Western women’s crew has won eight national titles since 2005, including 7 straight from 2005-2011
By Jordan Stone
For a rower, there is no feeling like when you are out on the water before the sunrise and you and your team are moving in unison.
Just take it from a guy who knows a lot about fast boats — John Fuchs.
“Oh, it’s crazy,” Fuchs said. “You’re sitting less than a foot above the water and going the same as if you’re running like a five or four-minute mile. You’re going pretty fast. You can hear the water going under the boat, like bubbles of air.”
Fuchs has come to know that feeling well as the head coach of Western Washington University women’s rowing team. He has coached eight teams to Division II national titles during his 23 years as Western’s head coach, including seven consecutive from 2005-11.
“It was really kind of crazy how year after year, it just kept going,” Fuchs said. “After the first four, we thought, ‘Okay, that’s it.’ But then this great group of freshmen came in 2009. And next thing you know, we’re back on the train.”
Western’s entire athletic department has won 11 national titles, including 10 in Division II. The rowing team has accounted for eight of those titles.
Lindsay Mann-King, who was a part of seven of those championship teams — three as a rower and four as an assistant coach — said there were a couple of major keys that drove their success.
“One would be that I felt that John Fuchs really coached us. He was a coach that treated us like adults and with independence,” Mann-King said. “And what I mean by that is he would coach us, he would give us goals, he would challenge us and he would step back and let us work through it.”
Courtney Moeller, who was part of the first title-winning team in 2005, as well as a coach on the 2017 title team, agreed with Mann-King’s assessment.
“I think one thing that John does really well, is really instill a sense of balance in the lives of the athletes and that it’s not about rowing all the time,” Moeller said. “Between these certain hours I was giving my all to the team; into the practice, into the race and what we were doing. But beyond that, being able to still have a life outside of practice. It made me feel energized and excited to come and get to work.”
The other key to Western’s success is their recruiting — or lack thereof. All of Western’s rowers are walk-ons, and most are even brand new to the sport. That may seem to be a disadvantage, but both Moeller and Mann-King saw this as one of their biggest strengths.
“We don’t recruit off campus at all. I think that is something really special,” Moeller said. “Everyone on the team is starting from the same place. And so that really creates an environment where everyone is invested equally.”
Both Moeller and Mann-King were new to the sport when they joined the rowing team at Western.
While rowing can be a grueling sport, Fuchs’ sense of humor helped lessen the burden on the coaches and players.
“I think someone that hasn’t met him might not realize how funny he is,” Moeller said. “I feel like you kind of have to be when you’re getting out of bed at 4 o’clock in the morning.”
Fuchs’ rowers said there is one other trait that is invaluable.
“I think that he’s humble and maybe doesn’t give himself as much credit as he deserves for the success that the program has had over all the years,” Moeller said.
For all the success that Western had, it was not without its challenges.
Fuchs said it was fighting the expectations of continued dominance hovering over the team.
“I think it was fighting off perception, and it was coming from everywhere. Even within our own department,” Fuchs said. “I think that was the hardest part, trying to keep that away from the squad. Even though they knew it, as a coach, you’re trying to build this wall around the team and protect them.”
Fuchs has been beating the sun out of bed long before he took over as head coach of the rowing program in 1999. Fuchs fell in love with the sport when he was a member of Western’s rowing team from 1985-88, when he was a student.
“I think it was after midway through the fall quarter when we were learning how to row the boats,” Fuchs said. “The varsity eight decided to do a flyby. So, we were kind of doing our thing and they came really close to us going in the other direction, and they just looked awesome. And our coach at the time … he goes, ‘Six months, you’ll be doing that.’ And that’s when I was like, ‘I’m in. I want to be doing that. I want to be flying fast.’”
Back when Fuchs was rowing at Western for the men’s team — which was dropped after the 2005 season — the women’s program looked a lot different, according to Paulette Bergh. Bergh was the head coach for Western’s women from 1989-93. She now is the head of the Whatcom Rowing Association.
“It was a totally different situation back then in that those were the years when there werewas no divisions, so we were rowing against all schools of all sizes,” Bergh said.
There were other challenges besides rowing against some of the biggest schools in the country, however. The budget and perception of the team was nothing like it is now.
“I’ve really seen it evolve during my tenure at Western,” Bergh said. “Title IX coming along, we started making the women’s programs varsity sports, so women had more varsity opportunities. For women in particular, it’s really grown due to that, really. Obviously, we’re not still fighting those battles, getting the left-over equipment, rowing stuff that’s too big for you.”
Western has come a long way since then. Instead of fighting battles to get equipment, they are fighting battles with their equipment in the water, like they were when they recaptured the Division II national title in 2017.
“That was a great feeling,” Fuchs said. “It was almost like redemption. Like the seven years we did win wasn’t a fluke.”
Fuchs, who is in his 23rd year as head coach, has no plans to leave Western, although opportunities have come up.
“There were several instances when I was thinking of leaving,” he said. “Even if I’m not winning, or not making as much money, I would rather be here in Bellingham.”
Fuchs has not gotten in a boat to row in 30 years. He prefers golf these days.
While he does not get to experience that feeling of flying across the water with his teammates, he gets to live it through his rowers.
“The one thing I absolutely enjoy is being in the coach boat when they’re rowing and just watching it,” Fuchs said.
Fuch’s said there is no feeling like a fast moving boat.
“You put the blade in the water, you push the boat and you can see your puddles kind of disappear in front of you. They go by and you realize, ‘We’re really moving.’”