July 11, 1996
University Gazette


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From Ranching to Rowing in a Single Stroke

By John Veneziano

Harvard Sports Information Director

At first glance, they appear an unlikely match. Look closer, however, and you'll see that Harvard's tradition-laden men's crew program was perfectly captured in senior captain Alex Blake.

Raised on a 5,000-acre cattle ranch in Big Timber, Mont., rowing played only a cursory role in Blake's young days. There was the occasional story from his father, Francis, a 1961 Harvard graduate who competed on some of the Crimson's most successful lightweight crews. And one of Blake's neighbors - if such a thing exists when the closest house sits several miles away - was Lindsay Burns '87, a standout rower at Radcliffe who recently made the U.S. Olympic Team, where she is being coached by Kathy Keeler, wife of Harvard mentor Harry Parker.

Blake's daily chores on the ranch ranged from irrigating the hay crops, to moving the herd, to repairing fences busted by a wayward deer or calves. On occasion, Blake would be called upon to help his mother, Sandi, at her tree nursery, which raises spruce and cottonwood trees as well as smaller shrubs. For fun, there was skiing, hiking, and over the past few years, triathlons.

Yet even if power-tens weren't part of that regimen and an ergometer has only recently been added to the household, rowing was destined to be part of Blake's life.

He was accepted into St. Paul's School in New Hampshire, and was one of two Montana youngsters to earn a coveted Cook Scholarship, which paid for high school and four years of college. Days after arriving on the Concord campus, rowing coaches Chip Morgan and Richard Davis spotted his 6-2, 165-pound frame and convinced him to try crew.

Blake spoke about his rowing experiences in an interview last spring.

"I don't remember a lot about my first time rowing, but I'm sure it wasn't too smooth," recollects Blake about his initial outing on Turkey Pond.

"My freshman year was pretty tough, and I wasn't certain I would stick with rowing," he now admits. "I had a lot of friends who were playing lacrosse, and I thought about going back to track, which I had competed in while growing up.

"Rowing in high school was pretty intense - the season was really short because of the weather - and there was a lot of training to do to get ready for the big races. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that rowing was something I did fairly well, so I decided to keep going."

As is the case at Harvard, rowing at St. Paul's enjoys quite a history and, in his two years with the varsity, Blake became part of that tradition. The 1991 crew capped off an undefeated season with the New England championship and repeated as New England titlists in 1992.

"My coaches at St. Paul's were encouraging and demanding at the same time, and I can see similarities between them and Harry [Parker]."

Blake narrowed his choice of colleges quickly during his senior year and settled on Harvard following a recruiting visit here, when he and his father witnessed Parker's training methods firsthand.

"We went on the coach's launch during my visit," remembers Blake. "I was impressed by the way Harry interacted with the varsity crew. Their respect for him was obvious and they responded to his coaching. I was comfortable with his style." A few other influences made the decision even easier. In addition to his father, his older brother, Peter, is a graduate of Harvard ('93). And younger brother, Amory, has followed suit and is a sophomore oarsman for the Crimson.

Blake settled into the six seat for the freshman crew and rowed in the four seat for the JV in his sophomore year. At one point in between, however, he gave thought to switching full-time to football, a sport his older brother had played for a season while in college.

"I was a tight end for the freshman team, but didn't get invited back for pre-season camp in my sophomore year," says Blake, one of five players at that position for the Yardlings. So, similar to the decision he had made just a few years earlier, Blake elected to focus on rowing.

"At times during my freshman year rowing had been frustrating, but my experience at Red Top that spring really convinced me to stay with the program. The two weeks down here, with the opportunity to get to know some of the varsity oarsmen, and the race itself (a thrilling win over the Eli's) had me enjoying rowing more than ever before.

"And I realized that if I was going to make the most of my talents, I needed to put my full concentration into rowing. There are a lot of hours of practice that go into getting prepared for those few minutes of actual racing."

Blake had a strong fall in his junior year and then engaged in seat racing for a varsity spot the following spring. Just days before the crew headed to the season-opening San Diego Classic, Coach Parker announced his lineup. Blake would be in the four seat. With seven seniors in that varsity boat, Harvard enjoyed a good 1995 season. There was a win over two-time defending national champion Brown (the Bears' first loss since 1992), Harvard's first trip to the IRAs in over 100 years, and, finally, a four-second victory over Yale when the crew set an upstream record. Less than four hours after the Yale race - with the team alternately savoring victory and recovering from the grinding competition - Blake was elected captain. It is a responsibility he has taken seriously.

"It is important that I set an example of consistency every day in practice. I know I'm not really a vocal person, so I'm most effective when the team sees me working hard.

"I was in charge of seeing that people were doing their workouts, but, in all honesty, that wasn't a problem," Blake continues. "Everyone at this level has a good deal of experience and knows what it takes to get ready for a race."

Last semester, when the focus began to center on New London and the Yale races, Blake and his teammates were put to the test. One immediate challenge was getting the newcomers to appreciate the tradition of "The Race" without being intimidated by it.

"Everyone gains a sense of the race's history just minutes after arriving at Red Top, simply by picking up and reading the old programs," he says. "Then, in the living quarters, you can see the name of every person who has ever stayed in your room carved into the back of the closet door. In a number of cases, the result of their race is also carved in there.

"Because of that, the tradition is in the back of our minds," admits Blake. "Yet it helps that Harry really underplays it. He doesn't talk about streaks or anything like that. He understands that each crew is different and has its own set of challenges."

Blake knows that he doesn't have very far to look for inspiration.

"I read the story on Harry that ran in Harvard magazine where a lot of former oarsmen said he was the most influential person in their life. For me, I guess that's true as well. I see the work ethic and the commitment to goals that he has instilled in each of us, and those are the things I'll take away from Harvard rowing. He's never needed to say much to get us motivated, yet he always has us ready."

Blake graduated this past spring, earning a degree in economics with a concentration on developmental economics. After eight years on the East Coast, he's ready to head home . . . or close to it.

"It has nothing to do with the weather. I actually like the winters around here," he jokes. "In college, I've always looked to enroll in classes where I can apply what I'll learn to the real world and ones that would help me do something to get back to the West."

As an example, Blake took World Food Economy last semester, where the chief assignment was to pick one commodity, track it for the past 20 years, and to see how the market had changed over that time. Blake studied wheat.

"My research showed that Russia and China could be major exporters of grain and that, even now, supply doesn't appear to be the major problem. A lot of it has to do with education, politics, and delivery."

Challenges other than finding a job also await back home. An avid hiker who once climbed the 11,000-foot Crazy Peak in a single day, Blake now wants to conquer Granite Peak and its 12,799-foot summit that ranks as the highest in Montana.

"The view from Crazy Peak was unbelievable," say Blake. "We could see nearly our entire property and counted 13 mountain ranges. I can only imagine what it would be like from Granite Peak."

After taking that final step to its summit, perhaps Blake will want a moment not only to scan the landscape, but also to look back. To look back at the past four years and how Harvard crew have prepared him for such accomplishments.


Copyright 1998 President and Fellows of Harvard College