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    Capturing the Culture of the Boathouse

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    I logged on to YouTube to watch some of the superb coverage of Henley. After I viewed a few races, YouTube’s algorithm pointed me toward rowing films that might be of interest. I clicked on Yale men’s rowing with a photo of Steve Gladstone, Yale’s recently retired coach. No one has won more collegiate national championships than Gladstone—14 in all, five at Brown, six at Cal, and three at Yale. If you want to hear it from one of the best coaches ever, you ought to listen to the interview.

    The film opens with a shot of the Housatonic River before sunrise, a dark ribbon of calm water. The title credits inform us that it’s October 2021, one week before the Head of the Charles. The boatman checks the shell trailer and oarsmen dribble into the boathouse and prepare to go out on the water. 

    There are quick cuts of de-rigging, unrolling the boat cover, closing the boathouse doors, and the myriad details involved in getting prepared, all to a lively rendition of “Iko Iko,” a song that bursts with energy. With so much content online, it’s important to grab the viewer right away. In less than two minutes, the action has captured me. I’m in!

    I was intrigued. Who is the filmmaker, Nick Trojan? Obviously, he knows quite a bit about rowing; he asks good questions and knows what to film on the water. 

    Trojan filled me in on his rowing career. He had rowed as a junior at Long Beach. He continued at Orange Coast College in Newport Beach. From 2009 to 2019, he rowed on five U.S. National Teams in the lightweight double and two years in the lightweight single, achieving his best finish in 2015, when he came in fifth.

    In 2018, he made his first rowing film, a profile of the Harvard men’s heavyweights and their coach, Charlie Butt.

    “I was training in Boston and I wanted to try to capture what happens in a boathouse,” Trojan said.

     There’s a bit of rowing in the film, “but it was winter, and the team hadn’t started to go out all together, so the footage is of pairs.” Most of it is a conversation with Coach Butt.

    Next up was a look at the men at Cal. Again, Trojan focused on the boathouse, the team erg workouts, the coaches—Mike Teti had just departed, and Scott Frandsen had taken over. There are some gorgeous shots of eights. The camera zeroes in on bladework. The drone shots are beautiful; I’ve never seen them used so effectively.

    His third film focuses on the Yale heavyweight men, and his maturity as a filmmaker and interviewer is apparent. It is his best work yet. In the style of many good documentary filmmakers, we do not hear his own questions. 

    “I like to let my subjects talk with as little interruption as possible,” Trojan said.

    At six minutes into the film, Gladstone arrives at Gilder Boathouse while the soundtrack cranks out “Bad to the Bone.” Oh yes, there’s humor in Trojan’s choice of music. With Gladstone, a fine public speaker, the conversation flows smoothly. There’s a lot of good stuff here, especially when he talks about creating a culture. 

    “The most important piece is to give the athletes the sense, to have them understand,” Gladstone says, “that the results on the water are directly correlated to the energy that they bring to each practice.”

    Trojan spent 10 days filming at Yale. We see the easy give-and-take between coach and crews before they go out on the water. Gladstone asks who has a thought that will enhance the workout. One guy says, “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.” Much cheering and laughter ensue. This is a team that enjoys being together. 

    The film takes us out on the water, where we are treated to some beautiful footage of the crews being put through their paces. Many filmmakers see the beauty of our sport—the rhythm, the dipping of the oars into the water, the grace. You don’t have to be an artist to appreciate it. I often take parents or non-rowing friends out on the water to watch practice, and they get it. 

    Trojan has a good eye for what looks great. I asked him who his audience is. 

    “They haven’t been commissioned by any university teams. They aren’t recruiting or fundraising devices. I don’t want them to appeal just to rowers. I’d love for people to see them and think ‘I want to get involved with that.’

    “I’ve heard some criticism that this is Ivy League propaganda. My interest, and the reason I’ve made these films, is to show the culture of rowing teams, an inside look at boathouse culture. I haven’t included many interviews with athletes because that would date the film. You can have a lot of talent among your athletes, but the important thing is how are you bringing them together. That’s why I focus on the coaches. There are different workouts, different ways of working with athletes, but it is the culture of successful programs that I’m interested in showing.”

    His three films have shown men’s heavyweight programs. Why no women’s programs? 

    “It’s much more complicated with the NCAA; it’s hard to get permission,” Trojan said. “They all have their own media teams.” 

    But he is pursuing some of the top women’s programs and acknowledges that he needs to show more balance and get some of the great women’s collegiate rowing on film. Funding is always an issue. I hope that he can get the permissions and money to continue his work with rowing teams. Take a look on YouTube. You won’t be disappointed.  

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