Benkreira, a senior oarsman for the varsity lightweights, is now an indispensable component of the Harvard varsity. But had things gone differently in his freshman year at Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington, D.C., rowing might never have even crossed his mind.
“I started rowing in ninth grade because I tried out for JV football as a 135-pounder,” Benkreira says.
In a sport largely confined to elite private institutions, Wilson fielded the only public high school crew program in all of Washington, D.C., an area dominated by St. Alban’s and St. Andrew’s.
When Benkreira first laced into his foot stretchers, Wilson’s program was barely on its feet.
“When I first joined the team, it was actually kind of a joke,” Benkreira says.
But in his junior year, former U.S. Olympian Linda Miller took over the reigns as Wilson’s head coach, and as the crew program got serious, Benkreira got serious about crew.
“It’s kind of odd how I came to row, but I’m glad I did it,” he says.
When Benkreira arrived at Harvard, he once again found himself in a unique situation.
The vast majority of college rowers are white, hailing from prestigious East Coast prep schools, Europe or Australia, and occasionally the American Midwest.
Benkreira, a black oarsman who earned his rowing stripes at a public school program in urban Washington, D.C., hardly fit the typical billing.
“My freshman year I was the only black kid in the boathouse,” he says.
Once again, Benkreira was present at the forefront of change sweeping across his school’s crew program. There are now two black oarsmen on Harvard’s lightweight team, and a black coxswain with the heavyweights.
Fellow Wilson graduate Aquil Abdullah, the first African-American oarsman to qualify for the Olympics in 2004, is an inspiration to Benkreira and the face of the changes coming to the sport. Abdullah was initially a walk-on at George Washington, where he earned a scholarship after just one semester on the water. He has become one of the most recognizable athletes in a sport known for its anonymity.
“As the demographics of Harvard change, the demographics of its sports teams will change,” Benkreira says. “Even though it might be happening slowly, it’s happening.” But the vast differences between Wilson and the hallowed grounds of Newell Boathouse did not faze Benkreira, who was a member of the freshman eight that won Harvard’s first freshman Eastern Sprints title since 1985 – the year he was born.
“He was absolutely instrumental,” says senior Nick Downing, the lightweight captain. “He was one of those key guys who stepped up and made a difference that year.” After that victory, Benkreira and his teammates went to Taiwan, where they competed against some of the world’s best teams. At the closing dinner, flags from each institution were placed along the second tier of the banquet hall.
“Some guy from Australia with a mohawk went up and grabbed our flag,” recalls senior Dan Kettler, Benkreira’s roommate. “He ran off and we booked it trying to catch him. Mansour basically scared the crap out of the guy and got the flag back.” “He wouldn’t want the Harvard crew program to be disrespected in any way,” Downing says.
It was examples like this that showed Benkreira’s dedication to his team along with his excellent work ethic and vibrant personality, two traits that his teammates appreciated when naming him this year’s LP.
Depending on whom you ask, the acronym, LP, has one of two meanings: the Lightweight Protocol and the Lightweight Persona. These two distinct interpretations fittingly parallel the duality of Benkreira’s post.
The LP serves to maintain a culture of discipline in the boathouse, while also creating a lighthearted environment that relieves some of the stress of the team’s grueling training program.
“I make sure it’s a good atmosphere for fast rowing,” Benkreira says.
To do so, he has the job of upholding the time-honored code of rules and traditions that has evolved alongside Harvard crew. These long-established and ever-developing laws were set down to placate the vengeful and insatiable river gods who reign over the Charles River. There are several ways—ranging from rowing shirtless to stealing the LP’s cookie at a team barbecue —that these rules can be broken.
Since the gods can greatly influence a race, it is extremely important for the LP to keep them happy.
“You have to appease the river gods,” Benkreira says. “When they’re happy, we have good weather, good rowing conditions.” The best way to please these deep-sea deities, as any good pagan knows, is human sacrifice. Thus, when a mischievous or simply uninformed rower disrespects the code, the LP holds full license to toss the offender into the Charles River, temporarily assuaging the gods’ appetite, and cleansing the oarsman of his transgression.
“[The river gods are] always hungry for lightweight rowers,” Benkreira said. “I try to give them what they want.” But gods and discipline aside, the idiosyncrasies of the LP position, such as the hurling of rowers into the river, serve a less serious but perhaps equally important purpose.
“It’s kind of a fun thing that the team does,” Benkreira said. “Part of what I do is keeping things from getting really tense and keeping things fun.” Benkreira is particularly successful it this enviable task. His down-to-earth nature and witty sense of humor entertain his teammates and coaches, alleviating some of the stress that builds up after long hours on the water or in the erg room.
During one fall practice, lightweight varsity coach Charley Butt chided Benkreira about his blade work in the water. Butt implied that the pushing and pressure of the blade in the water should be familiar to Benkreira, since he experienced a lot of pushing and shoving in high school.
Benkreira immediately turned to Butt and retorted, “Charley, kids at my school had guns.” But Benkreira’s influence on the team is not limited to mere comic relief.
“He also works very hard and is very serious about what he does,” said Downing. “He’s a guy that everyone on the team looks up to in many ways.” Now in his last year at Harvard, Benkreira is looking forward to his final Head of the Charles Regatta. After missing the event with an arm surgery last year, he is excited to participate in this year’s race and feels confident about the team’s chances.
“I think we’re going to be a force to be reckoned with,” he said.
He may have a point. Harvard is in good shape for this year’s Head of the Charles. Besides being well endowed with rowing prowess, the lightweight varsity will be racing with the approval of a rather divine fan base. With an LP like Mansour Benkreira, it’s hard to imagine that the river gods will be rooting for any other team.