The Huskies open another season of high expectations as the women are coming off a historic sweep and the men are looking to win the title they narrowly missed out on last year.
Tennyson Federspiel, streaks of purple face paint stretching from brow to cheek as part of the Braveheart theme he and his fellow juniors adopted for Saturday’s 117th annual Class Day Regatta, explained the mindset that guides Washington rowing.
“To be the tip of the spear,” Federspiel, a Bellevue graduate, said. “Everyone from the bottom boat to the top boat, pushing and working toward the fastest boat, trying to make everyone faster.”
Virtually no one was faster than Washington in 2017. The UW women swept every heat, final and grand final at the NCAA championships, the first school in the 21-year history of women’s national to take first in the finals of all three events — varsity eight, second varsity and varsity four. It gave UW its first women’s NCAA title since 2001 and made first-year coach Yasmin Farooq the national coach of the year.
At the men’s Intercollegiate Rowing Association championship, UW boats placed first in every event until the winner-take-all varsity eight grand final, where the top-ranked Huskies, winners of five straight IRA titles from 2011 to 2015, lost a heartbreaking photo finish to Yale by 0.069 second.
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The push to be the tip of this year’s spear officially began three weeks ago when both teams picked up wins at the Las Vegas Invitational (men defeating Dartmouth in V8 and 2V8; women topping USC in three races), but the Class Day Regatta is the traditional kickoff for rowing season — one where UW seeks to reconfirm its prominence in the sport.
In cool, overcast conditions with a mild chop and a modest crosswind on Montlake Cut, Federspiel and his junior teammates (including Evan Olson of Bothell and Elijah Maesner of Eastlake) won the men’s George M. Varnell trophy in 5 minutes 56.546 seconds, nearly five seconds ahead of the sophomores.
In The Seattle Times Women’s Eight, the seniors, including new team captain Karle Pittsinger from Lake Chelan, defended the title they won a year ago as juniors by bolting to the lead at the start and zooming to an almost seven-second win over the juniors in 6:40.641.
On the men’s side, where Washington won seven national titles in a nine-year span (2007-15), UW has six members of last year’s varsity eight returning, including 2017 captain Arne Landboe of Shorewood. Yet the challenge of being No. 1 is only growing tougher as the sport’s competitive parity expands. Yale, a perennial also-ran, last year claimed its first national title in 165 years.
“We have six returning seats,” said men’s coach Michael Callahan, entering his 11th season. “That’s pretty good. The thing is, a lot of our competition is also returning six, seven and eight, so it’s going to be a very competitive season for men’s rowing. The depth of student-athlete talent in rowing right now is the highest it’s ever been.
“Everyone has learned from each other,” he said. “The whole sport, it’s quite impressive now. I think at one point we might have had an edge, but people have gone to where we were, and now we have to answer.”
Callahan says his program is up for the challenge, and the battle for a spot in UW’s varsity eight is fierce.
“There’s about 16 people who can make it, and all at some point have shown they can be in the boat,” he said. “It’s a matter of finding the right combination of people. This is a very driven group.”
Farooq, who also won a national title in 2009 while coaching Stanford, understands expectations will be high for the women’s program with just five graduations from her top three boats (none in the varsity eight).
“What got us there last year was just focusing on how to get better with each practice, each day and each week,” she said.
“All of these women who have come back, the improvements that they made last year, they’ve all stepped it up yet again. The results that we’ve seen on the ERG, in the weight room and on the water, everyone is improving.
“They’re making it hard on one another for seats in boats because they’re doing such a good job of raising the level of the team.”
• Farooq might have found her own Greek Freak in freshman Sofia Asoumanaki of Greece.
“She set the world record on the rowing machine for juniors when I think she was 17,” Farooq said. “She went 6:28. There are probably five women in the world who go sub-6:30, and she’s one of them.”
Fourth in sculling (oars in both hands) at the Rio Olympics, the 6-foot-3 Asoumanaki “has a presence,” Farooq said. Her nickname: Blue Thunder (blue being Greece’s national color).
Because the Greek national training center is hours from where she wanted to attend college, Asoumanaki selected UW for its mix of high academic and rowing standards. “We’re so thrilled to have her here,” Farooq said.