This weekend the News sat down with heavyweight crew captain Jon Morgan ’13 at the off-campus heavyweight crew house, where Morgan lives, to discuss his rowing career, changes to the crew team this season and his experience as an athlete at Yale. Morgan is a history major in Calhoun College and hails from Johannesburg, South Africa.
Q: South Africa isn’t a traditional rowing powerhouse in the same way that Germany, the United States or Australia is. So can you tell the News when you picked up rowing?
A: I picked it up in high school. I came from a very traditional school [St. John’s College] that was founded over a hundred years ago by Anglicans. When the British occupied the country, they established rowing as one of the main sports in schools such as St John’s College. But South Africa is definitely on the rise as a rowing country. You might have seen this already but our lightweight fours at the last Olympics in London won gold … we definitely punch above our weight.
Q: Did anyone in your family row before you?
A: No one in my family rowed except my older brother who also picked it up in high school … He actually rowed at Yale too. Class of 2009. Lived in this house too, did the whole thing, so I’m really following him with all this.
Q: So your brother rowed for Yale? Did that make rowing for Yale a goal for you?
A: Absolutely, yeah. He’s four years ahead of me in school and so I was just at the beginning of my high school career when he got recruited as a freshman here. And that certainly set up in my mind the next step in my rowing and academic career. I wanted to follow in his footsteps.
Q: So how has fall training been so far?
A: It’s been good! There’s been a couple of changes this year. So the freshman division in men’s rowing has always been separated from the rest of the team. That division has always been there since the birth of the sport … But this year, for the first time, that’s changed … This means that freshmen are eligible to row in the top boats … So that’s really interesting because it means we have both last year’s freshman class and a brand new freshman class eligible to row with us. So we have two years that are essentially new to the varsity program which has really changed the dynamic a lot.
Q: What are your thoughts on freshmen having to be integrated into the varsity team now?
A: I don’t think we lose anything at all and I think we gain a whole lot. As I said, there are some really talented guys and it is exciting for the seniors, all the guys on the team, to be able to row with these guys before we leave … And I think it’ll make the team a more cohesive unit as opposed to all the guys and then the freshmen. I think that divide is no longer present.
Q: Do you think this freshmen integration adds pressure on the freshmen?
A: I don’t think so. The guys who are new at the sport won’t be on the top boats and they’ll still get the development and coaching they need. The guys who are good enough will be able to really advance with the rest of the team. They can reach their full potential earlier now.
Q: What has been the most memorable high point of your career as a rower at Yale?
A: I would say last year’s Brown race was a very exciting race for a number of reasons. I was on the varsity boat which was fantastic and Brown was the first race after the long winter training period … We swept Brown completely: the varsity won, the JV won, the freshmen won. We completely beat them. And they’re historically and currently one of the fastest teams in the country without doubt. So that was a big boost to our season. What made it extra intense were the weather conditions. The weather that day was absolutely terrible … The waves were huge, it was freezing cold. It was one of the most unpleasant days rowing but the fact we won made it extra sweet.
Q: What has been the lowest point of your time at Yale?
A: We changed coaches after my freshman year. We got arguably the best coach in American history, Steve Gladstone, so that’s fantastic. But the period of uncertainty around the first coach leaving was the most difficult point of my four-year career, but the final outcome of that was so great. So that’s a very good ending but the period of uncertainty was probably the biggest upheaval the team’s gone through. No one knew what was happening, who were we going to get.
Q: How do you think the program has changed in your four years here? Any significant changes?
A: I think the culture of the team has changed decisively. I can only speak from my perspective but my freshman year the team was divided in the sense that many members of the team saw themselves as individuals. I think the culture of the team now is — everyone still wants to be on the varsity boat and do well — but I think everyone recognizes that we’re all working for a common goal together. Whichever boat wins is a victory for everyone, regardless of whether you were actually on the boat or not.
Q: What are the team’s goals for this season?
A: We want to win Head of Charles in the fall and win every race in the spring. Simple as that. The two races … that stand out most in our minds [are] the National Championships, which will be in California this year … and the Yale-Harvard boat race. They’re the two we put the biggest premium on when we reflect on the season.
Q: If there was any advice you wanted to give to a freshman athlete, irrespective of the sport, what would it be?
A: I would say that my time on a sport is the thing that defined my time at Yale and the aspect of my life that I’ve drawn the most satisfaction in my time at Yale. If they approach their sport with the same engagement, I’m sure they’ll get that as well. But having said that, one can be a fully engaged member of the team and in the classroom. I think it’s complementary. If you work hard on the team, you’ll have the discipline to work hard in the classroom. You can’t take a lot of classes because of practice time and that’s hard, that can be disappointing, but still there are so many fantastic opportunities at Yale so you can’t really feel limited. I think being an athlete at Yale teaches you incredible discipline and you can apply that in the classroom if you want.