For more than 100 years, the Huskies have been stars in a sport that demands perfection.
It’s 6:08 a.m., and a tribe of rowers is frozen in the push-up position. The Washington athletes pack the training room of the Conibear Shellhouse, all in perfectly straight lines, all alert, all eager for a coach to give the order.
“All right, we’ve got Cal this week!” men’s freshman crew coach Luke McGee exclaims on this Wednesday morning in late April. “Let me hear ya! When you go down, I want you to say, ‘Go!’ When you come up, I want you to say, ‘Huskies!’ Show some enthusiasm!”
With each push-up, the chant grows louder. Go! Huskies! GO! HUSkies! GO! HUSKIES!
McGee isn’t satisfied. He knows they can do better.
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“I want my ears to bleed,” he says.
GO! HUSKIES! GO! HUSKIES! GO! HUSKIES!
My ears start tingling. But McGee wants to outdo Qwest Field.
“I can’t hear you!”
The rowers are neither tired nor perturbed. They grin at the challenge and prepare to erupt.
I start to wonder how much a hearing aid will cost.
Let’s tell the truth: They’re crazy. Nuts.
To capture the unrestrained spirit of the dynastic Washington crew program, you have to begin there. Rowers are just willing to do things that are too extreme for even the most extreme competitors.
They’re not stupid. In fact, they’re frighteningly intelligent. The program posted a 3.28 team grade-point average, the highest of any large sports team at UW, and 17 athletes made the Dean’s List last quarter. It’s just another example that they believe maximum effort is a fluid concept. And fluid means their oars can rip through it and set a higher bar.
The men’s team has won 13 Intercollegiate Rowing Association national titles. The women’s team has won 11 NCAA titles. Athletes from this program have participated in 13 Olympic Games, dating to 1936, and their medal haul would make small nations envious.
Washington has accomplished everything a program can in rowing. It beat Adolf Hitler’s German shell to capture the gold medal at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. It has won the prestigious Henley Regatta several times. It went behind the Iron Curtain, competed against the Soviet Union during the Cold War in 1958 and triumphed.
If someone claimed that the Huskies rowed to the moon before Apollo 11 landed there, you’d have to spend time researching it, just in case. The lore of the program is almost too vast to comprehend, let alone contain in a single newspaper column.
So my mission is to find the essence of this remarkable program. And it starts with an insanity otherwise known as competitiveness.
“You think you’re good before you come, and then you arrive,” says women’s novice coach Nicole Minett, who is married to former UW rower Charles Minett. “It’s humbling when you get here, because you realize there are 30 others just like you.”
Minett rowed at Washington from 1998 to 2001. She helped the Huskies win a Henley Regatta, two national titles and four Pac-10 championships. She pushed herself for four years, just to prove that she was good enough.
“Your roommate is a junior national-team rower from California, and your best friend is a junior national-team rower, too,” says Minett, a Toronto native. “Immediately, you start to wonder, ‘Am I good enough?’ And then they say, ‘Hey, you want to go for a run?’ The next thing you know, you’re on the Burke-Gilman Trail, in a new city that you have yet to learn, and you don’t know where you are. But you’re running as fast as you can. Then you finish and they say, ‘Let’s go down to the shellhouse and practice on the ergometer.’
“It’s brutal. The standard is that you have to finish first in the nation. You can’t even finish second at the national championships, or something is wrong. Think about that. It’s brutal. But it’s awesome, too. That’s what you want. Don’t feel sorry for us. We are all thriving.”
Crazy. And inspiring.
Why do they work so hard?
Most of all, they love the challenge. Nenad Bulicic, a senior stroke from Serbia, shows off the blisters that have developed on his right hand this season. Anthony Jacob, a senior bow from Vancouver, B.C., laughs and remembers how, as a freshman, he feared practices with McGee so much that he would sit in math class and hope the minutes ticked slowly. And he hates math.
Rob Munn, a junior from Redmond, winces as he thinks about “erging” (rowing on the ergometer, the indoor rowing machine), and then he grins before saying, “It’s such a victory when you’re willing to push yourself to the limit.”
Rowing is self-fulfilling, but the team matters most. A boat can only go its fastest if everyone in the shell is willing to max out — entire body aching, lungs burning so much that you cough after a race — and row in unison. In other sports, sometimes individual greatness can overcome team flaws. Not in rowing. All the rowers must do their jobs and be in sync.
Retired sports broadcasting great Keith Jackson worked in Seattle before joining ABC in 1964, and even though he’s known as a legendary voice for college football, he appreciates rowing as much as anyone. In 1958, he followed the Huskies to the Soviet Union and broadcast that historic race for KOMO-AM radio.
“Crew, if you look at it, it comes the closest to being a symphony of athleticism of any sport,” Jackson says. “The slightest mistake, and you’re done. I came away from it calling it the last bastion of amateur athletics.”
When the Huskies talk about team, they’re not only referring to the current group. They’re rowing for the thousands of athletes who have come through this program. Rowing director/women’s coach Bob Ernst and men’s coach Michael Callahan teach their athletes tradition as much as technique. Then the rowers pass it down themselves from class to class.
“You’re not just passing through this program with no purpose,” Callahan says. “It’s for four years. It’s for 40 years. It’s forever.”
The Huskies have an open boathouse. Callahan and Ernst embrace alumni and other visitors. Most mornings, guests attend practice, and they ride in a motorboat (rowing folks call it a “launch”) with the coaches. But before the athletes go out on their shells, the visitors must introduce themselves to the group.
On this April morning, guests include Mike Hess, a former Olympian and captain of the 1977 and 1978 varsity crew. Callahan is engaged to his daughter, Joanna. After Hess concludes his introduction with that tidbit, the rowers — all sitting and making perfect eye contact — cheer loudly. Another guest is the father of a rower, and the team makes the son hug his papa.
The UW coaches don’t want to develop aloof athletes who care only about their sport. They coach awareness, and they coach pride. The rowers know they are stewards of the Husky tradition. They protect their legacy.
“Knowing this is bigger than you, it makes you want to go beyond your capabilities because that’s what you owe to everyone who came before you,” Bulicic says. “It keeps you focused. You want to bite down like a … “
He pauses and grins.
“You want to bite down like a Husky.”
Over 108 years, the program has remained dominant. Seldom are the Huskies caught behind the times.
Washington competed in its first collegiate race in 1903. Coach Hiram Conibear, the program’s most influential forefather, was a visionary. He ditched the male chauvinism of his time and established a women’s program in 1910, well before the 19th Amendment guaranteed women the right to vote.
Conibear died in 1917, but not before starting two support groups for Washington rowing that still exist: the Varsity Boat Club and the Rowing Stewards. The VBC helps keep alumni connected. The Rowing Stewards ensure the program remains financially secure and assists the coaches with everything from moral support to maintenance chores around the shellhouse and on Lake Washington.
Without the Rowing Stewards, the Huskies wouldn’t be able to maintain their high standard. Ultimately, they supported former coach Dick Erickson’s abrupt and controversial decision to break a 68-year tradition in 1980 and switch from wooden boats built by the Pocock family to sleeker, carbon-fiber shells. Most recently, the Stewards were there for Ernst in 2001 when he recommended the men’s program offer scholarships for the first time to keep up with the Huskies’ suddenly surging rival, California, as well as the rest of college rowing.
Some former athletes considered the notion blasphemous at first. This was a program of humble walk-ons accomplishing the extraordinary. Would future Huskies be spoiled? After much debate, the Stewards decided Washington needed scholarships to remain competitive. It started fundraising.
Today, the Huskies are still on top. The men are currently ranked No. 1. The women are ranked No. 9, and to them, that means it’s a rebuilding year.
Women’s rowing is an NCAA-sanctioned sport, and teams are allotted 20 athletic scholarships. Men’s rowing is different. The Intercollegiate Rowing Association still governs that sport. The Huskies go by Pac-10 stipulations, which allow for up to 14.5 men’s rowing scholarships, but the program is currently below that number. Alumni donations pay for all of their scholarships.
And the Huskies take that seriously. All athletes in the Washington athletic department with an endowed athlete scholarship meet their benefactor. But the crew coaches encourage a stronger relationship. It’s common for rowers to swap frequent emails and have dinner with their scholarship providers.
Such gestures have helped some alums originally against crew scholarships change their opinion. Scholarship money has enhanced the program, but it hasn’t altered its sense of innocence. Instead, UW crew has benefited from the diversity. Four countries are represented by the men’s varsity eight, and there’s a growing feeling that the group could be special, even by this program’s enormous standards.
“We were slow to embrace scholarships because we didn’t want to let this ruin our idyllic program,” says Dwight Phillips, a Huskies coxswain from 1967 to ’71. “I thought involving scholarships was a negative thing. I had it wrong. The program hasn’t been impacted negatively at all.”
Memories overflow Ernst’s office. He has been at Washington since 1974, and it shows. Pictures, old newspaper clippings, programs — his 37 years at the UW surround his work space. The visuals are mesmerizing.
Ernst surveys the room and tells stories. He talks about great Huskies teams and unforgettable individuals. Tears form behind his glasses. He points to a photo of three Huskies who helped the United States win the women’s eight gold medal in the 1984 Olympics — Betsy Beard, Kristi Norelius and Shyril O’Steen.
Both Kristi and Shyril have since battled cancer. Shyril is now ill, but Kristi remains by her friend’s side.
It’s not just for four years. It’s for 40 years. It’s forever. Ernst takes a deep breath.
“You see them, and they’re bulletproof athletes — they’re really good — and then they turn out to be better people than that even,” Ernst says. “That’s the best part, to know what they’ve become and to know that what they learned here still applies.
“This sport, it’s not like the others. It can get to be a lifetime.”
He stops, chuckles and corrects himself.
“Well, I meant to say that it can get to be a lifestyle, but either way works.”
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or email@example.com