often, we interpret sports as polarizing or divisive, because they create an artificial separation between one side versus another, one team and its opposing counterpart. Yet, the word “compete” comes directly from Late Latin competere, meaning “strive in common, strive after something in company with or together.” Selection camp was a competition, and so was Worlds. If Harvard is all about pushing towards something intangible, something better—a better idea, a better self, a better world—then rowing and competing this summer helped me towards that ideal.

In answer to the inevitable follow-up question “What did you do this summer?”, I won’t be able to say that I won a World Championship, or landed a Goldman Sachs internship. But I can say that I had an adventure, and it’s a story worth telling. I think the moral of that story would be something like this: clichés and all, I found something new in myself. And, above all, I found a pride of lionesses, hungry for the hunt.

Go Crimson. Go USA.