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“Writing about them, to me, often felt like that children’s game where you try to pat your head and rub your tummy at the same time: trying simultaneously to be like them and yet fiercely to defend whatever scrap of no-man’s land remains between them and you—between the real world and the world of science.”

Be honest: When was the last time you truly enjoyed reading a book, any book, written by an academic?  When was the last time you found yourself completely absorbed in a remarkable story?  

What if I told you that the academic book in question is a full-out adventure story cleverly disguised as an organizational ethnography, and that it’s subject is a high performance athletic team made up of Cambridge University graduate students, volunteers who train at the outer limits of human endurance for 200 days to qualify for an 8-person Boat Race against their arch rival, Oxford?  A Boat Race that, if they are lucky and their highly coordinated talents are literally perfect, will last just under 17 minutes but will bring with their victory a kind of immortality?  Would you want to read such book?  

My guess is you would.

The author is Mark de Rond, an Oxford-trained Cambridge Fellow from the Cambridge Judge Business School, a man who, so far as I can tell, had never before placed a competitive oar into the current nor been part of a serious athletic team prior to this year-long engagement with those who aspire to don the Cambridge Blues.  He is an ethnographer—a person who lives and works with those whom he studies and writes about—and who also publishes straight-up, highly regarded academic works with titles such as “On the Dialectics of Strategic Alliances,” and “Choice, Chance, and Inevitability in Strategy.”  Yet unlike so many of us who train in the highly competitive intellectual world of the academy, Professor de Rond writes beautifully, with an investigative journalist’s creative nonfiction style that is at once engaging and smart without being either stuffy or pedantic.  

Here is one example of his style, a genius preview of the whole book really, drawn from the first few pages and used to explain the curious appeal of competitive rowing as well as account for what ultimately happened, without giving it all away:

“Speed is a function of rhythm.  And rhythm in a crew is surprisingly tangible.  It’s that easy, predictable, relentless, nothing-else-matters-no-matter-what feel of the boat—a separation of stroke and recovery, a flawless coordination of lungs and legs, of push and let go, of brace and release: a wedlock of oarsman and boat, of oarsman and coxswain, each stroke an investment with the certainty of a return.

The rhythm is designed to generate flow, that most enviable of experiences—one familiar to many yet extraordinarily difficult to call up at will.  It captures that rare moment in time where one is totally absorbed in what one is doing.  It’s the experience of pure harmony, or that point at which mind and matter fuse effortlessly and you know that something special has occurred.

Flow is said to lift experiences from the ordinary to the optimal, to a Zen-like state, and it’s in precisely those moments that we feel truly alive and in tune with what we are doing.  For the oarsman, it’s an experience in which the self merges with the act of rowing and becomes indistinguishable from it.  Where anxiety, self-doubt, indeed self-consciousness itself has been cut out as if by a clever surgeon—a feeling John Steinbeck described as very near to a kind of unconsciousness—where time changes its manner where minutes disappear into the cloud of time.  A time where everything finally falls into place: a groovy sensation of weightlessness yet total control, being really and truly alive in the present and knowing that nothing else matters, at least not now.  Even as crowds roar, cameras flash, helicopters swivel dizzily overhead … yet none of it matters much.  All that matters, the only thing that matters, is being right here right now—a rare glimpse of perfection.

The rhythm of a boat is like the beating of a heart: a platform upon which everything depends and all else becomes aligned.  It is the condition on which flow depends—on which it feeds.  And in a very real sense, it is the unremitting quest for rhythm and flow that helps explain the controversial choice to replace a brash but experienced American coxswain with one much less experienced, British and female.  It explains why the five most experienced rowers questioned matters of selection, insisting that a Canadian oarsman be selected despite him being less competent than the Brit he would unseat.

It explains why Cambridge won the Boat Race, and why it nearly lost (pp. 6-7).

The writing is full of heady stuff done in a visceral code that awakens our senses and enlarges the meaning of what might otherwise be just an example of how over-brained and overbuilt men and one surprisingly resilient woman find ways to waste time when they should be, well, studying.  

Denizens of the academic world will no doubt recognize and appreciate how de Rond draws on scholarship—the above passage, for example, rich with scholarly echoes of Csíkszentmihályi and Eisenberg, as well as studies of the mechanics of speed in relation to rhythm—and no doubt will appreciate the references conveniently provided at the end of the book.  But for those readers less concerned with academic manners the good news is that it is the story that drives the information, not the other way around.

And what a story it is!  Each player in this intense, fast-paced “athletic drama” is unique and a bit quirky, from the “kiwi” coach from a less than privileged upbringing who has never before won the Boat Race and must overcome his own tendency to doubt himself, to the interplay of international team members drawn from a cast of World Championship medalists, child prodigies, national team members, one key person relatively new to the sport, and an Olympic gold medalist, all of whom share the dream—no, it’s really more of a pure form if neurotic obsession—of a Boat Race victory that will place into the shadows everything else they have won or accomplished.  

The storyline stays the narrative course of keeping the focus on the team and their brutal workouts and competitions for a seat in the blue boat.  But there is space enough in between those actions for us to see the value added to the athletes’ performances by the work of the author, a skilled if self-depreciating negotiator who, in addition to his ethnographic duties is routinely brought in to help manage the high tensions, real conflicts, and human jealousies that arise throughout the year.  In so doing, Mark de Rond contributes to the Boat Race’s outcome, which is not something we would have learned from him, but instead we do learn in the epilogue, penned by Tom James, the President of the Cambridge University Boat Club of 2007.

So it is that in the final weeks, then days, then hours leading up to the Boat Race we learn how this high performance team moved from a collectivity of personal-best oriented individuals to something finer than even their collective talents could sum.  I won’t spoil the read by giving too much of it away, but I will say that here the book succeeds on two levels, both as an athletic drama that reveals the character of high performance teamwork and as an ethnography that satisfies the conflict driving the narrative trajectory, and—surprisingly—would have done so regardless of the Boat Race outcome.

But it really is about the outcome.  After all, this is it, finally, a race with only one winner and no second place.

This is what it all comes down to, all the Herculean training, the commitment, all of the personal and interpersonal ups and downs and turn-arounds of the past 200 days and nights of self-doubt fueled by an unforgiving quest for perfection mixed with the pure and purely addictive adrenalin of desire.  Four miles and 374 yards of river, from Putney to Mortlake, “a coffee-colored course” known to be unpredictable, a race run regardless of weather or the condition of waves and watched by an estimated 4.5 million fans at home and a quarter million on the shore, a test as much of athletic ability as teamwork and character.  So much so that it will exhaust each and every one of them totally.  

And bring readers to their feet in applause.

Mark de Rond, The Last Amateurs: To Hell and Back with the Cambridge Boat Race Crew.  London: Icon Books, 2008.

Originally posted to Dr Bud on Mon Apr 25, 2011 at 12:20 PM PDT.

Also republished by The Wide World of Sports.

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