When Will Zeng ’11 is not sitting in the stroke seat of the lightweight crew team’s first varsity boat, he is developing his skills as a physicist, probing the field of quantum information. His efforts as a student-athlete were rewarded last November, when he was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship that will fund his study of computer science and mathematics at the University of Oxford. The News interviewed him Tuesday, and this is what he had to say.
Q How do you manage your time between rowing and academics?
A There’s certainly a discipline that stretches between academics and rowing. At its base both are about how to work, and for me too rowing has pushed the physical limits of my focus. I think most people have a sense that athletics builds this sort of individual discipline.
Yet, what I think is also crucial to emphasize is that rowing is a team discipline in really one of the purest senses. There are no home runs, there are no individual statistics. There are no play-makers, heck there aren’t even any plays.
Sometimes institutional education can delude us into thinking that academics is only about an individual path, with rhetoric of each finding his or her interests and each being assessed individually with a GPA, a test score, or what have you. These are important things to recognize, but when you get out of school my sense is that the things that make real contributions come from groups that operate at a level greater than the sum of their parts.
Q You’re particularly interested in physics and quantum information, I believe. Do you ever see any connection between what you study and your rowing?
A [laughs] No, not really. I’ve mentioned that rowing had been integral to my understanding of the practice of work – the practice of doing science is ultimately team based – but as far as the content goes there’s not much more to link them up other than some foggy metaphorical strings and worse or better poetry that this isn’t really the place to bring up.
Q What else do you particularly enjoy, beyond rowing and physics?
A Of course that usually depends on who I’m talking to, but one thing I have been thinking about recently is the concept of rhythm, which, in full disclosure, may still have something to do with rowing and physics. I’m curious about how rhythms are different from patterns in the sense that a pattern is something static, something already there that is later puzzled out and recognized for what it always was, but rhythm is always dynamic, created and sustained at the same time. I think scientific theories operate more in this rhythmic character, and so that might make rhythm, whose use in analysis has been mostly poetic and linguistic, an interesting concept to try and organize things around.
Q When did you first begin rowing? And what has kept you at it for so long?
A I began my first year of high school, and if I had to name one thing that’s kept me at it for so long it would be the guys I’ve rowed with.
Q What has been the highlight of your Yale rowing career?
A So far, I’d say winning Eastern Sprints my freshman year after an undefeated season. Our sport is unique in that it still has a separate freshman team, and there’s something special about just having those eight or 10 guys in the small squad of your class that has to work things out to win. This season it’s these same guys whose senior leadership is coming together to push for gold. This cyclical element has great rhythm to it, and its something I’m proud to be a part of.
Q In your time at Yale, how do you feel the rowing program has changed at Yale?
A While I’ve been here, the goals have always been the same, and they have always been the most difficult ones. Yale’s lightweight rowing is an elite environment that competes at the top of the best league in the country, and so that means the only success is the highest success: to be first at the championship. Second or third is still biting for us.
That said, we respect our opponents who have the same goal, and our goal will never be easy. As I’ve mentioned to you before, the tight competition at the top of lightweight rowing is part of what makes it so special. You must be at your best to win.
In some ways I’m just glad we haven’t messed that up. It’s a testament to Andy and the coaching staff that they’ve been able to maintain this high performance over time. It is also a testament to each rower’s ability to cultivate the team’s competitive edge, as the leadership of each senior class graduates and the underclassmen have to step up to fill the places of the older studs they’d taken confidence from before.
Q At Oxford next year, how do you think life will change? Will you continue to row?
A I was just talking with one of Oxford’s assistant coaches who was visiting practice last week, and it was great talking to him about rowing there next year. This year’s victorious Oxford crew had Moritz Hafner, a Harvard lightweight alumnus, in bow [seat], and it’d be fantastic to race with them next year.
Q What do you hope to do post-Oxford? Would you ever think of going into competitive rowing? Or do you have plans in the more academic sphere of things?
A Other than national team competition, the Oxford-Cambridge boat race may be one of the closest things to port-collegiate rowing. There are lots of ex-national team guys and top end university athletes who row as graduate students in the competition. It’s too bad the professional rowing scene hasn’t recovered the late 1800’s popularity that, so I’ve been told, became mired in gambling scandals.
All that said, I hope I’m able to organize my life more longer-term so I’ll be able to row, getting up early to take a single out of a nearby boathouse, even if my job is more along the lines of my academic interests. But the goal of course is that that doesn’t feel like a job either. There’s some real geographic overlap between the physics and rowing cultural centers that I’m looking to take advantage of.