After winning the national championship Sunday — and making history in the process — the only thing they feel is joy.
You have to be a little different to be a rower. You have to learn to make pain your friend.
Maybe that explains one of the Washington women’s rowing team’s mottos this year: Embrace the suck.
The Huskies decided eight months ago that the worse they suffer, the better. They even started rooting for inclement weather during practice — screaming wildly when hit by frosty wind gusts or torrential rain.
It was a survival technique, really. Sometimes tricking one’s mind is the only way to make such torment possible.
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But right now, the Huskies don’t have to play any mental games to perk themselves up. After winning the national championship Sunday — and making history in the process — the only thing they feel is joy.
“It’s the greatest feeling in the world,” said Brooke Pierson, the 6-seat of UW’s varsity-eight boat. “It makes everything worth it.”
Perhaps it’s fitting these Huskies enjoy rough waters, because for a while, the metaphorical seas were choppy, too. In November 2015, legendary coach Bob Ernst was fired as women’s coach after a 42-year tenure with UW crew.
The ouster was controversial, as many felt he was treated unfairly. But even on his way out, Ernst was sure of one thing: Yaz should be the one to replace him.
Yaz, in this case, is former Olympic coxswain Yasmin Farooq. And in addition to competing in the Barcelona and Atlanta Games, Farooq coached the Stanford women’s rowing team to a national title in 2009.
She was a whale of a job candidate, and in June of last year — seven months after Connor Bullis took over as interim coach — UW athletic director Jennifer Cohen hired her. Farooq didn’t waste a millisecond.
The first major change she made dealt with how her rowers trained. She instituted a “higher volume” practice program, which meant her athletes spent more time rowing than they did under Ernst, but at a slower pace.
The philosophy was that this approach was more effective in building a capillary network, which, in turn, got oxygen to the muscles more efficiently. There’s a more condensed way to describe it, though. Hell.
“It’s just so much time, and you’re doing the same motion,” said Maggie Phillips, team captain and 7-seat of the second varsity eight. “But it greatly sharpened our mental focus.”
Of course, in addition to that mental focus, the Huskies had physical prowess. Before leaving, Ernst laid the foundation for what might be the most talented roster in UW women’s crew history.
This team isn’t just rowers, either — it’s former cross-country, nordic skiing and equestrian stars, too. And as a unit, they comprised one of the more dominant forces Husky crew, no … Husky athletics has ever produced.
After winning the Pac-12 championship two weeks earlier, Washington entered the NCAA national championships as the No. 1 overall seed. And though the Huskies were favored to win their first national title since 2001, some felt there might be an even more prestigious prize.
No team had ever swept the three grand events — the varsity eight, the second varsity eight and the varsity four — in the regatta’s 21-year history. So the day before the finals at Mercer Lake in New Jersey, people started talking.
“Kevin Sauer, the head coach at UVA (Virginia) — legend, super nice guy, came up to me Saturday and made a comment about making history,” said Farooq, laughing while telling the story. “And I said, ‘I am not going to talk to you.’ ”
But Sauer just saw what everyone saw. After tinkering with lineups all season long — experimenting with different people in different boats — Farooq had created a true triple-crown threat. And then the threat became reality.
First, Washington’s varsity four beat California by four seconds, traversing the 2,000 meters in a time of 7:07.103. Then, the second-varsity eight beat Cal by six seconds, finishing with a time of 6:47.268. And finally, the Huskies’ varsity eight nudged Stanford by 1.5 seconds, posting a time of 6:36.939 in the process.
History was made, and the Huskies went crazy. Hugs were exchanged, screams were exhaled — euphoria ran amok. Farooq became the first coach to win a national title at two different schools, and she was flooded with congratulatory remarks.
Including one from Ernst — who has been sending Yaz his praise all year.
Ernst may not have left Washington on his terms, but that doesn’t mean he stopped paying attention. When he reassumed his duties as head coach of the women’s team in 2007, he envisioned nothing less than a national championship. So though he won’t officially get the credit, he was a winner on Sunday, too.
“As far as I’m concerned mission accomplished,” Ernst said in regard to winning the national title. “I couldn’t be happier for Yaz. What a bunch of great kids. It’s all about the kids anyway.”