Washington rower Ruth Whyman was speaking from a personal perspective when she called Saturday’s Windermere Cup “a bizarre clashing of worlds.”
But it was an apt description of this year’s event, which brought what is currently the world’s best national rowing program, Great Britain, against what British stalwart Dan Ritchie called “possibly the best university crew in the world.”
The Huskies have been accused of racing (and dominating) “cupcakes” in the Windermere Cup in recent years, but not this time. It was a stern test that both UW crews handled impressively, the women beating the Brits with a late kick and the fast-starting men getting overcome down the stretch to lose by two seconds.
For Whyman, from Gloucestershire, England, and other British expatriates on the UW men’s and women’s squad, it was exciting and a bit nerve-wracking to face their homeland. They were racing against many competitors who had been their teammates as juniors — and whom they hope will one day be again.
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Whyman and Husky teammate Fiona Gammond (from Bucknell, England), as well as British natives Marcus Bowyer and Myles Neary on the men’s squad, knew full well that the British coaches would be monitoring their progress. And that a strong showing could put them on the radar for a future berth on the powerful British team.
“This is the first time they’ve seen me row for a really long time,’’ Whyman said. “I’m so pleased it went right for us and we had a really good race.”
Collegiate rowing at the upper level is increasingly becoming an international sport, and the Huskies are eager to mine the burgeoning British talent. Women’s coach Bob Ernst, during the medal ceremony, joked to Peter Sheppard, the chief coach of Great Britain’s Under 23s and Juniors, “Thank you for lending them to us.”
Ernst later said in a television interview that he is thrilled when Husky rowers go on to race in the Olympics, no matter who they are representing.
“Bob Ernst is one guy who doesn’t care what country they win for, as long as they’ve got purple-and-gold underwear on,’’ he said.
The Huskies are able to make a strong case to young British rowers, who have three primary options: Race for a British university, go straight to the National Team (a rarity), or head to the U.S.
“I had a look around some of the universities in England, and then I came out here on a recruiting trip,’’ Neary said. “I was blown away. The facilities, the support to be a student and an athlete, was unbelievable. I think in the UK, there’s a lot of opportunity to learn from the American system.”
“I was looking for an establishment I could get the best education possible and also one of the best rowing programs possible,” Whyman added. “The Husky crew offered me the opportunity of a lifetime, and I couldn’t say no. It’s been the best four years of my life. I wouldn’t change it for anything.”
Ritchie, who rowed on Britain’s recent World Championship team, is one of just two on the British squad to make the national team at 18 years old without rowing in college. He understands the lure of places like UW and other American crews.
“It’s becoming quite a modern thing to come over to the states,’’ he said. “The national governing body is a lot more accepting of that. You get a lot more funding here in university …You just have to look around the boathouse and the shells. You get so much more support here you don’t get back home unless you make the national team.”
Ritchie said, “If I was 5 or 6 years younger, I’d probably be heading over here to row.”
A similar observation was made by Rob Dauncey, the coach of Britain’s men.
“We wouldn’t try to stop anybody coming to a program like this, absolutely not,’’ he said.
While Sheppard noted, “Our preference is always that they stay at home,” he realizes that many top British rowers are opting for an American college.
“We totally recognize the development they get here is world class,’’ he said. “So we’ve got to work with these programs. Life is global now. We try to make sure they want to come back and row for us when they finish.”
Ernst was particularly mindful of the presence in Seattle of Sir David Tanner, performance director for the British National Team.
“I wanted Great Britain to come here because they’re the best rowing team in the world,’’ Ernst said. “I also wanted them to come here and see the kind of rowing program Ruth and Fiona are in here. That this is a first-class program. That we produce Olympians here. I wanted them to see how sophisticated Washington rowing is, and the kind of coaching they get here, the kind of equipment. How important this game is to Seattle.
“Sir David Tanner is the guy who built the best rowing program in the world, and it’s important they see this.”
On another festive Opening Day, consider the message delivered, from one rowing world to another.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146