Connection and community through rowing
From rowing to coaching to developing complex electrical sensor systems, 2014 Parmigiani Spirit Award winner Franz Gravenhorst, has done it all with a smile on his face.
For Gravenhorst rowing has been the thread throughout his life that has enabled his successes, provided enduring friendships and allowed him to give back to society.
Moving to a new country can be difficult. You have to fit into a new community, integrate into a new system and find a new rhythm. Gravenhorst has done this several times in his life and he says to make it easier he looks for rowers wherever he goes.
After rowing competitively as a junior and young student in Germany, Gravenhorst moved to Detroit, Michigan (USA) to complete a research project. After a few days of feeling lonely, Gravenhorst set his mind to finding the 'nearest' rowing club. "This was the first time I realised there are many values that are key to the sport of rowing and that it is so much more important than winning races,” Gravenhorst says. “I felt quite alone, but after a few sessions in a boat at the club, I felt right at home.”
This theme followed Gravenhorst throughout his academic and rowing career. He found a club in Zurich where he is completing his PhD and sought out a club in Sydney, Australia where he lived for six months working on research. Each time the clubs and the rowers included him in their community. “Now, whenever I travel for a conference, for research, or anything, I always contact the local rowing club. I encourage others to do this as much as possible as well, I am so happy to welcome rowers here in Zurich,” Gravenhorst says.
Gravenhorst says he thinks this inclusivity stems from the fact that rowing is a team sport. “You have to make a big commitment and then share that commitment. You also have to be willing to make sacrifices. It is a lifestyle. The chance is that when you meet rowers they share this focused lifestyle and I really like that.”
This ability to focus and sacrifice has taken Gravenhorst, and his fellow rowing colleagues, very far. Gravenhorst did his bachelor and masters degree at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (Germany) in electrical engineering. He then applied for a PhD programme at the Swiss Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETHZ) in applied electrical engineering. “I decided to study electrical engineering, as opposed to physics or maths, because I wanted to do something with practical applications for the betterment of society,” Gravenhorst says.
His two PhD projects, although at first glance seem to be quite different, actually bring together his skills with his desire for practical application. Gravenhorst's first project worked to develop sensor technology. The primary application of his technology was to improve home health care. For example, a patient could perform physical therapy exercises at home wearing the sensors and receive feedback on their form and performance. He also worked to develop technology that helps to track people with mental illness such as bipolar disorder or depression. The technology tracks their movements, eating habits, voice tones and more through their cell phone to analyse their mood. This information is then sent to a doctor or psychologist. Used as a preventative measure, these systems can help the person avoid severe depression, or a serious problem.
The second project, the rowing application, came later. “It was one of my colleagues who first had the idea,” says Gravenhorst. “He was learning to row and said it was so complicated, he suggested we use some of the sensors to be able to monitor the movement and give feedback.” Together Gravenhorst and his colleague developed a system of sensors to monitor the rowing motion and tell the coach exactly how the rower moves throughout the stroke.
These two projects provided Gravenhorst with the satisfaction that his skills in engineering could contribute to society as a whole, but it also left him wanting to do more. “I defend my thesis in two weeks,” Gravenhorst says, “and then we will be working to continue to develop these projects commercially.”
Between rowing, studying and working, Gravenhorst also makes time to share the sport he loves with others. “Coaching first started for me because my university club asked me if I could help out. I was happy to do it and it progressed from there. When you are coaching novices, you see a lot of success and improvement, it is very motivating for me,” Gravenhorst says.
His modesty is apparent . Published in more than two dozen scientific papers and instrumental in the success of university rowing in Zurich, Gravenhorst does not admit that his accomplishments outshine those of anyone else. Instead, he credits his success to his teammates, his coaches and his colleagues.
Gravenhorst describes rowing experiences at the international level that he says helped to shape him both mentally and physically. Gravenhorst illustrates one from when he was selected in 2011 to race in the German lightweight men's quadruple sculls at the World Rowing Cup. “You don’t get to select your friends at the national team level,” Gravenhorst says. “Often you don’t even know the people you are rowing with before you start.”
Gravenhorst was put together in what he calls an 'unlikely' group. “We were so different. In normal life we probably would never have met,” Gravenhorst laughs. “But we shared the same goal. At first it was difficult, we didn’t always get along and we didn’t have the same strategy for solving our differences.” Looking back on the training now Gravenhorst admits that there were some difficult periods, but now they are best friends.
“It’s difficult to say if it was the success the brought us together, but I don’t think so. I think it was having the same goal and realising that working through our differences would bring us closer to that goal,” he says. “Now, I have so many different friends. Friends I might never have met if it weren’t for rowing.”
This is a lesson that the 29-year-old will take away. Working through differences and remaining focused and determined on one goal not only allowed them to achieve that goal, but also nourished a deep friendship that has endured for many years beyond the competition. For Gravenhorst, this is the nature of the sport. No matter where he travels, he seeks out rowers because as he says, 'these are the people I want to get to know'.