With one of the most storied histories in collegiate rowing, it is no wonder that Washington rowers have such a prominent presence at the Olympics. The eight former Huskies who are competing for the U.S. make up nearly 20 percent of the current Olympic rowing team.
To this day, Hans Struzyna vividly remembers his first Windermere Cup.
Everything was purple and gold. The colors that crowded the shores of the Montlake Cut contrasted with the deep blue of Lake Washington. The colors snaked their way into the University of Washington boats, where athletes sporting large purple W’s on their chests waited, muscles tensed and eyes focused, for the start horn.
It was loud. Struzyna, who was 12, stood on a friend’s yacht, absorbed in the action and the noise and the excitement. The energy was pulsing. The UW fight song echoed off the water.
UW rowing in the Olympics by the numbers
13 Current or former UW rowers competing in the 2016 Olympics and Paralympics, including eight for the U.S., four for Canada and one for the U.S. in the Paralympics.
20 Percentage of U.S. rowing team that are former Huskies
100 UW rowers who have competed in the Olympics
No, Struzyna will never forget that day. He decided he was going to be a Husky.
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More than a decade later, Struzyna, having rowed four years at Washington before graduating in 2011, is gearing up for the biggest race of his life. As one of 13 current and former Husky rowers heading to Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Olympics and Paralympics in August, Struzyna credits his alma mater’s history and tradition for helping him achieve his ultimate goal.
“That culture and that fire that was in the UW boathouse really was one of the biggest things that I was able to harness and push myself to get to this point,” he said. “You could taste that fire, you could feel it.”
With one of the most storied histories in collegiate rowing, it is no wonder that Washington rowers have such a prominent presence at the Olympics. The eight former Huskies who are competing for the U.S. — four others are rowing for Canada while current Husky Danielle Hansen was named to the U.S. Paralympic team — make up nearly 20 percent of the current Olympic rowing team. In total, 100 Husky rowers have competed at the Olympics.
Started with ‘Boys in the Boat’
The program’s legacy of success can be traced back 80 years, when the Washington men’s eight traveled to Berlin and defeated the heavily favored German boat to capture Olympic gold. In an Olympics where Jesse Owens and the men’s track and field team were the focal points, sportswriter Grantland Rice wrote that the rowing victory was the “high point” of the entire Games.
The 1936 crew’s triumph was brought to light in Daniel James Brown’s 2013 book “Boys in the Boat,” but Washington rowers have been living that history since 1936. The program’s past is handed down to each incoming class of rowers.
2012 graduate Rob Munn, who will compete in the men’s eight for the U.S. in Rio, says the memory of the 1936 team is seared into every Washington rower’s mind.
“You had to memorize the ’36 eight because of what they did and what they accomplished,” he said. “That, and the UW fight song are the first things you have to know with the Washington rowing program.”
But what about the other things you need to know? They are countless: articles and memorabilia pasted on the walls of the boathouse at UW, constant emails and phone calls to the extensive alumni network for advice. That, if you’re a male freshman, you better be ready to get your head shaved, because that’s what the 1936 team did before it headed to Germany.
On the women’s side, it’s more of the same. They, too, have an extensive — though admittedly shorter — history of success. Washington’s women’s rowers have been key parts of Olympic teams since 1984, when five Huskies competed in the Games in Los Angeles. Since then, the UW women’s program has been represented at every Olympics.
“For me, it was really kind of the attitude and education you get about all the athletes who have come through the program before you and what it means to be a part of that tradition and that legacy,” three-time Olympian and 2006 graduate Megan Kalmoe said. “That kind of pride and culture is what really drew me into the program and made me very loyal to the program.”
The legacy of the 1936 crew is not lost on the women’s team, either. 2010 graduate Adrienne Martelli, who will make her second Olympic appearance in Rio after earning a bronze medal in 2012, often thinks about her four years studying under the 1936 shell, which hangs above the dining room in the UW boathouse. Fellow 2016 Olympian Kerry Simmonds, a 2011 graduate, said a key component to each year’s “Rookie Week” is the reading of the Washington history of rowing.
A deep legacy at UW
But history isn’t the only thing that separates UW’s program from other powerhouses across the country. Ask 10 different Husky rowers and coaches about what makes the program special, and they’ll give 10 different answers.
For 2012 graduate Sam Ojserkis, it’s the connection to alumni. Ojserkis, who is the coxswain for the men’s eight in Rio, recently had the opportunity to meet 1984 graduate Betsy Beard, a fellow coxswain, who was a gold medalist at the 1984 Olympics and also competed in the 1988 Games.
“She told me what she went through on the national team,” he said. “Just speaking with her and realizing that there’s someone in this who has been in the position that I’m in right now was huge. She’s been successful and has been a great resource for me to bounce ideas off of.”
Others are quick to turn to Seattle’s love affair with rowing. Men’s coach Michael Callahan, a 1996 graduate, said the rowing culture in the Pacific Northwest is unlike anything he’s seen anywhere else in the world.
“Before we had professional sports here, a lot of people would check up on what Husky football and Husky rowers were doing,” he said. “You see it on Opening Day. Thousands of people come and watch what we’re doing and they cheer. It’s just special here.”
There’s also the vast success of the program. The 30 national championship titles — 19 for the men and 11 for the women. The 17 Olympic gold medals. The 42 combined Windermere Cup victories, most of which involved defeating major national teams, including Russia, Great Britain and Australia.
Then there’s the longevity of the coaching staff. Callahan is the eighth head coach for the men’s program, which rowed its first race in 1903. Bob Ernst, who served at the helm of both the men’s and women’s teams over his 42 years at UW, was just the fourth head coach for the women before his controversial firing last winter.
Given that there’s rarely a coaching position open, when someone new enters the program, expectations are heavy.
Yasmin Farooq, however, thinks she’s up for the challenge.
Farooq, who was hired in June to replace Ernst as the head coach of the women’s program, has spent the past 10 years coaching the women’s team at Stanford.
“I see all upside, I really do,” she said. “It’s got a great tradition that I’m very excited to be a part of and take it into the years to come.”
Despite her newcomer status, the two-time Olympic coxswain has her perspective on the Husky legacy. Even 20 years later, she remembers rowing with UW athletes in the Olympics and winning the first U.S. women’s eight world championship with several Huskies in her boat in 1995. She, like Ojserkis, looked up to Beard, and cites training with her as one of her favorite memories.
In a way, Farooq is a deviation from the typical Washington rowing newcomer, based on her Waupun, Wis., hometown. Callahan says much of the recruiting in both the men’s and women’s programs focuses on local prospects.
But even those who aren’t originally from Washington work to find ways to stay connected to their alma mater. Kalmoe, who is based in New Jersey with the rest of the Olympic team to prepare for Rio, will open her home to UW rowers if they’re passing through for the many rowing events there. She, along with several other former Huskies, will travel to San Diego for national-team camp a week early each year to meet and work out with the current UW team, which trains in nearby Chula Vista in the winter.
Simmonds is five years removed from the program, but still communicates frequently with the coaching staff and current rowers.
“They always kind of know what we’re doing and are reaching out to us, sending us gear and making sure we feel like we’re part of the team still,” she said. “Not every program does as close to as good of a job as they do. Hands down, if I had not gone to UW, I wouldn’t be where I am with the U.S. team.”
As the 13 rowers prepare to travel to Brazil, UW is constantly in the back of their mind. They remember those that came before them, particularly the 1936 crew that won that gold.
Eighty years later, they will look to do the same.
“ ‘The Boys in the Boat’ is huge right now,” Ojserkis said. “Now that I’m in that position, the coxswain of a crew heading to the Olympics, I think about that crew a lot more. Before it was just like ‘Oh well, that was 80 years ago, that could never be me.’ But now here I am in the coxswain seat of the U.S. eight. I want to bring home the gold just like him.”