Kelly, a senior, has made a remarkable rise in the program. Said coach Michael Callahan of Kelly. “This year he has gone from being our No. 25 or 26 rower to being in our top eight. That’s pretty unorthodox.”
Sean Kelly, part of the top-ranked Washington varsity eight boat that is rowing for a national championship this weekend, has an underdog story that is one race away from finishing with the happiest ending he could have imagined.
“It’s kind of a shock to wake up each morning and think, ‘OK, I’m part of the best program in the world,’ ” he said. “How did I get here?”
Determination would be one answer. High school teammates in Princeton, N.J., rolled their eyes when Kelly, a lacrosse player newly converted to rowing, mentioned his goal of one day rowing for Washington, one of the sport’s elite programs.
“They all joked around and said, ‘Oh, yeah, you’re never going to touch a boat there,’ ” he recalled. “ ‘You’re going to be on land the whole time. You’re not nearly fast enough.’
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“I was never the fastest or biggest guy, especially in high school. But still I thought, ‘OK, I’ll prove these people wrong.’ ”
A team-first outlook would be another. He showed up at UW with no scholarship and no promises and wound up in a conversation with assistant coach Matt Rung. Kelly didn’t realize it at the time, but that chat was a make-or-break moment.
“We do have a roster limit, and we were making the final roster in Sean’s freshman year,” head coach Michael Callahan said. “Coach Rung had a conversation, an interview, really, with two students, and Sean was one of those guys.
“We were trying to determine how committed you are to the team, who’s the best fit. We were going to take one of them, and we took Sean.”
It turned out to be a great choice. Largely by sheer will and persistence, Kelly earned the 2 seat in the boat that won the freshman eight title in 2015 at the Intercollegiate Rowing Association championships, part of a five-event sweep for UW boats in 2015.
Kelly then claimed the 2 seat in the varsity four the next two years, winning that event at both the 2016 and 2017 IRAs. Now, due to Kelly’s mix of talent and tenacity, he owns the 2 seat in UW’s No. 1-ranked varsity eight that starting Friday will be rowing at the three-day IRAs on Mercer Lake in West Windsor, N.J.
Washington will be trying for its first national title since 2015.
Vaulting from the lower ranks of UW’s depth chart to the top boat, Callahan said, is an uncommon leap.
“People in the varsity eight are usually coming up from the second varsity, moving just one rung up,” said Callahan. “In our top three eights you have 24 rowers, then you have the varsity four. People in that boat are always fighting for the last couple of spots at the IRAs, and he’s been in that grinder for the last two years.
“This year he has gone from being our No. 25 or 26 rower to being in our top eight. That’s pretty unorthodox. It’s a like an unrecruited walk-on all of sudden starting. And not just starting, but excelling. He represents the hard-working man on our team, the guy with a good attitude and the hardest work ethic.
“We tell guys, you earn your opportunities through hard work,” Callahan added. “When you get an opportunity, you have to capitalize on it and make the most of it, and he’s been capitalizing on his opportunities his whole career here. I heard someone say not everyone in the NBA can be a star, but you can be a star in your role. I like that. That’s Sean.”
Technically, Callahan says Kelly, a 6-foot-4, 185-pound senior, connects well with the water in the 2 seat. “That allows the power guys to find traction and use their strength,” he said.
Kelly’s intangibles matter more to Callahan, calling him an “enabler” and “the mortar” of the V8 boat.
“He does his job every day to the best of his ability and has a good attitude toward it,” he said. “That’s infectious. He’s a force-multiplier— he brings a team up. He’s got the respect of a lot of guys across the boathouse at every level.”
Kelly shrugs. “I don’t know if I would go so far as to call myself the mortar of the boat, but I help enable people,” he said. “I realized pretty early on that if you want to make a boat go fast and you’re not the biggest guy, help the biggest guys pull as hard as they can.”
• In the last 11 years, Washington has won the IRA title seven times, including an unprecedented streak of five straight championships (2011-15). Twice in those 11 years, UW has missed winning additional titles by less than a third of a second, including last year when the Huskies lost a photo finish to Yale by 0.069 seconds.
• Yale’s varsity eight, ranked second in the coaches’ poll, won the Eastern Sprints May 13 in Massachusetts by a 3.4-second, open-water margin (5:54.668) and looms as one of UW’s prime challengers. The Huskies have defeated third-ranked California twice — at the annual dual April 21 (by 3.3 seconds, in 5:27.6) and the Pac-12 championships (by 1.4 seconds, 5:51.243).
“The top three teams are the three that have won it the last three years, Washington (2015), California (’16) and Yale (’17).,” said Callahan, who mentioned Harvard (second at the Eastern Sprints), Brown and Princeton as other contenders. “Every men’s team is rowing at an incredibly high level. A lot of time it comes down to a mental edge, and I feel our guys are in a good spot. The semifinals (on Saturday) will be very competitive to get to the final (on Sunday).”
UW’s V8 boat will include four in-state natives: Rielly Milne, coxswain (Woodinville); Sam Halbert, 6 seat (Woodinville); Madison Molitor, 5 seat (Moses Lake); and Elijah Maesner, bow (Eastlake).