This story starts and ends in the water.
More specifically, it starts in Indianapolis, where the University of Washington women’s rowing team swept the grand finals at the NCAA championships in June 2019. It starts with staggering, unanimous, near-unprecedented success. It starts together, on the bus ride home, when the hoarse, triumphant Huskies screamed the words to “We are the Champions” and waved their phones above their heads, flashlights flickering like lighters in the night.
It starts with hope of a third NCAA sweep in four seasons; no other program has done it once.
And then it starts to end.
For the rowers, the end began in earnest at 11:17 a.m. on Thursday, March 12, when head coach Yasmin Farooq sent the first of three GroupMe messages updating the status of their season.
11:17 a.m. “Team: I know you just got the email from (athletics director) Jen (Cohen). Current situation is the Pac-12 has canceled competitions ‘until further notice.’ For teams whose seasons are about to end, this will end their year. At this point our season has not been canceled. We’re allowed to practice. As we fully know, the situation is fluid and constantly evolving. So for now, let’s plan on meeting this afternoon and going out on the water.”
12:40 p.m. “Team: I’m sure you’re hearing that practice is suspended until Wednesday, April 1. I’ll be on a phone call and we’ll have more details shortly.”
1:29 p.m. “As everyone is hearing, the NCAA has canceled the remainder of the season for public safety. Tomorrow morning, the athletic department will be meeting to discuss how to best support student-athletes in the coming weeks. I know we are all coming to terms with this. I’ll see you at 2:45 to say thank you and to also thank our seniors for an amazing four years.”
Of course, this news didn’t necessarily arrive without warning. A day earlier, on March 11, the Ivy League canceled its spring athletics competitions to slow the continued spread of COVID-19. That same day, UW’s rowing practice ended with an audible; instead of their typical huddle, the Huskies spread six feet apart and pointed their hands in the same direction. After Farooq called out “Dawgs on three!”, they shot their arms into the air.
The rowing season, Farooq knows, wasn’t canceled without cause. By the end of the day on March 12, 31 people in Washington state had died from the disease. As of Sunday afternoon, the total was 94.
“When you’re older you’ve experienced a fair amount of hardship,” Farooq told The Times in a phone interview on Wednesday. “And for these women, they’re in the prime of their life and the prime of their fitness. And especially for those seniors, everything they were doing was about preparing for the season. So I think that’s the most heartbreaking part of (the season being canceled), really — to see the whole team denied that.
“And at the same time, when the news came down … at that point everybody realized that this was so much bigger than our season. I’m 54, so I remember growing up and being afraid. There were nuclear shelter drills and stuff like that. Here we are. This is a war, but we as the human race are united. It’s the first time we’ve ever faced something like this as the human race, and we’re all a part of it.”
Still, that didn’t make the shock any easier to endure. At 2:45 p.m., the Huskies met inside the boathouse at the University of Washington. Farooq asked them to keep their distance, but they sat arm-in-arm, hand-in-hand, hugging and crying and saluting the season they never had. It was one of the first times some of them had heard about “social distancing,” but perhaps the last time they would be together.
“We didn’t care about racing Pac-12s anymore,” said senior Snoqualmie native Molly Gallaher. “All I cared about was being with my teammates the next day.”
And that, really, is why Washington continues to win. In rowing, especially, individual success comes second. Every oar must churn in unison, simultaneously synchronous and strong. Senior Lark Skov said that “it’s the team aspect that puts the boat across first.” And in that boathouse, in that meeting, the team aspect was overwhelming.
“The whole theme for the year was, ‘Thank you,’” Farooq said. “As in, when you get into the third 500 and your lungs and legs are on fire, you are grateful for the opportunity to be in there together. You’re going to find an extra gear for everybody around you.”
That’s why, before tests on the team’s erg rowing machines, Washington’s women would shout, “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” Their voices would echo in the room, with gratitude and gusto. On Wednesday, Farooq said that the memory “makes me want to cry.”
“You know, for whatever it’s worth,” she added at the end of the meeting, “we are the only team in the country that, going into this, can say that we are still the reigning Pac-12 and NCAA champions.”
It’s then that UW assistant coach Marlee Blue played “We are the Champions” — again — on loop over the loudspeakers. The team cried and hugged and sang.
And then the seniors sprang into action.
“It was like this sudden swell,” Farooq said, observing the scene. “Here’s the thing: I’ve seen it before. The thought crosses your mind: ‘Are they going to lake themselves?’”
Before we go further, you should know, that means exactly what it sounds like. When rowers at Washington are elevated to varsity, they jump into the lake. When they sweep the NCAAs, they jump into the lake. On birthdays: lake. On spring break: lake. Gallaher called it “a really special tradition that we hold close to our hearts.”
“And then people started moving from the erg room into the boat bay,” Farooq recalled. “The garage door was open already. It just started this flow, and the next thing I knew people were running and clothes were flying.”
Shoes came off; sweats came off; shirts came off. It was clothing chaos. The seniors streamed through the UW boat bay, past hanging boats on both sides that were suddenly obsolete. Their teammates ran behind, without even needing an explanation. It was an impromptu, emotional, suddenly unstoppable conga line, with Queen serving as a suitable soundtrack.
One by one, they cannonballed and corkscrewed off the dock into the frigid waters of Lake Washington.
“Oh my God,” Farooq marveled, as Blue’s dog, Dylan, bounded giddily around the dock.
“An extreme sense of gratitude really overwhelmed me,” she said on Wednesday, looking back. “I felt like the luckiest coach in the world, to have a team that could look at this situation … and that’s how they wrapped it up. Together.”
They were together, perhaps for the final time. And, yes, a lot has changed in the last 10 days. Restaurants and bars have closed, as have gyms and theaters and barber shops. The Space Needle has temporarily suspended operations. Social distancing measures have been more insistently enforced.
But back then, for a fleeting minute, the NCAA — not to mention the 51-degree weather — couldn’t keep the reigning national champion Washington Huskies out of the water. They suddenly weren’t sad or bitter. They were freezing, and they didn’t care.
“It was a happy moment, a grateful moment,” Gallaher said. “In the wake of all this sadness that we just had, it was like, ‘Yeah, this is happening. But we still have each other. And we still have these traditions, and we still have the foundation of who we are.’”
Added Skov: “I was very thankful in that moment for everyone showing me what it means to be a Washington rower.”
Some of them may not be Washington rowers for too much longer. The NCAA has since granted an extra year of eligibility for seniors in spring sports; but when it comes to their individual futures, decisions have yet to be made. In the days since, UW’s rowers each traveled home safely for spring break. And, with the upcoming quarter entirely remote, Farooq says she’s attempting to organize virtual workouts and activities to keep the team together.
“In some ways the team has been their family,” Farooq said, “and there’s no reason that should change.”
When school resumes on March 30, the UW women will not defend their national title. But in that moment, huddled at the edge of the dock, laughing and crying, it didn’t matter. Wading in the water, with fists pumping, Farooq’s second family started to sing.
So, victory’s the cry of Washington
Our leather lungs together with a Rah! Rah! Rah!
And o’er the land the loyal band
Will sing the glory of Washington forever!
So, that’s how a season that never started, ended. Together.