When most students are sound asleep in the early hours of the morning, Lake Whatcom’s stillness is broken by the sound of the Western men’s crew team. Despite the cold, wind and rain, the rowers’ focus is on forming a deeper connection with each other, the boat and speeding to victory.
Rowers must have finesse, strength and incredible endurance, all while remaining in perfect sync with those they share the boat with. The level of unity that rowers must reach transcends the burning of muscles and the temporal pain, but is an extremely important focus point for the team.
“If you look at the blood composition of a rower after he’s rowed a 2k, it has roughly seven times the lactic acid than that of someone who’s just ran a marathon,” assistant coach Carl Smith said.
In order to prepare themselves to overcome that pain in a race, the training schedule is long and arduous, starting with building muscle mass and then tapering off throughout the year.
As important as it is to be in top shape, rowing can be just as taxing mentally for athletes.
“At the same time you’re building up the endurance and strength, you have to also build up the mental factor,” Smith said. “It’s important for guys to know what it’s like to be at that physical limit and take it one more stroke.”
The men’s crew team doesn’t have an off-season during the school year. Training and regattas, which are a series of boat races, are separated into two seasons, fall and spring, which surround winter training.
“We wake up at around 4 a.m. every morning, and if it’s nice out, we get out on the water,” senior coxswain Genevieve Carrillo said. “If it’s bad out, we run Alabama Hill, or work out under the Ridgeway Commons.”
Fall season, which begins in early September and finishes around the second week of November, is seen more as an introduction for new novices, which are first year rowers on the team, and a way for veterans to get back into the swing of the oar. The amount of practice days and duration grow as the months continue. Once the spring season begins around the beginning of January, the team is practicing six or seven times a week.
“At the same time you’re building up the endurance and strength, you have to also build up the mental factor.”
Assistant coach Carl Smith
While strength training and technical analysis are necessary for a boat to be successful, unit cohesion takes a commanding role.
“Beyond being able to physically sustain training together in a boat, emotionally the guys have to be able to get along,” Carrillo said. “The better the boat gets along, the better it will row.”
Many other teams that Western competes against, including schools such as University of Washington and Oregon State University, have larger teams and substantially more funding for higher quality boats, more team events, and exclusive benefits of being on the team.Western receives most of its funding from alumni programs, fundraising, and grants from the school, but the team itself must make up for the immense monetary gap.
On top of spending hours together training, team members help one another with homework and try to help newcomers feel at home.
“We really strive to be a cohesive unit,” Carrillo said. “I think that is what helps people stay on the team.”
Achieving that level of cohesion takes time, but the team has reached a unique level of familyhood. Boat seats are decided on training and fitness scores, but also on dedication and relationships with the other rowers in the boat. Coxswains, who steer the boat and instruct from the front or back of the boat, must know what will make each rower achieve the highest and most powerful stroke rate.
“I have to be both a yoga instructor and a drill sergeant,” Carrillo said. “You want to make sure they’re calm, but you also want to light that fire right under them.”
Another advantage that larger schools have is the ability to recruit. Technically, the men’s crew team has the ability to recruit novices, but it hardly happens.
The most recruiting they do is through other people’s friends, Carrillo said.
“One to two guys a year have experience before coming onto the team, and last year only two guys in our [varsity eight-man] boat had rowing experience outside of college,” Carrillo said.
Once racing season has arrived, the team competes in seat racing in order to land a spot in either an eight or four-person boat. The most common races are done by the eight-seaters, often referred to as the varsity eight, or V8. While V8 competitions are prestigious, the team alters its focus between the V8s and V4s, depending on the season and how the team feels, Smith said.
“I have to be both a yoga instructor and a drill sergeant. You want to make sure they’re calm, but you also want to light that fire right under them.”
Senior coxswain Genevieve Carrillo
While the lack of funding compared to other universities could be seen as a disadvantage, the team has made up for it with their sense of brotherhood and dedication to one another. Coaches are not paid, but every morning they can be seen alongside the rowers, shouting advice.
“The best part of being a coach is seeing everything click,” novice and assistant coach Roderick Van der Linden said. “There is tangible evidence of this improvement and it’s felt by everyone. It creates a whirlwind of excitement that justifies and validates all of your work.”
The hard work and dedication has paid off. The men’s crew team have taken home multiple medals and awards, including sweeping the entire competition at the Cascade Cup Regatta in April 2015. Over the years, the team has been successful competing in the Northwest Collegiate Rowing Conference, Western Intercollegiate Rowing Association and American Collegiate Rowing Association.
The team has high hopes for the upcoming spring events and continues to dedicate themselves to their strength and skill, but also to each other.