When you see them out there on the Raritan River, their oars shimmering in the afternoon sun, racing shells are a tableau of elegance. Onboard, however, the scene is a bit different: a tempest of activity as each of the eight rowers, at the urgings of the coxswain, expends every reserve of strength to pull her oar with power and synchronicity. But strength alone won’t carry the day: the successful crew team must harness it to technique, tenacity, and timing. And it couldn’t hurt to have Fords powering the boat, either.
The Fords are Janine, Laura, and Stephanie Ford, three sisters whose individual exploits, as well as sibling dynamics, have been a boon to the Scarlet Knights women’s crew team and its head coach, Max Borghard RC’87. The oldest sister is Janine SAS’11, the overachiever who set the bar high for the other two before she graduated last spring after four years of rowing. En route to being named to the Big East All-Conference and Collegiate Rowing Coaches Association All-Mid-Atlantic Region first teams in 2011, Janine kept a discerning eye on Laura and Stephanie, having few qualms about criticizing them if they weren’t pulling their weight while also being the protective older sis.
Laura—a senior at the School of Arts and Sciences who sits in the seven seat, right behind the prestigious “stroke” seat, which sets the pace for the other rowers—is the middle sister, the fighter who has always stared down adversity in her quest to be better, to be noticed. Despite undergoing a tonsillectomy last year that cost her big chunks of practice time, Laura worked relentlessly to return to her old form—and exceed it. Janine says Laura’s comeback was Janine’s biggest source of pride last year, even with her own personal accolades and the success of the team.
And then there is Stephanie, the youngest sister, a junior at the School of Arts and Sciences who admits that, yes, being the baby has its perks, which in the case of crew has meant having two sisters pave the way for her introduction into big-time collegiate athletics. Stephanie was one of only two first-year students to make the first boat in 2011, assigned to the four seat before moving to the stroke seat this spring. Then again, Stephanie is a natural, bestowed with a gift for rowing that leaves Janine a little envious. “She is probably the best rower out of the three of us,” she says. “She just gets it, like she was definitely meant to row.”
The three women were introduced to crew while growing up in Nutley, New Jersey, where Kevin Smyth RC’89, SMLR’89, a teacher in the school system and a former member of the Scarlet Knights men’s crew team, invited them, each in turn, to try out, knowing that height and strength, which the young girls had in abundance, are defining assets in rowing. Soon, their parents were involved, proud boosters of Nutley Crew, and the sport engulfed the three sisters’ lives.
Rowing is never far from their thoughts, despite their best efforts to change the subject. When the Ford sisters are together, teasing one another and talking all at once, they try to honor their edict “no crew talk,” but it is hopeless. Within five minutes, rowing consumes the conversation. “It’s not that we have nothing else to talk about,” says Laura; “it’s just that we have been rowing for so long.”
And that means countless hours together—and countless hours of bringing out the competitive nature in one another. Training is a grueling, year-round commitment, on and off the water. During the fall, they take part in longer races in both eight- and four-man boats. When the cold arrives, they repair to an indoor facility on the Livingston Campus, ominously called “the tanks,” to submit to an arduous training regime of weight lifting, running, “body circuits,” and rowing machines. Then during winter break, the team travels to Florida to get out on the water again. When, finally, the spring rowing season arrives, it’s a daily diet of brisk practices commencing at 6:45 a.m. Now that the spring season has concluded, many of the women on the team will part ways and join other rowing teams to stay in shape. Then, Laura and Stephanie start again in the fall. (Since graduating, Janine has been the coach of the Nutley High School crew team.)
But the Ford sisters wouldn’t have it any other way. They relish the thrill of the race—the only reason you row, they say. They thrive on the sustained rush of adrenaline, the synchronicity of united movement, the sense of mutual trust and common purpose, and the exaltation, and exhaustion, of being the first over the finish line.
“Racing is such an intense, fulfilling, and painful experience, and there is no better feeling than winning the race,” says Stephanie. “The feeling is indescribable. You have to win a race in order to know what it feels like.” •
— David W. Major