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Friday, May 14, 2021

True viking spirit: women’s rowing perseveres

Despite a team half its usual size, Western jumps back in

Viking Women's Rowing
Viking Women’s Rowing race on Lake Samish at the 2021 Viking Regatta on April 17, 2021. The Vikings had not hosted a regatta since 2016. // Photo courtesy of WWU athletics

By Rowan Forsythe 

In any other rowing season, the loss of an athlete due to injury might upset the carefully tuned balance of a boat. This spring, losing a teammate threatens to sink the entire Western Washington University women’s rowing team. 

“Rowing itself is, people say, like the ultimate team sport,” said Carly Lant, veteran fifth-year rower and co-captain. “Obviously, you can’t just row an eight by yourself.” 

When the team came up short after three athletes opted out at the end of winter quarter, two freshmen stepped up to fill the gap. 

“They had great rowing experience and they’ve been real troopers,” said John Fuchs who is in his 23rd year as head coach for the Vikings. “That’s kept us afloat basically.”

Now more than ever, each rower who has elected to participate depends on one another to stay fit, healthy and prepared to race. An absent rower would mean insufficient numbers to crew the four or eight person rowing shell. 

Worried about losing even one rower to injury, Fuchs said the training strategy had to change.

“It’s been like having a basketball team with six players,” Fuchs said. “We can’t push to nearly 100% of capacity, because we risk, you know, losing a couple people.”

After COVID-19 cut the fall season short, the Vikings started off this year’s training on land and out of the weight room to keep the team healthy. The shorter pre-season preparation and lack of on-water practice meant that injury became a very real risk.

“I feel like the volume of work we’re doing is not much more, it’s probably the same as any other spring season,” said Maddie Bangasser, fourth-year rower and co-captain. “I think it was the lack of preparation that we had … primarily time on the water and time in the weight room.”

Lant noted that despite her usual injury-resistant nature, she had been to the trainer far more than usual this season. 

Lacking sufficient bodies for more than one full boat of each size has also removed a key motivator. Lant explained that “seat racing,” the usual competition to earn or maintain a spot in the eight-woman varsity rowing shell, has been entirely absent this season. 

“People are just like, they’re there to do work because they are happy they have the opportunity,” Bangasser said. “We have to work a little harder to remind ourselves that there’s a standard out there that we should be striving for.” 

With motivation from inter-team competition absent, pressure to make the best of a challenging situation has provided some of the much needed motivational fire.

“Our team has literally been slashed in half,” Lant said. “[Other teams] have been on the water in the fall … overcoming that chip on our shoulder has been a little bit difficult.”

Competitors like Seattle Pacific University and Central Oklahoma have far deeper reserves —  multiple eight-seat rowing shells worth. For the Vikings, it’s been an exercise in working with what they have. 

“To stick around … that wasn’t really a question for me,” Lant said. “But usually the role of the captain is to like, motivate, encourage, set an example, be a liaison. This year, it [is] very much just checking in with people … how everyone is doing, emotionally, physically.” 

The supportive and understanding culture has grown among the remaining members of Western’s skeleton crew. 

“Our team is very supportive of the whole situation — everybody understands there is a bigger picture here than just the rowing,” Fuchs said. 

Instead of resenting the situation, Fuchs expressed different hopes and expectations for the remainder of the spring season. 

“We’re about putting out a quality program and we have our priorities — it’s the health and well-being of our students,” Fuchs said. “It’s about the experience more than anything.

Rowan Forsythe is a visual journalism major and junior at Western. Convinced he disliked writing until his sophomore year, Rowan has now covered topics from homelessness to school sports. You can reach him at rforsythe.thefront@gmail.com, and view his photography portfolio at https://rforphoto.net 


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