The beauty of coach Michael Callahan’s program is that it’s calibrated to break through all the intermittent pain and heartbreak to peak on the last day. This year, that meant using a rare duel-meet loss – to archrival Cal, no less – as the impetus for the soul-searching and seat-switching that pushed them toward the...
The Huskies’ men’s crew has become a dynasty of historic proportions, a program gaining international acclaim, and a self-sustaining force. They will graduate 14 seniors, but as one of those, Eric Ledbetter, said last week, “There’s 30-something other guys hungry to take our spots.”
Last weekend in West Windsor, N.J., Washington’s varsity eight not only grabbed its fifth consecutive national title, an unprecedented feat in the 120-year-old IRA Regatta, but swept all five IRA men’s races for the third time in four years.
Yet Ledbetter, a co-captain, is sometimes taken aback when friends ask him how the Huskies’ crew wins so much. In a sport in which you push yourself to the physical limit almost daily, in which competition for coveted seats on the varsity boats is cutthroat, in which most of the glory (like the pain) is solitary, the payoffs can seem distant.
“I don’t feel like, over the course of the year, I’m winning a lot,” Ledbetter said. “I think I’m getting destroyed.”
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But the beauty of coach Michael Callahan’s program is that it’s calibrated to break through all the intermittent pain and heartbreak to peak on the last day. This year, that meant using a rare duel-meet loss — to archrival Cal, no less — as the impetus for the soul-searching and seat-switching that pushed them toward the title.
“As someone once said, ‘don’t waste a good crisis,’ ” Callahan said of the Cal defeat. “We really capitalized on it. I think it brought urgency to the group. We knew what we wanted to achieve.”
Callahan began to switch the lineups, testing the spirit of self-sacrifice that permeates crew perhaps more than any other sport. Placing oarsmen in a particular order is an elusive mix of science and feel. You can look at all the ergometer readings you want — erg-pieces in the vernacular — but Callahan’s particular genius is in finding the chemistry that achieves the overriding goal: Making the boat go faster.
It’s only fitting Callahan stole a phrase from “The Boys in the Boat,” a book whose wild popularity has helped frame their season. The Huskies “found their swing,’’ he said, an epiphany that the coach likened to the San Antonio Spurs working in perfect synchronization.
“The Boys In The Boat,” which chronicles the Washington crew’s drive to the 1936 Olympic title, has led a resurgence in interest in the sport in general, and the Huskies in particular. Callahan saw it in the large crowds for the Cal meet and Windermere Cup, as well as the daily swarm of visitors who want to check out the historical artifacts that dot their magnificent boathouse.
“It’s been amazing for us and the exposure of our sport,’’ said Callahan, who hopes the upcoming movie adaptation will be filmed on the UW campus. “It’s finally taken people in the boat, to understand what the sport’s about, why guys do it.”
The motivation of an oarsman is the key to it all. Callahan said he’s looking for an “abnormal” person — self-reliant, tough, resilient and selfless, just for starters. At some point — maybe when running the stairs at Husky Stadium at sunrise on an icy morning — every rower faces a crisis when it all seems too much to take.
“You have really dark moments,” Ledbetter said. “You don’t want to be there. I always say, it’s OK to think about stopping. Just don’t stop. You learn to push through.”
The internal competition for spots on the boats can be intense, but also liberating. Ledbetter, who is from Bellevue, likes an analogy he recently heard: The Huskies, he said, are like the Mongol hordes: “They fought each other for so long that everyone else is a piece of cake.”
The camaraderie of those who stay and push through to the other side is a powerful force. Besides the team’s obvious success, it’s one big reason Callahan has been so successful in luring the international rowers who comprise a large part of the team. Rowers all over the world are attracted to what Callahan calls “this crazy spirit we carry.”
One of those was Edward Nainby-Luxmoore, a senior co-captain from Middleton-in-Teesdale, UK.
“Having rowed back home in England, I have friends that stayed back home, and they’re jealous, to put it simply,’’ Nainby-Luxmoore said. “They’ve seen our program. When we’re in town, when we’re in England, wherever we are, we like to do things our way. It stands out, and people see it, and it gets seen all over the world.”
In the crew world, the Huskies are kings, authoring the sort of annual domination that happens rarely in this age of parity. But they try to never lose the sense that the program and its history is bigger than a particular triumph.
“You’re part of something that started before you were a Washington rower, and will continue after you’re a Washington rower,” Callahan said.
Last week’s triumphs merely added another layer to that legacy. The boys in this year’s boats did indeed find their swing. The Huskies will row in the fabled Henley Regatta in early July. And then Callahan will take his new crew of hungry rowers and begin the search all over again.