Stuart Sim a senior coxswain, and Ben Davison a sophomore, are committed to putting UW back on top of the podium at this year’s IRA finals.
A year ago, Stuart Sim and Ben Davison, on leave from the Washington men’s rowing team, were on the threshold of becoming Olympians, a lifetime achievement for any athlete.
Both trained for months with their national teams — Sim as coxswain of the Australian men’s eight, Davison as a member of the U.S. men’s quadruple sculls (four rowers, two oars each). Both needed strong showings at the ultracompetitive Final Olympic Qualification Regatta last May in Lucerne, Switzerland, known among rowers as the Regatta of Death.
Both performed valiantly, and both, needing to finish first or second, fell just seconds short.
“We missed qualifying by eight-tenths of a second,” said Davison, recalling a scorching finish that left the U.S. fractionally trailing New Zealand for the final qualifying spot. “We’ll always question, was that amount of energy there in the boat? We’ll never know.”
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For Sim, the Australian eight was part of a four-boat, neck-and-neck mad dash entering the final 500 meters of a 2,000-meter race, but the Aussies gradually slipped off the pace, finishing less than four seconds behind second-place Poland.
“The level of competition I experienced at the University of Washington was what elevated me to be able to contend for the Olympics,” said Sim, who coxed UW’s varsity eight to Intercollegiate Rowing Association national championships in 2014 and 2015. “If I didn’t go to UW, I don’t think I would have been able to make the men’s national team.”
Both are back with UW — Sim a senior, Davison a sophomore — and committed to putting UW back on top of the podium at this year’s IRA finals. Last year, Washington had an unprecedented run of five straight national titles broken by rival California.
Cal defeated UW by five seats on a windy Montlake Cut April 22, setting up a rematch between the top-ranked Bears and No. 2 Washington on Saturday near Sacramento at the Pac-12 championships.
The two schools will also likely duke it out for the national title on the same course at the IRA championships June 2-4. In the last 11 years, Washington has won the IRAs seven times (2007, 2009, 2011-15), Cal three (2006, 2010, 2016).
UW coach Michael Callahan is happy to have both athletes back.
“Stuart is like having another coach in the boat,” he said. “He stands out with his intellect and his knowledge of technique and tactics. Trust has been a key theme for the year. Stuart is very confident in his way of speaking, and people tend to listen to his point of view. He’s a good bridge between the rowers and the coaching staff. I have a lot of confidence in him.”
Monitoring his crew’s mindset is a vital skill for Sim.
“It’s how you manage nine guys who have different perspectives,” he said. “If the boat’s going slower one morning, is that because we’re not rowing that well, or because the weather’s average, or because three people had midterms the day before and didn’t get enough sleep? Understanding the psychological component is probably my No. 1 task at the moment.
“It’s a constant battle: How do we push ourselves further and bring out each person’s individual strength to create a common unit?
“This is the most talented varsity eight I’ve seen in four years. At Washington, we talk about the ‘W’ being bigger than you or I. As much as I see ourselves as a mixed bag of personalities, it’s a group of guys who can really unite behind one thing. I’ll be very surprised if I ever see 55 people (UW’s men’s roster) so committed and so dedicated to the same thing ever again in my life.”
Davison, a native of tiny Chester-le-Street in northern England, moved to Florida with his parents as a teen. “They wanted us (he and his brother) to broaden our horizons, have a story to tell,” he said.
As a high-school sophomore, Davison broke an ankle playing soccer and turned to rowing after it healed. He gravitated toward the single scull and blossomed into an elite talent.
He won the U.S. Under-23 World Championship Trials while still a senior in high school. Last year he finished seventh in the World Under-23 Championships. “He’s America’s best young sculler, in a single for sure,” Callahan said. “He’s beyond his years.”
Callahan calls Davison a quiet leader, comparable to Husky quarterback Jake Browning.
“Guys at the boathouse were joking that we should have a debate between Ben and Jake,” he said. “They’re both quiet, young and superstar-esque. You don’t get a lot out of them. They would probably both just stare at each other and not say a word.”
Davison laughs at the notion.
“I try to tell a few jokes,” he said. “Sometimes they get laughs, sometimes they don’t. It all depends on what day of the week it is. When I have something good to say, I’ll say it. … Try to keep the talk to a minimum, but keep it valuable.”
Callahan says Davison’s intense training habits do his talking for him.
“He wants to do things the right way, and that’s how you become a leader,” the coach said. “He’s very competent, very reassuring, and very positive to the other guys in the boat. He makes everyone believe in what they’re doing.”
Davison and Sim, who both plan to compete for Olympic berths in 2020, believe UW can challenge Cal for Pac-12 and IRA trophies.
“I’ve lost to Cal early (in a 2015 dual) and come back to win a national championship,” Sim said. “I’m 8-2 in my races against Cal. I’ve got a lot of confidence in our guys. It’s going to be a competitive next couple of weeks. We’ll see if our expectations can come to fruition. Cal is a really strong program. The Dawgs were down, but we’re not out, for sure.”
Callahan, who watched his varsity eight set a course record at the Windermere Cup last week with Sim at cox and Davison in the five seat, likes the sound of that.
“They are two pieces who are helping us get closer to achieving what we want to achieve,” he says. “These guys possess those high-level qualities. They’re people pursuing excellence, and that’s contagious.”
• The top-ranked UW women, who also set a course record at the Windermere Cup, await their own rematch with No. 2 Cal on Saturday. Cal defeated Washington by open water during the April 22 dual.
“The team is fit and deep, and at this point in the season it’s about putting the right people together,” says first-year coach Yasmin Farooq. “I believe that all of our lineups are faster. It takes four boats to win the Pac 12 championships and this is the toughest conference in the nation, so every boat is going to matter. We are heading to Sacramento with the mindset that it will take a total team effort, and we’re looking forward to it.”