While much of Seattle slept Tuesday morning, three Husky crew boats darted through the Montlake Cut, propelled by strapping young men in constant pursuit of the nuance that will make them go just a fraction faster.
From a trailing motorboat, coach Michael Callahan watched intently — but not so intently that he didn’t notice, and marvel at, a blue heron near the shore. More than perhaps any sport, crew blends the aesthetic and the athletic, and when it all comes together in a blur of synchronicity and strength, it is a marvel.
“It almost feels like you’re flying when it’s going right,’’ Callahan mused later. “It feels like you’re gliding on water.”
But he’s quick to add that this elusive yet zealously sought-after sensation is not magical, some gift bestowed by the rowing gods. No, it comes from endless hours of hard work — at times torturous, truth be told — that is the crux of the sport.
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“There’s fun in the work,’’ Callahan said, and if there’s a credo for the Husky crew team, that might be it.
It is, unequivocally, the most successful college program in the United States, and one of the best of any ilk in the world.
Since Callahan took over as head coach of the men’s team from legendary Bob Ernst in 2008, the varsity eight has won four national titles — the past three in a row — and seven consecutive Ten Eyck Trophies as the overall point winner at the Intercollegiate Rowing Association Championships.
“It’s such a great program historically; the Huskies have won the Olympics, won in cold war Russia, Henley — it’s won everything,’’ said Luke McGee, coach of the U.S. men’s national team and former Husky freshman coach. “But this recent string of success has to be up there with the best in the entire history of the program.”
McGee noted that the Huskies have swept all five grand finals at the IRAs the past two years. “That’s unheard of,’’ he said. “It’s amazing stuff.”
Though this year’s squad is in somewhat of a rebuilding mode, having graduated numerous core seniors, the Huskies are coming off a rousing victory over top-ranked California, their perennial rival, last Saturday in Berkeley. On Saturday, they will face a huge challenge against the renowned Great Britain National Team in the 28th Windermere Cup.
To Callahan, it’s just another marker in the endless series of mental and physical tests that present themselves to the Huskies. Competing last year in the prestigious Henley Royal Regatta on the River Thames was one. The Huskies defeated the Polish National Team en route to the finals of the Grand Challenge Cup. The UW bettered the 175-year-old existing course record but were edged by the British National team.
It was the Huskies’ first loss of any kind since 2010, though it actually served to announce their presence as an international force.
“The closeness of the race enhanced Washington’s reputation within Great Britain,’’ Rob Dauncey, coach of the Great Britain Men’s National Team, said Wednesday.
Another rare defeat followed in October, when the Huskies finished ninth (fifth among U.S. colleges) in the Head of the Charles Regatta in Boston. Callahan believes the outcome was a result of a bit of a natural letdown following Henley, but served to re-stoke their competitive desires.
“Maybe they needed to recharge their batteries,’’ he said. “A lot of our guys needed a little break, and now I think the fire’s really burning hot.”
The Windermere Cup will provide a chance to gauge the temperature.
“Sometimes, you have to push yourself to the edge, or maybe over it,’’ Callahan said. “Maybe this is the weekend to try to do that, and see where the edge is. I think that would be a goal, trying to find out something more about ourselves against a very deep group we get to row against.”
This event is foremost on Callahan’s mind as he grabs his megaphone and barks out instructions to the three boats during a 6 a.m. workout. One contains the current group of nine — eight rowing seats and the coxswain — that will compete Saturday, while the inhabitants of the two others are intent on showing they belong in the main boat.
Pete Carroll’s mantra, “Always compete” is a way of life in crew. Ernst has always referred to the daily workouts on the water as “tryouts,’’ while Callahan uses the term “auditions.” Whoever can make the boat go faster, in Callahan’s estimation, will get a berth. Today, he is experimenting with some oarsmen in new seats, likening the tinkering to having a left tackle play right tackle.
“Own this one! Explode out of there!” Callahan barks, and the Huskies do just that as a beautiful morning dawns on Union Bay.
Callahan, the son of a Navy submarine captain, has always had an affinity for the water. Two of his distinct memories of a brief stint living in Silverdale during his junior-high years are watching Ernst celebrate an Olympic medal on television as coach of the women’s team in 1984, and watching the Opening Day race — this very Windermere Cup — on TV.
When the family moved to Arlington, Va., Callahan took a shot at rowing in high school when a hand injury sidelined him from baseball for a year. It was an instant connection. He loved being on the Potomac and rowing past the monuments. He loved more the cause-and-effect democracy of the sport.
“It fit me,’’ he said. “One thing I liked, if I put more effort into it, I got better, and I saw the result. I loved that positive relationship.”
After he graduated from Washington in 1996 as captain and commodore of a Pac-10 title-winning Husky team, Callahan assumed he would move on with his life, “but I always loved rowing, and it kept bringing me back.”
Callahan competed for the U.S. National Team, stroking three U.S. boats at the World Championships between 1997 and 2002. Ernst, meanwhile, brought Callahan back to Washington as an intern coach in 2001, having seen something in him during his four-year stint rowing on his men’s team.
“He impressed me with how hard he worked,’’ Ernst said. “He wasn’t a big guy for a rower, but he ended up an Olympian (as an alternate in 2004).”
Callahan ascended to freshman coach after the ’04 Olympics. Then, after winning the national championship in 2007, Ernst made a stunning decision. He was moving to the women’s program, and recommending Callahan to take over the men. He called Callahan, who was on the East Coast with the National Team, to broach the subject.
“I think he said, ‘Hold onto your jockstrap,’ ’’ Callahan recalled with a chuckle. “That’s how I remember it. He might have said, ‘Buckle your seat belt,’ but I think he said, ‘Hold onto your jockstrap.’ ”
Callahan accepted, and has succeeded in maintaining, even enhancing, the legacy of a program he quickly says he is merely a steward of. He acknowledges that he has tempered some of the intensity he brought to his initial years (“I don’t know if I’m softer, but maybe I’m more reasonable.”). At the same time, the program’s run of success makes it easier for the athletes to buy into Callahan’s methods.
“It’s really easy for guys here to trust his system, because it works, and he’s proved it works,’’ said senior Myles Neary.
Callahan ascribes to the theory that the three things you look for in a rower are in their head, their heart, and their lungs, and they can’t be seen. But that doesn’t mean you can’t try to find them, whether on the Thames, in front of a raucous Montlake crowd on Saturday, or in the solitude of an early morning workout.
That’s the never-ending pursuit of crew: To dig deep inside, individually and collectively, for something you didn’t know was there. That’s the hard part. And that’s the fun part.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @StoneLarry