The school’s largest club sport and an official crew team since 1986, Georgia Tech is worth watching. They have four squads: novice men, novice women, varsity men, and varsity women with the novice squads consisting solely of members just starting out in their rowing careers.
Here, we caught up with Katherine Hewitt of the Georgia Tech Crew Team to discuss why she thinks the Chattanooga Head Race is such a special event.
It’s not your team’s first time at the Chattanooga Head Race. Can you talk about what makes you all keep coming back?
We love Chattanooga. Each time we return, we are still enchanted as if it’s our first time visiting. We discover something new; we find new ways to fall in love with Chattanooga. Everyone says the best time to visit the mountains in Tennessee is fall. It really is! Driving into Chattanooga, the sun is just rising. The mist is rising from the mountains. The trees are beginning to turn orange, red, and gold. It’s breathtaking. It adds to the magical sense of race day. It’s the perfect time and place to spend all day outdoors enjoying nature.
The city itself is spacious and clean, almost like a picture out of fairy-tale book. The magical sense continues with lamp posts and trees lining the roads. Cute little restaurants beckon you as you drive down the street. While they aren’t open at the time we arrive, I still hope to sneak away from the racing and visit them.
It sounds like you like Chattanooga’s scenery. Is there anything else that makes it special?
Chattanooga has such high energy. The Chattanooga Head Race on Saturday as well as the other RiverRocks events for all types of athletes that continue throughout the weekend are super exciting. We love the aquarium, the IMAX, and the hiking trails. We always hope to have time to explore the city and all the city has to offer.
Can you describe race day nerves?
Race day nerves alway start the night before. Despite having to wake up before the crack of dawn, no one can fall asleep early. Our alarms ring and the sky is still dark. All is quiet. No one else is up… The excitement of the day makes getting out of bed easy, despite the warmth of the sheets. This is our first regatta of the fall season, and we can’t wait to get to the race course. We all sleep on the way to Chattanooga. As we reach Chattanooga, everyone begins to wake up. We reminisce: “Remember when this happened last year?” and the varsity members try to pass down to the novice rowers the excitement of their first race, racing protocols, regatta ritual, best competitors and so on. For many of them, it’s their first race ever and they have no idea what to expect.
What do your team members eat the morning of the race? What rituals and superstitions do they have?
With rowers second breakfast is always a thing, and Chattanooga delivers on breakfast food. Places like Aretha Frankenstein’s and Maple Street Biscuit Company always have a line but are well worth the wait to fill our bellies for our races. As for superstitions, most people aren't really, but they do have certain pre-race rituals that they believe helps them rower better/get into a race mind set. Whether that be a certain warm-up, or eating a certain breakfast, or maybe they have to be wearing their race day socks. Whatever it is, they make sure they have it all together.
What happens once you arrive and how do you actually prepare for the race?
At the race course, we park and walk to the boat trailer. Some team members go and set up our tent because this is where we will pass the time between races hanging out with each other, snacking on granola bars, fruit, and our favorite race day fuel: grilled cheese sandwiches made by our team moms.
Rowers from other schools are walking towards the riverfront to where either their team’s tent or boat trailer is. It’s easy to distinguish who comes from what school as we all wear team gear. Everyone is sizing up the competition, yet the atmosphere is not too intense. There is still a sense of joy and people are laughing and happy. We all convene by our boat trailer and begin to rig all of the boat. Each squad has certain tasks. People take oars down to the grass on the riverfront. All the teams have laid out their oars. It is a really awesome sight to see all the different oars in place and ready to be used. About an hour to two hours before our race we report to the boat trailer again. Our coaches and coxswains talk to us, pump us for our races. We warm up and stretch and start to get our game faces ready. “Hands on the boat,” our coxswain calls and we walk down to the dock. Everyone is serious. Everyone is nervous. Everyone is mentally preparing for the race.
Would you mind just telling me how the teams will approach the races? Do they have a particular strategy for racing or do they just push it the whole distance?
We have put in hours at the gym and on the water training, getting the distance in and building endurance and strength. The race is mental.While racing, our coxswains are the one's pushing us through the pain and distance. They have come up with a race plan that fits each boat individually. They know the weakness and the strengths of each of their rowers. Each race and each boat will be different from another one. However, there is a basic strategy for each race. The first 1000m or so is about falling into that race rhythm, finding a pace that we can maintain for the entire 5k. At the halfway mark, coxswains usually like to call for 10 power strokes to refocus the rowers and let them know they are halfway through the race. At this point a lot of the calls will be about motivation to get us through the last push. As we approach the 1000m left mark, the coxswain usually calls for the rowers to sprint to the finish line. They call up the rating. At the 500m mark they will call up the rating again. Our Women's team cox likes to call for an all out sprint at 300m left mark.
And, how will you celebrate the completion of the event? Special meal on the way home?
After the day of racing, everyone is exhausted. Most people have raced at least twice, and some people three times. Some of us will stop on the way home to grab some dinner, but there is usually nothing special planned as everyone is excited to get home and sleep. And we have to start getting ready for our next race.