Baker Franke takes measure of a career on the water

Franke, who has been rowing crew for four years at Amherst, describes crew as a life-changing experience. “Crew is one of those life sports,” said Franke. “I have learned as much about myself and other people through rowing than I have in any other sport, class, or situation. I am a different and better person than I was when I came to Amherst, and I attribute almost all of that development to my time on the crew team.”

Franke’s story is typical of many rowers. He came to Amherst barely knowing what crew was, stumbled upon the team by chance during an orientation week frisbee game, tried out for the novice team and “never looked back.” Four years later, Franke is one of the biggest reasons for Amherst’s ascent from a wayward squad of rowers to one of the most formidable crews in New England. This year, Franke’s boat, as well as the top women’s boat, hopes to medal in the New England Fours Championships.

But success doesn’t come without dedication and practice, and this maxim is especially true for crew. The team practices on the water five days a week during fall and spring and spends much of the winter in the weight room and on the ergometer machines.

In addition, the team’s boathouse is next to the Coolidge Bridge near Northampton. The team must drive to practice each day, an even greater burden this year because of bridge construction. To top things off, many of the team’s practices are held at 6:00 a.m., while the rest of Amherst is still fast asleep.

Franke tried to put a positive spin on things. “It’s not so bad in the morning, especially these days, since it’s cooler before the sun comes up,” he said. Regardless of when Franke practices, he puts his all into it each time-and for good reason. The sport of crew focuses heavily on physical fitness.

For most college athletes, their careers end when their diploma has been handed to them. Not so for Franke, who will be the head coach of a crew team for a prominent boarding school in New England next year.

Franke is not worried about the job. “In the past four years, I’ve gotten stronger and more fit than I could have possibly imagined,” said Franke. “On top of that, I feel I’ve gained an immense amount of knowledge about the sport of rowing, mostly from our sage, Coach Bill Stekl.” “I feel confident that we will be successful because I know a lot about the ‘science’ of rowing,” he added.

There may be a lot of science to rowing, but there is certainly a lot of struggle as well. Franke understands this concept all too well. “Crew is the most challenging sport I’ve ever encountered,” he said.

While simple mathematics states that the crew which takes the most strokes in the least amount of time will win the race, Franke explains that there is much more. “Strength alone cannot win a race,” said Franke. “Technique has a lot to do with it. You can’t row very fast if the boat is flopping from side to side and no one is pulling together,” he said. “And this is where the really hard part of crew comes in: while you’re flirting with an aerobic shutdown, you have to maintain your focus and be sure that you’re technically proficient with each stroke and perfectly synchronized with everyone else.”

But, in between the periods of physical intensity, crew does have its moments of humor. People have been known to be launched out of the boat during a race when the oar dislodges from the side of the shell. It is moments like these, as well as Franke’s upbeat spirit, sense of humor and knack for creating a crucial sense of community, that have allowed the Amherst crew team to grow in strength, number and ranking over the past four years.