There’s no escaping one bruising reality for rowers. At the start of every spring season, after spending most of the winter training comfortably indoors, the skin on the palm of their hands is shredded away by the constant pressure of gripping an oar as they pull their boat through the water.
Their hands become bloodied and blistered. Forget gloves; they only lead to hot blisters.
Eventually calluses build on their hands, a natural layer of defense that eases the pain through the rest of the season.
“I couldn’t hold my girlfriend’s hands for the first three weeks of the season,” said Riverhead High School rower Erik Divan. “We have rough hands. We have rower hands.”
It’s one of many sacrifices Divan and teammate Daniel O’Neill make in their sport, where since starting as freshmen they’ve developed into a fierce tandem. Most recently the duo won first place in the lightweight varsity double division of the Scholastic Rowing Association of America National Championship while racing in Cooper River in Camden, N.J. over Memorial Day weekend.
It was the biggest win of their career so far for the pair, who both just completed their junior years at Riverhead.
“Last year we got a silver medal and it was kind of a disappointment,” O’Neill said. “We were expecting to get gold and we really wanted to make it happen this year.”
The competition began May 25 when Divan and O’Neill won the first of three heats to send them into the semifinals the next morning. Needing a top-three finish, they won their semifinal heat to advance into the finals later in the day against five other teams.
Their confidence level was high as they entered the finals after winning the previous two heats without fully exerting themselves.
Before each race they have a ritual where they stretch, warm up with a jog and then stretch some more. During that time they discuss the upcoming race, detailing the strategy they plan to use.
The less they have to communicate during the race, the more it allows them to focus on maintaining their rhythm.
As they prepared for the finals, they talked about the possibility of a team being ahead of them as they got down the final stretch. They decided if that happened, they would go into a “sprint” — a last-resort maneuver.
Divan said the margin for error increases when the rowers go into a sprint and fatigue becomes more and more prevalent. It’s something they often practice, but have rarely had to use in competition.
“We weren’t expecting to use it,” Divan said.
As Divan and O’Neill neared the final 500 meters of the 1,500-meter race, which was a straight shoot down the river, they trailed the team of Jakub Kwasniewski and Anthony Angelucci from St. Joseph Prep.
They had trailed most of the race up to that point and were running out of time.
“We planned on increasing the speed as much as we could at that stage of the race,” O’Neill said. “That’s where a lot of crews tend to fall apart and decrease in speed.”
Using every ounce of energy at their disposal, Divan and O’Neill narrowed the gap, bringing them neck and neck with the boys from St. Joseph.
As they crossed the finish line, O’Neill took a quick peek behind him to find the competition.
“It was not a large amount by any means, but I could tell that we won,” O’Neill said.
The Riverhead team navigated the river in 5 minutes 5.05 seconds. St. Joseph Prep crossed 1/2 second behind them.
“When we finally pulled ahead it was an awesome feeling,” Divan said.
The victory capped the end of the spring season and signaled the start of training for the summer season in the never-ending cycle.
In the three years they’ve been training in rowing, the boys have rarely ever taken more than a day off in a week. The training is year round, many times with multiple workouts in the same day.
It’s a grueling schedule, but one they sought out in their commitment to go as far as possible in the sport. They wanted to be pushed, wanted to be challenged.
Both O’Neill and Divan started their athletic careers as runners. O’Neill also wrestled during the winter.
But rowing was a sport they were always around. O’Neill’s older brother Eddie got into rowing and earned his way onto the team at Cornell University, where his doubles partner Eddie Gould also went. Gould will be going into his senior year at Cornell while O’Neill will be a junior.
For Divan, his father had been encouraging him to try rowing since he was in second grade. For 10 years his father had been rowing, helping him keep in shape to run marathons.
Late in their freshman year, O’Neill approached Divan about rowing together, citing all the success his brother enjoyed.
Divan jumped at the opportunity.
They spent the first year together trying out different coaches and searching for their best fit.
They found their man in Co Rentmeester, who rowed for the Dutch Olympic team in Rome in 1960.
“Co really pushes us hard,” Divan said. “He gets in a boat behind us and screams at us. It gets us better and we are able to compete successfully with schools that have a lot more money than us.”
They train as part of East End Rowing, a small club that has included students from McGann-Mercy and Shoreham-Wading River.
A typical training day for Divan and O’Neill could begin with 18 kilometers of rowing in the morning, varying in intensity. In the afternoon they’ll lift weights at the gym and build up their endurance on the ergometer, the indoor rowing machine that is a crucial part of training.
The boys hoped to compete this year at the Youth Nationals as well, which is typically a higher level of competition. Divan said more teams tend to compete at the Youth Nationals, which attracts teams from the West Coast. Divan said a technicality they overlooked cost them a chance at competing this year. Winning at that regatta will be their goal for the spring season next year.
Until then, they’re busy preparing for the summer season, with races coming up in Canada and New Jersey.
Divan and O’Neill both hope to row in college, possibly together, and the next few months will be key in the recruiting process. The boys have several Ivy League schools on the radar, including Cornell, where O’Neill’s brother competes.
For as far as they’ve come in a relatively short period, they realize there’s always room for improvement. Even Olympians don’t always have a perfect stroke, Divan said.
“The sport itself is cardio, but it’s also incredibly technical,” Divan said. “There are so many pieces to the stroke, so many different styles.”
“Nothing is guaranteed in this sport,” O’Neill added.
Except blistered hands, that is.