“All were merged into one smoothly working machine; they were, in fact, a poem of motion, a symphony of swinging blades…[Pocock knew] a man couldn’t harmonize with his crewmates unless he opened his heart to them. He had to care about his crew.”
– The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics
The master boatbuilder George Yeoman Pocock, quietly watching the boys as they propelled his wooden creations, understood the mechanics of a flawless rowing stroke – catch, drive, release, and recovery. Of equal importance, he understood the symbiotic relationship among the eight oarsmen, and the confluence of emotion and technical excellence.
As in 1936, the 2018 University of Washington crewmates were honing their individual strokes and trying to find the same “symphony of swinging blades” as their forebears did long ago. While doing so, boat lineups were unexpectedly upended just weeks before the national championship races. The coach’s dilemma: he had sixteen rowers, equally qualified to row in the first varsity 8, to divide between the top two boats. Many combinations were tried, with practice races always closely contested. Coach Callahan’s final lineups surprised and worried many, with several long-established first-boat rowers, including Arne, the highly-respected team captain, reassigned to the second varsity.
Within a handful of practice races following the announced lineups, the two shells finally began to separate themselves. The new first varsity 8, my son among them, consistently edged the second varsity. I asked Andrew to explain what had changed. Expecting a technical answer about stroke mechanics and the science of what makes a boat go fast (he was, it should be pointed out, an engineering student, now graduated), I was surprised by the simple words “we trust each other”. He explained their edge by noting the crewmates of the second boat seemed to struggle to find confidence with each other, and because of this along with the accumulation of subtle stroke inconsistencies, began to lag in performance.
It strikes me that similar team dynamics are at work every day in our jobs as architects and engineers at Mead & Hunt. We each have our own assignments, amid “lineups” within respective teams, as well as wide-ranging skill sets and experiences. As project teams, though, we must find ways to combine efforts seamlessly, as rowers do, to achieve the best possible results. Noting Andrew’s observation that trust among teammates proved to be the winning edge, I realize the most successful design teams have similar qualities. It is, indeed, a “matter of trust” on the path to excellence: the trust we have among our co-workers; the trust we have for our coaches – we call them supervisors in the workplace; the trust we have for consultants and clients; and the trust we have for builders who turn our designs into brick and mortar reality. Without each, our efforts would never advance beyond pixels on a computer screen.
I wish there were a formula that allowed us to calculate an ideal team for each project. Even the boatbuilder Pocock, a technical craftsman, recognized the intangibles – those qualities that cannot be objectively quantified and carved in wood – that give some boats “swing” in the parlance of rowers. Both science and art, the fastest crews have rowers with technically proficient strokes, but also the ability to mesh perfectly with their mates. Likewise, the best teams of Owner, Contractor, and Architect have that same, oftentimes elusive, quality discovered through trial and error, analysis and implementation, and a coach’s instincts, of meshing perfectly, turning a group of individuals into a team – “a smoothly working machine…in fact, a poem of motion”.
And the results for the 2018 Husky rowers? I watched the second varsity 8, with Arne displaying leadership that elevated him to Captain years earlier, help his team overcome their early struggles and find that magical “symphony of swinging blades” while decisively winning their race at the national championships. Combining points with those of the third varsity 8, who had an equally convincing victory, and the first varsity’s runner-up finish to a strong Yale squad, the Washington Huskies again won the James Ten Eyck Memorial Trophy as overall points champion. When gathering his men for the celebratory photo, Coach Callahan was unequivocal in his choice of rower, Captain Arne Landboe, to hoist the award. I think the entire team understood that their achievement of excellence was a process of harmonization, and even love of opening hearts to each other, that allowed conquest over adversity.