Imagine competing in a collegiate sport that you had never tried before — and at one of the best programs in the country.
Sounds unfathomable, right?
Not when it comes to the Washington women’s rowing team, which has won two of the past three national titles. Year after year, the Huskies bring on athletes who have never rowed as walk-ons.
In time, many become key contributors, competing with teammates who had been among the most recruited high school rowers in the world. Several of these walk-ons have become stars. Some have become Olympians.
The tradition of new walk-ons each year was threatened for a time by COVID-19 — but it lives on, with a new group picked sight unseen for the first time. But the expectations haven’t changed.
“Every year there are walk-ons who make a significant contribution,” said UW coach Yaz Farooq, noting that senior Lark Skov, a former walk-on, is part of the team’s No. 1 boat that will compete May 16 in the Pac-12 championships.
Finding talented walk-ons is like a treasure hunt. Each spring, surveys are sent to every incoming woman freshman at UW, gauging their interest in rowing and inquiring about their athletic background.
In most years, about 70 or 80 people participate in a couple weeks of fall tryouts, with the top prospects making the team.
But because of COVID-19, there was not enough athletic training staff to handle the workload that comes with tryouts. Surveys were sent last spring even though it was uncertain if any walk-ons would be allowed.
Eventually, the program was told it could have 10 walk-ons, but they would be chosen solely from their surveys, and could not start rowing until November, a couple of months after the rest of the team.
Assistant coaches Allie Lohrenz and Sam Casto were tasked with going through more than 300 surveys. It was no simple job, and it came with the responsibility of knowing that hopes would be dashed for all but the lucky few.
Finally, the list was finished. The new rowers came from Seattle to Wisconsin to Texas. From Vashon Island and the Aleutian Islands.
None had rowed before, but all have dreams of being the next great Washington walk-on.
“We know the value of walk-ons,” Farooq said. “There has been a Washington walk-on in every Olympics since women’s rowing started at the collegiate level.”
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‘We pored over that list’
When approval was given in November to add 10 walk-ons to the roster, the team was ready to move. That’s because Lohrenz and Casto had already spent weeks going over the surveys and knew who they wanted.
“We pored over that list, time and time again, going through it several times a day for several weeks,” Lohrenz said.
Lohrenz and Casto looked at size and athletic experience, but other aspects were just as important.
“Why did they want to be here?” Lohrenz said. “What is important to you? We wanted to pick people who we thought were going to really love rowing. … If they held a team captain or held a leadership role on their high school teams – that is something we looked for too, because that often translates well into our team environment.”
Once the list was pared, “we maintained as much communication as we could to keep them interested,” Lohrenz said.
It worked. Nine of the 10 are still with the team. And if early impressions are an indication, several might do very well.
Wen Eckelberg was part of a fourth UW eight boat that beat the top boats from Seattle Pacific and Seattle U in a scrimmage last month. Savanna Tucker, Maya Fynn and Ellie Bertram were part of a novice four boat that won in the same scrimmage.
In last week’s Windermere Cup, Tucker, Flynn, Eckelberg, Bridget Savage and Olivia Craig were part of UW’s second novice eight boat.
“We ended up with a lot of athletes with varied backgrounds,” Lohrenz said. “We got a good, eclectic mix of people from different sports. They all have different strengths and experiences to offer, which is cool to see.”
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The nine walk-ons have unique stories.
Maya Flynn came to Washington from Pewaukee, Wisconsin, because she likes Seattle, has an aunt and uncle who went to UW and wants to get into the Foster School of Business.
“But when I got here, I heard about the rowing team and I realized how good they were,” she said. “Thankfully, they picked me.”
Flynn played soccer and basketball in high school, but the closest she had come to rowing was getting on a paddleboard.
“I really wanted to try it out and the opportunity to join such an elite team is something I’m never going to pass up, and it seemed like it would be fun and a crazy experience.”
When Flynn told her parents she was joining the crew team, her parents said, “of course you are.”
Wen Eckelberg played tennis, basketball and volleyball at Cleveland High School in Seattle. She would have played all three sports for four seasons – a goal she had set – until her senior tennis season was canceled because of the coronavirus.
Eckelberg heard as junior in high school about the opportunity for athletes to become walk-ons for UW crew. She planned to attend a camp, but had to miss it. When she got the questionnaire, “I saw the opportunity was still there,” she said.
“I wanted to walk on for any team that was looking for walk-ons, because I take a lot of pride in representing my community and my school, which is partly why I wanted to be a three-sport athlete in high school instead of specializing,” said Eckelberg, who applied only to UW, the school both of her parents attended. “I knew I wanted to go to UW and if there was any opportunity to represent the school, I wanted to do that.”
Bridget Savage is from Unalaska in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. She competed in basketball and volleyball in high school and likes lifting weights. As a competitor in the Native Youth Olympics, her main event is the Eskimo stick pull, and she finished third in the virtual seal hop last year.
“It is the hardest event in the Native Youth Olympics just because you are on your knuckles and you’re in a plank position and hopping (up and) down,” Savage said.
Savage said the Eskimo stick pull is “pretty much a game of tug of war,” and is the event that helped her decide to get into rowing.
“You’re in the same position as in rowing and whoever ends up with the stick, continues on,” Savage said.
Savage decided after her junior year of high school she wanted to come to Washington without knowing about the rowing program.
“My mom brought up rowing and she thought it would be a good idea because of the skills I had from Native Youth Olympics,” said Savage, who is also an accomplished painter, photographer and competed in high school debate.
She was surprised to get the survey from UW rowing, “but I was really excited to fill it out because they had questions related to weightlifting.”
Savage said working on the rowing machines (ergs) came naturally.
“I was erging before I knew about rowing,” she said, referring to the similar motion used in the Eskimo stick pull.
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The nine new rowers joined the team the week before Thanksgiving, and were taught how to use the ergs. They got their first taste of real practices at the start of winter quarter in early January.
When they finally got on the water, they trained in singles — boats designed for a single person — due to COVID-19 restrictions, just as the rest of the team had done when fall practices started.
Rowing in singles proved tough, even for veteran rowers, with many flipping in the water. For inexperienced rowers, it was even harder.
“That was definitely an experience,” Flynn said of her first time in a single. “A couple of the walk-ons took a swim. I did not tip (over), and was very thankful for that. But it was definitely scary. We all thought we were going to fall in every second.”
Eckelberg did take a swim.
“I was the first person to get off the dock and I flipped immediately,” she said. “It was all in slow motion. Everyone was watching, I knew it was coming, the coach knew it was coming. It was in slow motion and there was nothing I could do about it because I didn’t understand how the boat worked at that point.”
Eckelberg started to feel more comfortable after a week.
“But I had to get over the worry of flipping,” she said.
Savage never flipped, but it took her time to get comfortable being in the boat. She said being in the middle of the lake was pretty scary.
But not for long, and Farooq said all of the new rowers made quick progress. They no longer train in singles, but the coach said the experience in those boats was very beneficial.
“I think in a lot of ways they actually came along faster (than past walk-on freshmen) because they had to learn how to balance a boat and move a boat and not flip a boat — all by themselves,” she said. “By having to do that, they really learned what makes the boat move because it’s just you and the boat. So they came along really fast. It is unbelievable how quickly they came along.”
Note: Grace Vander Griend from Bellingham is also new to rowing, but she was a recruited walk-on who started training two months before the other freshman walk-ons new to the sport.
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The freshmen walk-ons have developed a great camaraderie. “We stick together,” Savage said.
“There is a lot less pressure to be amazing in one day or be amazing overnight because we are all trying to learn together and we all want each other to get better,” Eckelberg said. “It’s nice when you see your teammates progressing, because it’s inspiring. It motivates yourself to work harder.”
Flynn said seeing previous walk-ons have so much success is inspiring. She, along with Eckelberg and Savage, are planning on competing throughout college, and all think they can become pretty good or better.
Some walk-ons become great. Farooq counts on it.
“Right now in the (U.S.) Olympic training group we have Megan Kalmoe, a true walk-on, Jess Thoennes, a true walk-on and Brooke Mooney, who I think rowed for a quarter in high school but was really a cross-country skier,” Farooq said, referring to three former UW walk-ons. “Walk-ons are the roots of our program.”