The Husky women have risen to No. 1 in Yazmin Farooq’s first season as coach.
Outside of national-championship regattas, collegiate rowing will not likely stage a more meaningful showdown this season than the one scheduled for Saturday at 9 a.m. on Montlake Cut.
History. Prestige. Honor. Probably some smack talk, too. It all blends into the flow of the tradition-heavy Washington vs. California dual, the Ohio State-Michigan of rowing, now in its 106th year on the men’s side.
Beneath its aristocratic veneer, the event hums with competitive intensity, and this year’s gathering gets an added jolt of historical significance: For the first time since women’s racing was added in 1977, the dual features the nation’s No. 1- and No. 2-ranked teams in the men’s and women’s polls.
Washington’s website is prodding football fans planning to attend the Huskies spring football game at noon to come early, jam the banks of the Cut and make a ruckus. Yasmin Farooq, first-year coach of UW’s No. 1-rated women’s team, predicts the talent level and amped vibe of this eight-race card will be worth witnessing.
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“A lot of races could come down to the final 500 meters,” said Farooq, who coached Stanford’s women for 10 years and won an NCAA title (2009) before being hired at UW in June. “Some will even come down to the final strokes. Anyone who has ever thought about coming down to see racing, this is the year to do it.”
The year is off to an impressive start for Farooq and the UW women. After finishing fifth in June’s NCAA championships (won by Cal), the Huskies opened the season in early April by sweeping then-No. 2 Ohio State, No. 3 Michigan and No. 7 Virginia (four races each) at the Pac-12 Challenge at Redwood Shores, Calif. The wins, plus a few losses at the same event by a couple of Cal’s secondary boats, vaulted UW to No. 1.
What has sparked UW’s swift ascent? “The team I inherited was very motivated,” Farooq said. “I feel fortunate that they’ve been so trusting, because we’ve asked them to do a lot of things very differently than what they did before.”
“There are a lot of ways to go fast, but they’ve certainly put in more mileage than ever before,” she said. “They used to do more intensity. Now they do more volume.”
Farooq trains her rowers twice a day, arranging flexible schedules for athletes and benefiting from having an on-campus shellhouse. At Stanford, her rowers commuted 20 minutes one way to their training site.
“One of the biggest things for our rowers was the time commitment,” she said. “Everybody knew they were in for two workouts per day. The practices are super-efficient, but the amount of time they spend on the water is greater than before. But I think they saw how quickly they were improving, and they embraced it.
“They’re an extremely fit team,” Farooq said, “and this is hard to describe, but they also just have great enthusiasm. One day this week we were rowing in some crazy weather — sudden rain, a rainbow, sideways rain, glassy water, a little bit of everything — and people were smiling and just enjoying being out there.
“It was symbolic of the work that we’ve put in, the journey that it takes to get there. I think they’re enjoying being great teammates and pushing one another to be better, and stronger, and faster. There’s confidence in the work they’ve done not only individually, but in one another. That makes for a fun team to coach.”
Did Farooq expect to have such success so soon? “No,” she said with a small laugh. “I would say we’re halfway through the journey, and there’s a long way to go. We’re taking each opportunity and learning from it. It’s not like everything has been perfect, but we’re all committed to the same goals, and by keeping the communication clear and honest each step of the way, we’re making progress.”
The Cal dual presents a major measuring stick for her team. “I never think too hard about the rankings,” Farooq said, “but I do think that this race is an important one for us to be able to test ourselves and see how fast we can go.”
• The No. 2-ranked UW men, mindful that last June Cal snapped Washington’s unprecedented streak of five straight national Intercollegiate Rowing Association titles, are also eager to see how they stack up against the top-ranked Bears.
“Cal’s blade placement on the drive is perfect, and they’re never down off the start,” UW men’s coach Michael Callahan said. “They’ve made us improve. Our body of work this year has better prepared to handle this challenge. Our guys are more willing to work for each other. We’ve developed more tools.”