UW women’s crew coach Yaz Farooq can laugh about it now, but getting her team back on the water for training this fall in hopes of a season this spring had its ups and its downs.
That’s because to keep socially distant, her team took to the water in single boats, with team members using two oars — instead of the one oar they would normally use in bigger boats with teammates in them.
Let’s just say there was a pretty steep learning curve at the start.
“It’s a totally different world,” said Farooq, whose team is the defending national champion after its title in 2019. “The first thing you have to do is try not to flip. There was someone in the water every day, so we had to have as many rescue boats out there as possible. We trained every coxswain, not only how to drive a motorboat, but how to do water rescue.”
Soon, the rescue boats weren’t getting much action as the UW rowers figured out how to handle the new boats.
“They got so good at running those workouts that we would shove them off the docks and they would run the whole workout, rowing out toward the locks, and they could all get home and get side by side,” said Farooq, who has won two national titles in her three full seasons at UW. “I remember thinking at the time how it was yet another level of teamwork and communication. Because of the bond that was forged from the hardships we had to overcome, in some ways the team is stronger than ever.”
Farooq and UW men’s coach Michael Callahan are grateful that their teams were able to return to UW in the fall to train after having their season last year cut short by COVID-19. The teams will resume training in January, and the coaches are optimistic their teams will compete this spring.
The schedule has not been set, but the training in the fall should put the Huskies in a good spot. It was also an emotional boost for rowers and coaches to return to training.
“One of the best days of the summer was when (athletic director) Jen (Cohen) said we could bring everybody back to practice,” said Callahan, who has coached UW to six national titles in 12 seasons as head coach. “That was an incredibly uplifting moment, and it’s brought a ton of joy to our student-athletes in the fall quarter.”
With just 12 singles boats, the women went out in four shifts.
“We had coaches on the water all day long,” Farooq said. “We just cycled everybody through the boats.”
The women also did training on the erg machines, which were set up on the concourse of Husky Stadium, and at 10 feet apart so the rowers would not have to wear masks. It was cold and windy, but Farooq greeted her rowers with the same phrase every day.
“I would say, ‘Welcome to the greatest setting,’ ” Farooq said.
The men started training in singles, then started some work in pairs and late in fall got some work in fours, the stipulation being that you had to live with the people you were sharing a boat with.
Callahan, whose team has been runner-up in the national championship the past three times it was held, said he had a different philosophy this fall.
“This fall was an opportunity to do more fundamental and personal skill-development work in a lot of ways, from leadership to your individual skills in a boat and individual fitness,” said Callahan, whose team also worked on ergs and did some running at Husky Stadium. “We had a different focus than we normally would in an autumn quarter. I think winter, we will get more into who will sit in what boat.”
Callahan was happy that 49 of his rowers returned, more than he had anticipated. Farooq said four of the six seniors from last year’s team elected to return.
Perhaps a more impressive number is zero, as in the number of COVID-19 issues the team has had.
With nine people in a boat in the eights (including the coxswain), there is little distancing among those teammates. But teams do not have to get close together in competitions.
“I think an advantage for our sport is that if your team can get to a venue clean, you never have to interact with another team,” Farooq said. “And when you race, you are 12 feet away from the closest boat on an open-air racecourse. The key is to keep your team from getting COVID.”
Winning national titles is always the goal for the UW crews, but the events of the past year have changed their perspectives.
“Last year, we preached being in the present more, and not just thinking about the last race of the season all the time, but to be present and enjoy the training, enjoy the process of getting better,” Callahan said. “We say that a lot, but it’s hard to totally embody. I think now they are. It’s like a whole new lease on life.”
Said Farooq: “I feel like the fall that we got to spend together was a reminder that it’s the time we get to spend together, day in and day out as a family, that is the most valuable part of all of it.”