Most days the waters of Lake Carnegie are as dark as cola. This pleases the Princeton women's crew no end. After every stroke the Tigers like to study the foamy white pools their oar blades carve from the water's murky surface. The bigger the puddles, the faster the boat travels. In recent months the Tigers have scooped out some monstrous puddles.
Last season five of the six Princeton women's boats went undefeated, and the results included varsity eight wins at both the Eastern Sprints in New Preston, Conn., and the national championships in Cincinnati. The Tiger varsity eight began this year's schedule with similar success by defeating Brown, the team thought to be their closest rival, by nearly a length in late March. Since then the Tigers have defeated Rutgers and won a three-way meet against Cornell and Radcliffe. A few crew members—junior Wendy Holding, for example—have never lost a collegiate race and have been behind only once.
As coach Dan Roock stepped gingerly among the varsity rowers before a recent practice, timing each stretching exercise, he told a joke and then, because this was Princeton, challenged them with a brainteaser: If a train is traveling from New York City to Chicago at 60 mph.... Much of the Tigers' success can be attributed to the relaxed attitude of the 34-year-old Roock, who urges his athletes to have fun. Of course, this is not always easy when your boathouse is bursting with confessed grinds. Try telling senior Julie Thorp to loosen up; she spends her weekends in a molecular-biology lab observing gene mutations in fruit flies.
On occasion Roock, who encourages loud music and vocal workouts, will roam the boathouse sporting the type of ear protectors favored by jackhammer operators. During winter training he devises creative ways to banish the blues, such as having the Tigers push his pickup truck around frigid parking lots. And on most Fridays he rewards each boat with a one-pound bag of M&Ms. "He's really good at alleviating stress," says coxswain Sarah Hull.
The Tigers have taken Roock's brand of stress relief to heart. Before each season they perform a series of elaborate rituals. "Those are our secret weapons," says senior Elisa deLaet. "You've got to have as many little things going as possible. And we're kind of obsessive about them."
Not any more obsessive than, say, several vanloads of Deadheads. A sampling of Tiger traditions includes appointing a weather czar to ensure that there is plenty of sunshine on rowing days, presenting four underclassmen with '70s disco outfits (heavy on the polyester and primary colors) and selecting a team chalice bearer to don a Superman cape and douse the varsity boat with water from Lake Carnegie before the Eastern Sprints. Every season the team awards a skimpy Speed Racer singlet to the rower with the broadest shoulders and the, well, smallest chest. (The reigning champ is deLaet, who gets her shoulders, anyway, from her grandfather Y.A. Tittle, the Hall of Fame quarterback.)
Sometimes, though, such dedication to custom can backfire. Last season the women decided not to wash their jerseys after winning a race, and they won nine consecutive races. By the national championships in June, at which the Tigers finished one length ahead of second-place Washington, they could barely stomach the ripe aroma of their sweat-stained shirts. During practices, too, the Tigers don't always favor clean clothes. They have a unique version of the wet T-shirt contest in which participants strive for the sweatiest postpractice shirt. "We look to get the workouts done," says Roock, "but sometimes we disguise them as goofy little games."
It seems natural that this laid-back coach would favor a style of rowing that exaggerates the lay back: When bringing their oar handles through the water, the Tigers lean deeper into the bow of the boat than do most other crews. "We want them to accelerate more through the finish of each stroke using their backs," says freshman coach Lori Dauphiny, whose crews haven't lost a race in three seasons. "It's important because women have less upper-body muscle then men. We take advantage of the strengths we've got."
And the Princeton women believe the best way to exploit those strengths is to churn out trails of huge, frothy puddles.