Rowing to Greatness

A Vicarious Globetrotter Interview with Garth Holden

By Sarah Widder

[dropcap]W[/dropcap]ith his tall, athletic build, it is hardly a surprise that Garth Holden is a member of the Yale Crew team, although his youth may come as a surprise. A freshman in Berkeley College, Garth came to Yale after a semester rowing around the world with the South African national team. His diverse range of experiences throughout his travels bring a unique perspective to the Yale freshman class.

Garth has been profoundly shaped by growing up in South Africa, which he says was very different from what he has found here in the U.S. so far. From what he has seen, New Haven has a very similar situation of drastically uneven distribution of wealth, much like what you might find in South Africa, but much of the similarity ends here. South Africa is very culturally diverse, with numerous groups interacting within a highly complicated historical context. This diversity is expressed in many ways, from how people dress and speak to how they interact with one another. “There’s a much greater need for a sense of identity” in South Africa, Garth says. When interacting with someone, you present yourself in the context of your ethnic and cultural background, not just your race or gender. Even though Garth has found a lot of diversity at Yale, this issue of identity is perhaps not as prevalent in day-to-day interactions here as it is in South Africa.

Where does Garth fit into this “hodgepodge” of identities? “It’s hard to speak to that perspective, as a white male,” he says. By spending time with friends from school and sports and their families, Garth has been able to experience different cultures and understand new perspectives. His background is also rather mixed, as his father is Canadian and his mother Afrikaans. This created some tension for him growing up: he considers himself to be very liberal and has a diverse friend group, but white Afrikaners are historically conservative and were heavily involved in Apartheid. Given this, Garth has intentionally tried to avoid being associated with any one cultural group or identity.

Growing up in such a diverse environment has made Garth more open to meeting different people, and makes it easier for him to trust new people after only a short period of knowing them. This has been helpful here at Yale, especially during the hectic acquaintance-making days of Camp Yale at the beginning of the year. While the sudden influx of new people from so many different backgrounds and perspectives may have been overwhelming for most freshmen, Garth was more comfortable and enjoyed the experience with relatively little stress. Being open-minded and willing to learn about new people without being overly defined by a certain facet of society allowed Garth to form lasting and valuable friendships.

The diversity that Garth was accustomed to at home has a different dynamic at Yale, especially on the crew team. The common American stereotype views crew as an elitist sport for rich white males in the Northeast. This is very different from what Garth was familiar with rowing in South Africa, where crew is not typically associated with elitism. While this changed coming from South Africa to Yale, where “everyone on the team is tall, white, and foreign,” there is still a diversity of backgrounds among the team members. Everyone comes from a different background, but the sport allows them to come together as a team and embrace their differences and similarities.

Garth rowing for the South Africa national team.
Garth rowing for the South Africa national team.

Crew has been an important part of Garth’s life for years, both as a sport and for the opportunities that it provides. One of the main things that Garth has liked about crew is its ability to take him to many new places. As he got better, he went from travelling around southern Africa to competing overseas. “Rowing became an excuse to travel, something that I could use to see the world,” Garth says.  He became heavily involved in crew in high school, and made the junior national team at age 17. He graduated in December of 2015, and spent the next several months rowing for the South African Under-23 team, which trains with the Olympic team and is a kind of stepping-stone for young rowers with Olympic aspirations.

The summer culminated in a competition in Holland that lasted a couple days into Camp Yale, which made Garth’s transition to campus hectic, to say the least. Immediately after the competition, Garth flew to the States and jumped into Camp Yale, with only a 20-pound suitcase and no bed sheets or books. His suitemates were key to his accelerated orientation to life in the U.S., as they helped him figure out the logistics of moving in and buying necessary supplies. Moving in was also a shock, coming from an environment of intensive training with the crew team to what Garth calls the “social extravaganza” at Yale. The social opportunities were very helpful in making a smooth and positive transition. Garth found many new friends, and was pleasantly surprised that everyone was so friendly and that the community was so welcoming.

The geography and climate of South Africa are also aspects that Garth misses living in the American Northeast. South Africa’s climate is more similar to southern California than what we find on the East Coast, and the harsh winters will certainly come as a surprise to someone who hasn’t seen snow before coming here. He also misses the easy access to the country that he had in South Africa, while here, especially in the Northeast, it’s harder to get out of cities and populated areas.

There are numerous aspects of Yale that were unexpectedly quite different from what Garth was used to in South Africa, but he has enjoyed getting to know the new culture. In particular, the involvement of politics on campus came as a surprise. The watch parties during the debates and election were a new experience, and the highly polarized two-party system is distinctly unfamiliar. The importance of politics for students has been a refreshing change from the kind of “culture of apathy” that Garth has found in other countries. The activeness of students in politics and their eagerness to share and discuss opinions has been something to get used to, but also impressive compared to students at home.

South Africa, Garth explains, is “like America 50 years ago, but trying to catch up.” The scars of the many years of racial conflict and injustice have only barely healed since the official end of Apartheid just over two decades ago, but there is a lot of pressure for everyone to “act like one big happy family.” There are a lot of intentional attempts to reconcile in South Africa, to acknowledge the bad things that have happened in the past and try to move forward, which Garth feels America could look to for examples. The aftermath of Apartheid lingers, as the new government is experiencing recent backlash for increased corruption, but there has been a lot of progress in terms of racial injustice, Garth says.

The political climate of South Africa has a major impact on life for college students, as government funding is inadequate for the number of students looking for tertiary education. This leads to heavy fees, overcrowded classrooms, and, lately, student protests that have turned violent. Students seek to equalize the opportunities available in college education, as the majority of students are unable to avoid the high fees for college education. While Garth has long envisioned coming to the Northeast for college, as the opportunities and education available here are beyond compare, the political and educational climate in South Africa certainly influenced him away from staying in country to continue his education. Studying abroad requires a lot of sacrifice, leaving everyone and everything you know behind, but it brings so many new and great opportunities that the sacrifice isn’t too hard to bear.

In terms of the college application process and choosing Yale, the decision became easy for Garth after a visit to Yale’s campus. Garth was initially very interested in Harvard, especially as a close friend left South Africa to attend Harvard when Garth was 14. However, when making his official recruiting visits to the Harvard and Yale campuses, Yale immediately stood out as the obvious choice. “I was completely blown away by the campus, by the professors, the architecture, and the general vibe on campus,” Garth says. “It seemed more like a genuine college experience, and less like an exhibition.” He did not find the same openness and sense of community in Cambridge, and has been very happy with his decision to come to Yale.

Garth has a unique and positive perspective on life, which has brought him success both at home and at Yale. Especially with his prospects for rowing for South Africa in the next Olympics, Garth has a lot of exciting opportunities ahead.


Sarah Widder (’20) is a prospective cognitive science major in Berkeley College. She can be reached at