Andrew Gaard looks more like a mechanical engineer than someone named the top under-23 rower in the country.
But the University of Washington senior is both.
“I’m one of the shorter guys on the (rowing) team,” said Gaard, 6 feet 2 and 200 pounds. “I try to make up for it by making myself as efficient as possible, working with the other people in the boat, and with power and fitness. If you can make a boat go faster, you will be in that boat no matter what size you are.”
Gaard has proved that, and he’s more powerful than he looks, according to UW coach Michael Callahan.
“He can easily put 150-pound dumbbells on each hand and walk around,” Callahan said. “He said his mom grew up on a farm and he’s got a farmer’s strength. His physical stature is a little deceiving as he is an incredibly strong guy. He’s also very determined, has a ton of desire and a no-quit attitude.”
All of that was on display last summer. After helping UW to a second-place finish in the IRA national championships, he led the U.S. eight to a victory at the U-23 World Championships in Poland. He rowed in the crucial stroke position, (No. 8 in the boat), then helped the U.S. eight finish fourth in the World Cup in Switzerland.
In October, Gaard was named USRowing’s inaugural Under 23 Male Athlete of the Year.
“After I won the award, I got a text from (coach) Mike,” Gaard said. “It was, ‘Congratulations.’ The next text was, ‘Now let’s get back to work.’ That sums it up. It’s great publicity for our program, but in rowing you have to earn your seat no matter what your awards are. I have to keep working.”
Gaard has never needed much urging to work hard, on the water or in school.
Gaard is specializing in mechatronics, which he says is “the marriage of electrical engineering, computer science and mechanical engineering – in short, robotics.” He is scheduled to graduate in the spring and recently finished building a sterling engine that runs off a candle, “and it worked the first time,” he said.
“With the demands of mechanical engineering and rowing, I have to strike a balance between the two,” said Gaard, who carries a 3.3 GPA. “I am very diligent with my time and try to be as efficient as I can. One thing I’ve found is that if you have a (rowing) practice that is challenging in the morning, and you weren’t satisfied, I can go up to the classroom and separate myself.”
It was the challenges of both rowing and school that attracted Gaard to Washington.
He grew up in Madison, Wisc., and lived a couple of blocks from Camp Randall Football Stadium on the University of Wisconsin campus. The Badgers recruited him, but he decided to become a Husky after touring UW.
“When I came to the boathouse and I saw the culture of the program, I knew it was a place where student-athletes had to earn both their seats and this exceptional education,” Gaard said. “I knew it would be a place that would be very transformative.”
Gaard wasn’t UW’s biggest recruit – in stature or acclaim – but gradually worked his way up and was in the top boat most of last year, including in the runner-up finish to Yale in the national championships.
That it took three years to reach the top boat was OK with Gaard, who remained determined to get there.
“It’s part of the process, and everyone on the team knows that,” said Gaard, who is adept at several different seats in the boat and gives Callahan flexibility in setting the lineup. “The rowers at the bottom of the program are building the foundation, the guys in the 3V (third-string boat), 4V and 5V. I’ve been in all of the boats. … I was pretty confident if I applied myself, and I helped those around me to move up as well, that I would (move up).”
Gaard is more than just a star, he is a team leader. He wants to be a mentor to the younger rowers. He said he was introverted when he came to Washington (“Engineers are generally pretty quiet.”) but has become more vocal.
“Rowing is more than just trying to make boats go at world-record speed and winning the (national championship), it’s about developing as a person,” Gaard said. “I try to make the younger rowers think of the bigger picture. For me, I’ve focused on how it has transformed me into a leader and I want to give that back to the program.”
A mentor for Gaard was Blake Nordstrom, the local businessman and former UW rower, who died earlier this year from cancer. Nordstrom endowed Gaard’s scholarship that was under the name of Willard Wakeman, Nordstrom’s grandfather and a Husky rower in the 1920s.
Nordstrom and his family had Gaard join them for Thanksgiving, and the two would often meet.
“He helped me understand the bigger picture and why Washington rowing is powerful for so many people,” Gaard said. “He told me that how you lead your life, in the classroom, on the water, and post-graduation, are all intertwined. It you excel in one, you can excel in the rest.”
Gaard’s ultimate rowing goal is to compete in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and Callahan said national coach Mike Teti can’t wait for Gaard to graduate so he can begin training with the national team. But Gaard’s immediate focus is on winning the national title.
No one on the team was satisfied with second-place finishes the past two years, and the Huskies have not won since winning a record five straight titles from 2011-15.
“That is what is driving us this year,” Gaard said of finishing his UW career with a title.
Whatever happens, Gaard is happy to have contributed to the rowing culture that attracted him.
“You don’t own the program,” he said. “You are just borrowing the shells and trying to contribute to the legacy of Washington rowing.”