Disclaimer: S. Meyer owns all things Twilight. All of the references used in this story in relation to Brown University and its rowing team, and all of the regattas and other rowing organizations and brand names mentioned are only used here for entertainment purposes; no copyright infringement intended.
Thank you to Barburella and Hez Pixie, who so nicely helped me think out the plot for this silly little fic. And thanks as always to Megsly, Forever_Liz and SusanAshlea for letting me send them my rough drafts to get their skittles in return.
Welcome all! So glad you've decided to join the Strokeward Team!
Chapter 1: Dawn
The air was surprisingly crisp for early September, but the threat of humidity still lingered as the eight oars quietly sliced through the still water of the Seekonk River. It was silent at five a.m. on the river, save for the steady, thumping rhythm of the oars rotating in their oarlocks, the harsh exhalations of breath as we worked and the slight rippling of the water moving in our wake. This was my version of heaven.
"Let her run!" Alice's chipper voice sliced through the bubble I'd created in my head that always helped me focus. Once I finished my stroke I let the oar fall flat on the water and straightened my posture, as did the other seven guys behind me. I had to appreciate Alice's ability to be full of sunshine this early in the morning - and to put up with eight stinky, sweaty men on a regular basis. "Great warm-up, guys. Now, what do you say we cut this pansy shit?"
She and I shared a knowing smirk as she readjusted herself in the coxswain's seat - a ridiculously small space at the stern of the boat which I was convinced was strictly designed for contortionists and tiny people like Alice - and pulled the mic of her headset closer to her mouth. I knew the look in her eyes. She was going to put us through our paces today.
"Countdown when ready!" One by one, beginning with my buddy Jasper Whitlock in bow, we counted off until I yelled eight, only inches away from Alice's face. "Ready all. Row." Oars sliced through the calm water and instantly the boat was in motion. Once we all got into a swing, all eight perfectly in time with strong, clean strokes, it was awesome. Perfection was usually an elusive thing this early in the season, so I enjoyed each moment of it.
Alice let me know when the stroke rate was at a consistent 28, keeping her eyes on the electronic display, me and the water around her. She yelled at us as we plowed through the water, giving us feedback on the consistency and power of our catches and drives and the balance of the boat on the finish and recovery, analyzing every part of our strokes. We were, apparently, a bit rusty.
"Guys, set it up, please," she said. "You're down on the port side." I could feel the shimmy in the boat when it wasn't level, and it pissed me off. When all eight weren't perfectly in-sync, things could easily go bad and catching a crab was not something any of us looked forward to. Sometimes the force of the inertia of a boat in motion was enough to throw guys over their oars and into the water. Even a small crab - losing focus just enough that you didn't feather the blade of the oar correctly, sending it slicing down into the water at an odd angle - was enough to have to stop a boat. And as the stroke, or eight seat, I did not want to be that guy.
"Tyler, you're rushing your slide," Alice chirped, and the speaker crackled. "Eric, you're not feathering properly. Everyone, please relax and watch Cullen. He's stroke for a reason." I loved it when Alice got bossy. She called 10 power tens on us that morning and by the time we were paddling up to the dock, we were wheezing and coughing from the effort. Just another day at the office with the Brown University crew team.
As we approached the dock, Alice gave us the order to lift the starboard side oars, allowing us to kiss the dock with the side of our boat. After freeing our feet from the shoes that were attached to the foot stretchers, we all freed the oars from their locks and awaited her call. It always gave us a few moments of reprieve while we waited for Alice to disconnect the cox box. She bounded out of the stern and stood next to us.
"Count down when ready!" she called again. After we'd counted, she commanded us to climb up and out at once, and then four of the guys ran up and into the boathouse with the oars while the rest of us held the shell against the dock. "Hands on," Alice said when we'd resumed our posts next to our respective seats. "Overhead ready, up!" We all lifted the deceptively heavy boat out of the water and over our heads in one fluid motion. There were grunts and groans of protest, as always, as fatigued muscles strained to carry the awkward vessel. "Shoulders ready, down," Alice called and we adjusted the boat onto our shoulders and walked it up the ramp and into the boathouse. It took a few tries to walk it in, but we got the boat on its rack without incident. Not bad for the first official day.
"Hey Cullen, you slipping or something?" a booming voice asked mockingly. Turning, I was greeted by a wide, toothy grin and the thick shoulders of my friend and roommate Emmett McCarty, who had come in a few minutes earlier. "I saw the stern dipping a bit there when you guys walked it in. Did you spend too much time this summer whacking off and not enough time in the weight room?"
Emmett, Jasper and I had been rowing together since freshman year and had decided to room together early in the semester. Our former roommates did not appreciate the alarm sounding at 3:30 a.m., the frantic dressing in the dark, the odd dieting or drinking behaviors (to keep our weights level) or the extreme camaraderie that we all exhibited. I suppose to an "outsider," it might have seemed odd to have passion for such a torturous endeavor like rowing; but to us, it was everything.
"Bite me, asshole," I said with a smirk, knowing full well that I'd spent ample time in the gym this summer to maintain my form. I'd even convinced my folks to help me buy a Concept II rowing machine or erg as we called it. It was a suitable replacement for the real thing and a formidable adversary. I fucking hate ergs. "I logged about a million meters on that damn rowing machine this summer. You still too fat to get into our boat, McCarty?"
At over six-five and pushing 275, Emmett was much too big for our boat, where the average height was six-three and the weight 200 pounds. He was the stroke in the varsity four, a coxed boat of guys all similar in height and build. It might have been hitting below the belt a bit - I knew he'd give his right nut to be in the first boat - but Emmett was pretty thick skinned. Jasper sidled up to us and slapped Emmett on his burly shoulder. The size difference between the two was comical.
"Fuck you, Cullen. I'm big-boned," he said sullenly. But his mood was derailed only for a moment and then the grin was back just as quickly. "Besides, Coach says he's looking into entering both a coxed eight and a four this fall for Head of the Charles. So maybe I'll get to show up both you fairies after all. Are we partying tonight? Classes don't start for two days and damn it, I'm gonna take advantage."
We made plans to go The Fish Co. that night in Providence - a totally shitty bar but the college girls were plentiful - and all three of us got our shoes and water bottles and headed upstairs to the weight room. Carlisle's routine consisted of a two-mile run first thing at 3:45 a.m., followed by morning practice, and then one hour in the weight room. Once classes started, we were expected to keep that schedule and add another evening weight training session, either on the ergs or lifting. It was beyond rigorous to everyone else, but to us it was necessary for keeping our forms. The ladies team had the same schedule. There was no gender bias in this sport. On our way up the stairs, a small blur of blue and brown rushed past me before heading out the door.
"Hey guys, who was that?" I asked my friends. Jasper looked out the window at the retreating form. All I could see was long, dark hair, blue shorts and thin white legs. "I haven't seen her before."
"I think that was the new coxswain," Jasper offered. "Alice told me she'd convinced her friend to try out for the open cox position. Alice said she needs to get back to Emmett's boat for the season and Coach Esme can't spare a rower for either of the men's boats for any of the races."
"Well, what the fuck? I thought we were going to get Alice for this season," I grumbled. The idea of getting stuck with a brand new coxswain for my senior year did not appeal at all. I groaned at the thought. "Can we really afford to train a newbie? Has she ever coxed before?" Jasper shrugged as we walked down the hall, past the coaches' offices and into the weight room. With my mind on the possibility of my final season getting shot to hell by a new, shitty cox, my erg split times were off and my form was horrendous.
"Ed, man, if Coach sees you looking like that on the erg, he'll pull your ass out of the boat so fast you'll get skidmarks," Emmett said from the bench press machine. Fuck. Reining in my paranoid thoughts, I refocused on my form and timing and blocked out everything else for the time being. The soothing whoosh of the erg's wheel grounded me as I surged forward and then pulled back with all of my strength. My legs burned with the anaerobic movement, as did my lungs, but it was a sensation I'd grown comfortable with. Once our workout was finished, we drove back to our apartment downtown for early lunch (pasta, tuna and salad with a side of protein shake), a little R&R and later, some pre-barhopping drinking.
"Hey, shitface, take it easy," I joked later that night as Emmett threw back his tenth shot. "If you can't walk yourself outta here, J and I sure as hell aren't carrying your big, fat ass." The Fish Co. was busy for a Thursday night, and it was early, so we'd all taken to drinking instead of watching for hot girls. We could all hold our liquor quite well, but Emmett's eyes were getting glassy and it wasn't even nine o'clock yet. "Pace yourself, man."
Emmett rolled his eyes at me and pounded on the bar to indicate he wanted another drink. The bartender eyed him warily but said nothing and slid another into his meaty hand. After downing the shot, Emmett said, "Pussies. I can handle my Jim Beam. Besides, there aren't any hot chicks here to keep me warm, so this'll do."
As if on cue, one of our teammates, Rosalie Hale, waltzed into the bar with a few of the other girls from her boat. Rose, Angela, Victoria and Jess were great to hang out with, but none of them appealed to me as more than friends. Rose was a tough bitch; Angela was really sweet and bookish, but was a tiger in the boat. Victoria and Jess were good rowers but were a bit petty and shallow. They all made damn decent drinking buddies, though.
Rose sauntered over to us and put her hand on Emmett's shoulder. I was amazed to see the change in his demeanor: from all talk and bravado to meek pussycat. He was definitely going to deal with a shitstorm of joking later. I'd see to it.
"Hey, boys," she cooed. "What's on tap tonight? Emmett, I hope you got one of those shots for me." Emmett stuttered and mumbled his way to obtaining another for Rosalie, which she promptly slammed back, without even so much as a blink. Then she ordered a round of beers for all of us and raised hers in a toast. "Here's to senior year and what is going to be a great season! I love you guys! Cheers!" Glass clinked against glass, followed by silence as we all chugged our brews. Emmett's eyes were all over Rose as she chatted with her friends and me and Jasper. This dude is seriously whipped. Does she even know it?
"Where's Alice tonight?" I asked Jasper as I signaled for another round. "I figured she'd want to start the season out right and come out with us." Jasper laughed and nodded, telling us his girlfriend would be arriving later. Alice, apparently, had gotten held up speaking with Coach Esme earlier in the day and was spending time with her roommate and our new coxswain. Again, I shuddered at the idea.
"Fuck, man, I hope she doesn't suck. We don't need another Jane this year. Too much is at stake," I grumbled. Jane, our cox for the last two seasons, had been sweet and pretty, but the poor thing was horrible at steering the boat and multi-tasking, and the university's Vespoli supply had been diminished because of it. Neither the coaches nor the benefactors of our sport appreciated their $20,000 pride and joy being dinged and damaged. Those things cost a bundle to repair. Because we had been down one coxswain, Alice had been run ragged doing double coxing for both our eight and the men's four. It also meant that only the eight could compete in regattas.
Jasper laid a hand on my shoulder and attempted to assuage my worries. "Relax, man. Ali wouldn't have suggested her friend if the girl didn't have at least some of the qualifications," he said. "Trust my girl. She has a sixth sense about these things. And you know she'd never want to be responsible for saddling the Brown men's eight with a bad cox. Okay?" His words added a thin blanket of comfort and I nodded. There wasn't much I could do about it at this point, anyways. About an hour later, Alice walked in - alone - wrapped her arms around her boyfriend's neck and kissed him before saying hello to the rest of us. I was admittedly a bit curious about the girl, but the thought was fleeting.
"Hey guys!" she said, getting herself a beer. "What did I miss?" Jasper reiterated my concerns while Emmett made goo-goo eyes at Rose. The other girls talked amongst themselves, probably about their erg test times. Eat. Sleep. Row.
"Aww, Eddie, don't worry about your new cox, okay?" she cooed. "Bella's great and you guys will all love her. She's smart and a quick study. After talking with Coach today, I set her up with all of the reading materials she'll ever need and also spent some time with her in the tank after practice. Just so Bella can get a feel for what you guys do. It'll be fantastic!" The tank was a place where freshmen practiced in their initial days of rowing. It was an indoor tank filled with water with a simulated boat set up and suspended, fixed in the water. It allowed new rowers to get the feel of the action of rowing, without the dangers of being on the open water in a real shell. We had all paid our dues there first. Even Alice.
"Alice, if you're wrong about her, we're throwing you into the Seekonk," I declared. "You'll be picking debris and trash out of your hair for a week." Alice shuddered and slapped me on the arm - hard.
"Cullen, if I'm wrong, I'll jump into the damn river, okay?" she said with a smirk. With my threat now idle, I shrugged and shook her hand on it. As the stroke, it was vital that I develop a good relationship and synchronicity with the coxswain. Alice and I had built up a sort of unspoken communication; it often felt like we could read each other's minds. This new girl, Bella, and I would require the same connection.
With our bet officially struck, I turned my attention to Angela, Jess and Victoria. "So guys, how're things shaping up for you? I mean, I know it was only the first day, but any good freshman prospects, or will your boat be exactly the same?" I asked. "I didn't hear a whole lot of yelling from Coach Esme, so am I right in assuming practice went well?" The girls all nodded in agreement and Victoria told me that while there were a few freshmen who seemed to be naturals, it was still much too early to know. And all four doubted that Esme would break up their eight unless there was a prodigy among the newbies.
"So, for now we remain intact," said Angela. "Unless we start sucking this season, Coach has no reason to rock the boat." She snickered at her pun as the others giggled. "And thankfully Bree's back, so we're already in much better shape than you guys!" Jess and Victoria made a point of nudging me and Jasper as Rose nodded smugly in agreement. Their coxswain was good and had been with them since freshman year. Clearly the women's boat had an advantage over us.
"Oh, I sense a bet comin' on," Jasper drawled with a sly grin. "You girls feel like making it interesting?" Rose and the others bent their heads together and after a few moments of hushed whispers, stifled giggles and wayward glances, Rose straightened up and thrust her chin out.
"Okay, so the terms are: Head of the Charles. Men's varsity eight versus women's varsity eight," she said, looking to Emmett who was visibly upset that he wasn't included. "Sorry, Emmett, but it's just easier this way. So if we win or place better than you guys, you'll all be practicing the next day in the nude." I nearly spit out my beer. Cocks and balls slapping against legs and slides and…Ugh. "And if you win -"
"You guys have to clean our apartments for a month!" Emmett yelled. "I mean, their apartments." We all knew how disgustingly most of the guys lived. It was a fair trade. Jasper and I considered the terms, and spurned on by an incentive not to lose at the Head of the Charles, I reached out my hand for Rosalie to shake.
"Deal, Rose. Hope you guys have strong stomachs," I told the girls, who simply looked at me with pity.
"Man, maybe we should offer the guys some ice packs and powder after their naked practice," Victoria said with a snicker. "That's gonna hurt." The girls laughed as Jasper, Emmett and I imagined the squishing, smacking and chaffing of our packages. Clearly, this was not an option for us.
"Not. Gonna. Happen," I declared.
A/N: So, what do you think of Strokeward? I'm already in love. *sigh* Please leave me some love for this fun fic! No reviews is like catching a crab – ouch! Also, follow Strokeward on Twitter!
Glossary of Terms:
Crab - An unfortunate incident when the blade gets caught in the water and the handle of the oar hits the midsection of the rower; can result in getting tossed out of the boat. It is caused by the blade not entering into the water fully square, when pressure is applied to the blade it will just go deeper and deeper in the water.
Coxswain – Person who steers the shell and is the on-the-water coach for the crew.
Stroke rate – The rate at which all rowers move together, measured by minute.
Catch, Drive, Feather and Recovery – See below.*
Rushing the slide - Bad technique that causes stern check, or rapid deceleration, which comes from coming toward the catch from the recovery too fast.
Power Ten - A call for rowers to do 10 of their best, most powerful strokes. It's a strategy used to pull ahead of a competitor.
Foot stretchers (stretchers) - Where the rower's feet go. The stretcher consists of two inclined footrests that hold the rower's shoes. The rower's shoes are bolted into the footrests.
Cox box – A microphone system that amplifies the coxswain's voice so it's heard throughout the boat. May also have a digital display which tells the coxswain information such as stroke rate, stroke count and time elapsed.
Shell – Racing boats, long, narrow, and broadly semi-circular in cross-section in order to reduce drag to a minimum. They usually have a fin toward the rear, to help prevent roll and going off-course and to increase the effectiveness of the rudder.
Head of the Charles – The largest rowing event in the world, it is a head race held in October on the Charles River in Boston, Mass. Head races are time trial races; boats begin with a rolling start at 10-20 second intervals and are timed over a set distance. Head races vary in length from 2,000 – 12,000 meters.
Ergs/split times – Ergometer or "erg" - A rowing machine that closely approximates the actual rowing motion. The rowers' choice is the Concept II, which utilizes a flywheel and a digital readout so that the rower can measure "strokes per minute" and the distance covered. Split time refers to the average time it takes to complete 500 m (i.e. the 2000 m time divided by 4).
Vespoli – A brand of racing shell.
Regatta – All races. Those held in the spring and summer and feature side-by-side racing are called regattas; all the boats start at the same time from a stationary position and the winner is the boat that crosses the finish line first.
Tank – An indoor stationary boat immersed in water that many schools use to train new rowers before they are put in real boats. It simulates the action of rowing on the water, but is completely stable.
*The anatomy of a stroke: The two fundamental reference points in the rowing stroke are the catch, immediately prior to the oar blade's placement in the water, and the extraction (also known as the finish or the release) where the rower removes the oar blade from the water. From the catch, the rower places the blade in the water, then applies pressure to the oar by simultaneously pushing the seat toward the bow of the boat by extending the legs – the drive. As the legs approach full extension, the rower rotates his or her torso toward the bow of the boat and then finally pulls the arms towards his or her chest. The shoulders should not hunch up at any point during the drive. At the very end of the stroke, with the blade still in the water, the hands drop slightly to unload the oar so that spring energy stored in the bend of the oar gets transferred to the boat, which eases removing the oar from the water and minimizes energy wasted on lifting water above the surface (splashing).
The recovery phase follows the drive. It involves removing the oar from the water, and coordinating the body movement to move the oar to the catch. The coordinated body motion that begins at the finish consists of the following: the rower pushes down on the oar handle (or oar handles if the rower is sculling) to quickly lift the blade from the water at the release. Following the release, the rower rapidly rotates the oar to cause the blade of the oar to become parallel to the water (a process referred to as "feathering the blade") at the same time as pushing the oar handle away from the chest. After feathering and extending the arms, the rower rotates his or her body forward. Once the hands are past the knees, the rower compresses the legs, which moves the seat toward the stern of the boat. The leg compression occurs relatively slowly (compared with the rest of the stroke) which affords the rower a moment to "recover" (hence the term), and allows the boat to glide through the water. Near the end of the recovery, the rower squares the blade (rotates the blade to perpendicular to the water), and then repeats the stroke again, beginning with the catch.