By Nicole Loscavio
The waters haven’t always been smooth for senior rower Carter Crowe, but having lived through a life-altering experience, he has remained buoyant trying to find a way to come out on top.
Crowe grew up the middle child of three boys and has always been competitive. When he was a kid, that meant constantly trying to one-up his brothers and friends, whether on the playground or seeing who would practice violin the longest.
Crowe took that same drive to Santa Barbara High School, where he was determined to prove himself in the classroom and on the water polo and swim teams. But in the fall of 2007, during his junior year, Crowe’s world changed dramatically.
“I was having trouble getting work done and focusing, and then it progressed to having headaches, these throbbing headaches that felt like a pressure change in my brain any time I would go from laying down to sitting up,” Crowe said.
Doctors wrote it off at first, telling Crowe he was eating too much sugar. So he cut sugar from his diet, but the headaches returned. Crowe was playing water polo at the time and noticed he couldn’t throw or catch the ball properly.
“One day in mid-December, I was swimming and someone pushed me under, and I went to swim up but hit the bottom of the pool,” Crowe recalled. “I opened my eyes and thought to myself, ‘Gosh, there’s something seriously wrong with me.’”
The next day, Crowe underwent an MRI and was shocked to find out he had a tumor about the size of a tennis ball in his left cerebellum. The cerebellum is the part of the brain that controls motor skills, thus explaining why he struggled with his athletic performance.
Luckily for Crowe, the tumor was benign and encased in a cyst, so it did not spider into his brain. He was immediately sent to Children’s Hospital LA to have it removed and was determined to not let it dictate his life.
Within two weeks of his surgery, Crowe was back in the pool and back to his studies. He started slow, swimming one lap a day and attending one class a day, building up to full swim workouts within five weeks. “I was just trying to make sure I didn’t fall behind with my athletics and my school work,” Crowe said. “There had been so much hard work put into everything that I didn’t want to let anything keep me back.”
Crowe decided not to play sports his senior year and got involved in theater. He had always been interested in musicals and enjoyed singing, so he jumped right into the new environment and figured out how to work with people in a different way. Crowe fit right in, starring in the school’s spring production of Footloose as Ren MacCormack.
“It was my first real introduction to true functional teamwork and having to count on other people to make what I was trying to achieve work out well,” Crowe said. “I think I gained a lot of skills from it, especially skills that apply now to rowing, as we’re so dependent on everybody else in the boat.”
Crowe was accepted to Cal based on academic merit and moved to Berkeley for his freshman year of college. As it was the first real time Crowe had spent away from home, he struggled finding his identity. While dealing with some of the emotional distress the brain tumor had caused, he felt like he wasn’t achieving much outside of the classroom and became discouraged.
Ready for a chance to get out of that funk, Crowe decided to follow the example of his older brother who attended USC and transferred there, which allowed him to be closer to his family.
Crowe was now determined to find something to be passionate about. During a summer job packing ice cream in Wisconsin, he did. One of his co-workers owned a bike shop and got Crowe into cycling. He realized how much he enjoyed it, came home and joined the USC club cycling team and began devoting 20+ hours a week to training and competing.
It was at that point that Crowe met James Long-Lerno, the USC men’s crew coach, at a club fair on campus. Long-Lerno, a Cal crew alum, got one look at 6-4 Crowe and told him that he was in the wrong sport and needed to become a rower.
Always ready for the next adventure, Crowe’s response was, ‘I’d love to try rowing!’ and just like that he changed disciplines. Right away, Crowe excelled on the ergometer, or indoor rowing machine, because of his physical fitness. Learning how to transfer his skills from the erg to the water took more time, but it was clear to Long-Lerno that Crowe was a natural in the sport.
After Crowe met the national team standard of 19:30 on a 6k-ergometer test, Long-Lenro sent him to the USRowing Men’s Identification Camp, which was hosted at Cal’s Ky Ebright Boathouse. The camp made a huge impression on Crowe and put him under the eyes of Cal’s coaching staff.
Once the opportunity to transfer back to Cal and join Cal crew presented itself, Crowe was sold and Long-Lerno was supportive of the move.
“He said that’s the kind of place where you’re going to be dropped into an extremely competitive and talented group of people,” Crowe recalled. “He said being on the Cal rowing team was one of the best experiences of his life, and I wanted that for myself.”
“I had always regretted leaving Cal in a major way because I left the best public institution in the world, and I was very aware of that,” Crowe added. “I had left behind a lot of great opportunities, so it was a chance to redeem myself in a way.”
Now a junior and back at Cal, Crowe began to thrive. He excelled in school and was committed to proving himself to his teammates and coaches. Crowe admits that he was intimated at first and that it took some time to feel like he belonged. “They are some of the best guys in the world at our age, so it felt insane,” Crowe said. “Everyday when I’d get in the boat I was so nervous.”
By what he refers to as “sheer dumb luck” but the coaches see as hard work, Crowe ended up in Cal’s top boat last year, the varsity eight.
“Our track with Carter was to move him into the top boat right from the beginning, even though he might not have felt ready,” head coach Mike Teti said. “When you take a driver’s ed course, sooner or later you have to get out on the highway and drive by yourself. We took that approach with him.”
The approach seemed to work. Following his first spring season with Cal, Crowe qualified to represent the United States at the U23 World Rowing Championships in Austria, alongside seven of his teammates who were also competing for their countries.
Crowe attributes his much of his success to the structure and intensity of Cal’s program. “I think it drives you to be your best,” Crowe said. “One thing you really learn is that hard work pays off. I’ve learned to invest myself honestly in things and that’s been rewarded and enhanced in my time back at Cal.”
Instead of letting his past define him, Crowe has matured and learned to look forward, towards the next adventure. “I had to trip and fall on my face a couple times and the scars are definitely there,” Crowe said. “But I wouldn’t have done it any other way. Cal has been able to set me straight, put me on a good course and provide me with growth, both mentally and physically.”
This feature originally appeared in the spring 2014 issue of the Cal Sports Quarterly. To subscribe, email email@example.com.