Each of the boat’s eight-cylinder engines is at maximum revs. Above all that noise and intensity the coxswains are trying to stay cool, but no one doubts that they are having the ride of their lives. For those of us watching, our eye might be drawn to the maelstrom of water churned up by nearly fifty oars, or the surge of the carbon-fibre bows as they slice through the water. But even more remarkable is the synchronicity of each boat’s rowers: their limbs, bodies and blades seemingly moving with clockwork efficiency. Each of the six crews is at a slightly different point of the stroke giving the image an almost hypnotic quality.

That excitement and physicality is undoubtedly part of any rower’s experience. But talk to them about the most important teamwork lessons they’ve taken from the sport and they will begin to speak of values: trust, dedication, selflessness, determination, honesty and commitment. In truth the list could be longer. Ultimately it is a transformational experience, not only in the sense of taking an individual’s performance to a level they may only have dreamt was possible, but also how the spirit of teamwork transcends a person’s ego.

Learning to cope with rowing’s extreme physical demands of course plays a key role, but the close proximity of one rower to another combined with each one’s need to move in exactly the same way, only serves to deepen the experience.

It is a well-trodden path and one which has helped to radically change the lives of young men and women who took up rowing from the back streets of Naples, the hardships of South Africa and the backwoods of Washington. Their journey makes for a compelling story. And perhaps that is why The Boys In The Boat, Daniel James Brown’s book about the three year journey of the University of Washington’s 1936 varsity crew, has hit the best-seller lists. While some may focus on the gold medal won by the crew at the Berlin Olympics, the power of the story is really about the lifelong bonds created by their experiences.

Before he died, Bobby Moch, the coxswain of that crew, wrote eloquently of what was really important for the men who made up that legendary crew: “We truly for years and years, felt like a band of brothers. Each of us feel that is the best benefit we received from being part of the University of Washington '36 crew.”

Camaraderie like this is built in many ways. In rowing, it can be particularly deep because of the shared journey that a crew tends to make on its quest to discover its potential. Remarkably – especially in the heat of competition - rowers who you might think should know better still need to learn that they have to sacrifice something for the team to perform at its best. That was certainly the case for some of Australia’s Olympic champions during the Atlanta Games. Following a poor semifinal performance, adversity seemed to be staring the men's four, later known as the Oarsome Foursome, in the face. They’d only managed to finish third. It was not the form that would see them defend their Olympic title. More so, the Aussie rowers – at the best of times - were all pretty vocal characters. Now they were clearly working at odds with each other.

Ultimately, though, it was the values of teamwork that the Aussies had to fall back on. They had a ‘no holds barred’ honesty session the following morning, led by their coach, Noel Donaldson. “They were a really egotistical bunch of guys and it was getting in the way of them producing their best,” explained Donaldson. “I drew these pictures of four magnets polarising apart and then magnets attracting to signify the concept of them working together.”
Cox Phelan Hill and stroke seat Andrew Triggs Hodge of the British men's eight before the start of the men's eight heat at the 2013 Samsung World Rowing Cup in Lucerne, Switzerland.

As part of the process Donaldson asked the crew to tell each other one defining thing that they would commit to do during the race and then one thing they would demand of each other. One comment in particular struck him. “Jimmy Tomkins was a master of getting in the rhythm and Mick Mackay was as tough as they come. So Mick looked at Jimmy and told him: ‘I don’t want you to coast at any stage in tomorrow’s race.’ Jimmy looks him straight back and says: 'yep no worries mate.'”

The emotions were raw, but after the session, Donaldson felt the four men were no longer four individuals but a team – and now in the best shape they’d ever been in. That lesson in team-building helped them hit the front with 500m left and they were never headed.
Sometimes the lessons in teamwork are so powerful that crews feel the need to codify them for future generations. Denmark’s lightweight men's four, that began their Olympic winning ways at the 1996 Olympics, took ownership of their team process to create ‘ten golden rules.'  Never static, always dynamic, this framework helped them build a powerful culture of teamwork. Values like trust, respect, honesty and self-belief figured strongly.

There was also a recognition that for the team to grow it had to take a holistic view of each person’s personality. That meant a recognition of the life they had outside of rowing. Since then, Denmark has been notable for the way it has encouraged its teams to study or work as well as row. Sixteen years later, Thomas Poulsen – a member of that ’96 crew – coached Denmark’s lightweight men's double sculls to another Olympic title in London. Arguably, those same values helped towards the gold medal win.

From the Australia to Europe to the U.S. the stories of teamwork are undeniable, cropping up in every boathouse and around every corner. At the University of Washington, the memory of the '36 crew lives on. Olympic Champion in the men's eight in 2004 and Washington graduate Matt Deakin said, "I was real proud of them; they were a huge influence on us.” Deakin explained that at Washington freshmen are required to memorise the names of their 1936 crew. The revered Pocock shell that Moch’s crew raced in still hangs in the University of Washington boat house. It’s not only a reminder of the excellence to which they all aspire but a living symbol of the power of teamwork in a unique sport.   

Copy thanks to Martin Cross