Q&A with Crew Captain Darby Nelson ’16
By Gary Lambrecht
A week before she graduated from the Naval Academy and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps, Darby Nelson ’16 was a bundle of nervous energy. Besides eagerly awaiting her Marine Corps officer training at its Base Quantico complex this summer, Nelson was preparing for the Navy women’s rowing team’s third trip in the past four years at the NCAA Championships, albeit in an unusual position. As the Midshipmen’s team captain, Nelson was unable to compete this spring, due to a serious back injury that caused her to withdraw from competition in February. Nelson, an unusual talent and a product of Westfield High School in Chantilly, VA, had rowed in the varsity eight boat for each of her previous three seasons. Shortly before the team traveled to Gold River, CA, where it eventually finished 19th at the NCAAs, Nelson sat down to chat with writer Gary Lambrecht
Q: As your final season approaches its end, can you describe what it’s been like to be a team captain while being unable to compete in the varsity boat you had been a part of for three seasons?
A: It’s something I’m still struggling with, but not as badly as I was before. At the end of the day, I’m just trying to get commissioned. I didn’t want to risk getting medically disqualified, or even losing the Marine Corps as an option, when I’ve come this far. I could have kept pushing through [the pain], but I want to maintain my career.
Q: How long have you been battling this back injury?
A: I’ve had lower back problems going back to my sophomore year in high school. The pain became tough to manage this year. I rowed throughout the fall with no problem, but after we got into our indoor winter training – which is very intense – the second I would get back on the “erg” [short for “ergometer,” or rowing machine] the pain would start up again. I realized it just wasn’t getting any better, so I decided to stop.
Q: Do you think back surgery is inevitable?
A: I want to keep working on my mobility and try sticking with the easy [non-surgical] solution. I also want to get through The Basic School training in good shape, but if [the pain level] stays where it is, I’m going to have to look into things like surgery. This [injury] does need to get fixed. It’s a hard thing to balance.
Q: Rowing on the surface looks like a somewhat pleasant pursuit of competition. Not so, right?
A: It’s an incredible sport that combines power and balance, and it’s mentally grueling and involves a lot of inner chaos. It looks so beautiful from a distance, but I know how much pain they’re suffering through, how hard they have to work to make it look so easy. Rowing is the epitome of a team sport, starting with the fact that, if you’re not at practice one day, your team literally cannot row the boat. If one person on the team is off, the entire boat is off. We’ve got 55 Type-A women on the team. Each of them wants to be in the top boat, and they’re going to put everything on the line to get there. It only makes us better people.
Q: How did you end up as a Navy rower?
A: I rowed for four years in high school, and I met my best friend through rowing. Her father was asking me what I wanted to do in terms of going to college. I told him I was thinking about going to West Point. He said, ‘No, you’re going to go to Navy.’ I found out he was a Naval Academy graduate and a retired Captain. I ended up going to a Navy crew camp in the summer and started talking to an assistant coach who recruited me. I didn’t even apply anywhere else. I thought the service academy structure would be good for me.
Q: You mean at that age you already knew you wanted to serve your country?
A: When I was first thinking about coming to the academy, I thought about how many people had died to let me live the life I was living. There are hundreds of thousands of people I’ll never know who have died for us. Unfortunately, there are probably hundreds of thousands of more to come. I felt I needed to pay that service back.
Q: How did your parents react when you told them your service selection was Marine Ground?
A: During my sophomore year, I told them I wanted to choose ordnance disposal. I set the bar high back then by telling my Mom I wanted to go play with bombs. It’s like asking your Mom for a thousand dollars when you only need a hundred. When I later told her I wanted to select Marine Ground, she was like, “Oh, OK.”
Q: Either way, do you sympathize with any anxiety felt by Mom and Dad?
A: The closer it gets to graduation, the more real it’s becoming for everyone. The world is not a safe place. I don’t know where I’ll be once I graduate from The Basic School, but we also don’t know how the world will be in years to come. There’s a lot of uncertainty that comes with that. My parents understand that. If I’m not [taking a risk], somebody else’s daughter is.
Q: What’s an example of how dangerous your sport can be?
A: While we’re rowing, we have to “feather and square the blade” [or end of the oars]. If you’re a millisecond late [with your stroke], the oar can catch the water and the water can [lift] the blade. The oar could hit you and eject you from the boat. That’s called “catching a crab.”
Q: Have you ever been removed from the boat after making such a mistake?
A: I’ve caught a crab before, but it’s never been a really powerful one. I’ve never been tossed.