Toiling in obscurity: The story of the men's rowing team

By Steven Braid, Sports Writer
Published February 23, 2011

Tonight is different.

There’s an unmistakable aroma of sweat that fills the immense room. Students constantly bustle in and out, emotionless. A buzz permeates the crowded gym as nervous students pace back and forth. Some stretch while others warm up; a fair amount have isolated themselves mentally with headphones blasting music of their choice.

Many prepare themselves as best as they can for what they are about to experience. There’s an unfortunate few that have already experienced it, doubled over and overjoyed to be done.

Three long rows of indoor rowing machines are crammed into what would otherwise be an extremely spacious room. Students wait for their turn by warming up on the indoor rowing machines closest to the door.

On the other side of the room, eight rowing machines remain empty. A coach calls out the names of eight students and immediately a line of athletically built men step forward and occupy the machines. The coach proceeds to give the eight men a pep talk. The eight men become restless as the coach alerts them that they’ll be starting in 30 seconds. They become increasingly edgy.

“Three, two, one.”

As the countdown hits “one,” the eight rowers burst backwards in unison, almost as if controlled by a puppet master.

On a normal winter weeknight, each of these individuals spends roughly two hours completing a lengthy distance determined by their coach. While they exert themselves physically during these offseason workouts, they also pace themselves so as not to tire too early.

On this February winter night, though, they will not worry about fatigue. Tonight, They will not worry about pacing themselves as they complete one of three grueling physiological tests that occur during the second academic term. While they will only complete about 2,000 meters, this might be the most exhausting six to seven minutes of competition during the winter season.

There’s pressure, too. This test will go a long way in influencing the ranking order for the team and will determine who receives the prestigious honor of racing in the top boat.

This is competitive. This is grueling. This is voluntary.

This is the men’s rowing team.

***

The auxiliary room of the Intramural Sports Building — the official indoor practice facility for men’s rowing — is a sight to behold. The cavernous room, with its high ceiling and vast floor, houses roughly 70 indoor rowing machines. The walls, with the exception of a huge maize and blue block ‘M’ right above the doors, are white. On the far wall, multiple “NCAA” banners hang. These, however, belong to the women’s rowing team.

But two long shelves cemented into the wall ensure the success of the men’s rowing team doesn’t go unnoticed.

The shelves are crowded with trophies and plaques that display the team’s success at the national collegiate level. The shelves are so overcrowded with awards that look like one might actually fall off. But if one did fall off, it would fall onto the table underneath, also exhibiting trophies and plaques.

To the left one of the bigger trophies in the room is perched atop a desk. Every year since 1998, two rowers from the University of Michigan have been commemorated on tiny square labels. The trophy features multiple Olympians and countless others who have been invited to row for the United States at the national and international level.

This is expected from the University of Michigan. Even through the lackluster seasons, it is still expected that one of the largest and most prominent universities in the country will possess supremacy in every varsity sport. The men’s rowing team doesn’t disappoint.

Except, this isn’t a varsity team.

“I dare say that we are the most efficiently run athletic operation in the country,” Michigan coach Gregg Hartsuff said. “We squeeze very high results out of very little resources.”

Entering his 19th season as Michigan’s rowing coach, Hartsuff has helped transform the Wolverines, a club varsity team, into a dominant force at the national collegiate level. It’s even more impressive when you consider that he’s done this with very minimal funding from the University.

William Canning, director of recreational sports, said that while the team does receive administrative support through his department, they do not receive much monetarily.

“We have to come up with 180,000 all on our own every year because that’s what our budget is,” Hartsuff said. “Even with that, we’re doing things on the bare minimum. The guys are all shelling out a couple thousand dollars each year.”

Though the team does raise enough for its budget each year, it’s not nearly enough for the team to have the same type and amount of equipment as other competitive universities. Fortunately, the team receives sizable donations from generous alumni rowers, lessening the burden that the team faces of funding the whole budget with monthly dues and fundraising.

Hartsuff is quick to point out that while rowers on other dominant collegiate teams are afforded the opportunity to race for free, his team “will have raked yards, cleaned store windows and done other tasks to raise money in order to compete.”

But, there are some benefits to being a club team.

“Our team would look a lot different if we received varsity funding,” team president LSA senior Jordan Schreuder said. “Part of the reason that we’re allowed to have such large numbers (on our team) is because our system is that you can be here as long as you pay your dues, to a certain extent.”

The veteran coach echoed this assessment, adding that “the athletes literally own the program” because they are raising dues, fundraising and completing all the necessary workouts.

Hartsuff is a allowed a roster of 83 rowers because club teams have no roster limits. Granted, the team only has so much equipment and so many coaches, so students can be a part of the team as long as they pay their dues and perform at a reasonable level. If the team were to gain varsity status, they would be roster-managed by the Athletic Department, which would most likely cut the team’s roster half.

Even still, Hartsuff is deeply frustrated by the lack of support by the University and by the athletic department. He understands that Title IX plays a significant part in restricting his team from becoming a varsity sport at the school, but claims that if the University wanted to, they could afford to financially support the team.

“(The University) can make this happen if they really wanted to,” Hartsuff said. “They can afford to buy out Rich Rodriguez when he gets fired. They have money. The thing that’s holding them back is philosophy.”

It’s obvious that the coaching staff takes pride in the level that the team competes at, regardless of varsity or club varsity status.

But as a club team, it can’t recruit magnificent athletes and can't offer financial aid to students who have a passion for rowing but are unable to partake in the sport due to financial restrictions. One of the first questions the team asks a potential rower is whether he can afford such an expensive extracurricular activity. The pricy sport can cost each individual thousands of dollars annually.

“It definitely limits our pool of athletes,” Hartsuff said. “I know I could recruit blue-chip athletes from both overseas and within the United States to this University and be a powerhouse. I’m confident that we would have a program that would contend for the national championship every year. We could be a feather in Michigan’s cap.”

***

The Wolverines have not let their status as a club varsity team deter them from becoming part of the nation’s elite.

Until three years ago, the Wolverines had annually competed and held their own against elite varsity programs in the International Rowing Association (IRA) national championships. The club team had even become somewhat of a powerhouse, beating many of the top varsity programs in the nation.

“We were the forerunner of what a successful club team looked like,” Schreuder said.

This success had ramifications, though. The rowing community, especially the elite varsity programs, felt threatened by the success of a club team that received no University funding.

Coach Hartsuff believes that the nail in the coffin came when the Rutgers Athletic Director dropped the program’s men’s rowing team from a varsity sport to a club sport.

“The Rutgers AD said that ‘you could race as a club at IRA’s like Michigan and beat everybody, so what’s the point in funding a rowing program,’ ” Hartsuff said.

Feeling the pressure to protect the varsity status of their rowing programs, many varsity coaches led a movement to exclude club teams from the IRA National Championships.

Slighted, Hartsuff and other elite club rowing coaches created the American Collegiate Rowing Association, giving club teams nationwide the chance to compete for a national championship.

Since its inaugural season three years ago, the ACRA national championships have been dominated by Michigan.

Even with three straight club national championships, the Wolverines will not be content until they can become a varsity program. Other elite rowing programs have taken an interest in Michigan’s plight, aware that the success of the Wolverines can only be a boost to a sport that receives little attention.

Stanford and Wisconsin are among these elite programs that realize the contributions Michigan could add to the sport as a varsity program. These two teams pay the Wolverines to travel and compete against them annually at their respective lakes. Many of the Wolverines relish this opportunity to show they can compete with the nation’s elite.

“I think we do have a chip on our shoulder when we line up against varsity teams,” Schreuder said. “We paid our own way. We’ve gone through just as much as they have. We just don’t have all those benefits that they have as a varsity team. There are varsity teams that won’t race us. But we compete against anyone who is willing to compete against us.”

Other rowers echo this sentiment. Engineering freshman Phil Batterson believes having a chip on their shoulder helps the team train a little harder because it’s trying to prove that they belong with the nation’s elite.

While the Wolverines are unable to prove their elite status at the IRA National Championships, their presence is felt in the national polls. In the cMax rankings — a poll on the Internet website row2k.com, which ranks every single varsity and club rowing team — Michigan was ranked No. 19 at the end of last year’s racing season. Along with being ranked higher than most varsity programs, the Wolverines were also the highest ranked club team.

***

Without the ability to officially recruit current high school rowers, the rowing team has to get creative while actively recruiting on campus.

The team targets specific events, like Maize Craze, Festifall and all of the organized welcome events for freshman. They will also designate a day during the fall to bring one of their boats onto the diag to spark students’ interest.

“We’re pretty ruthless during Welcome Week and during the first couple weeks of school,” Schreuder said.

Along with publicizing in the fall, the team also put-up posters and places postcards promoting the rowing team in students’ mailboxes. Current rowers are also given the task of recruiting students by talking to as many students as possible and convincing them to check out the team.

“I saw the posters that they had put up,” Schreuder said. “I had been talked to by a couple of guys on campus and eventually came down and checked it out.”

While the rowing team is usually able to get around 40 to 50 people interested per year, only two or three of these people typically have actual rowing experience. The rest are complete novices. The majority of the team are athletes who played other sports in high school but found that rowing satisfied their competitive fire.

“I played baseball in high school,” senior William Grier said. “I was going to play club baseball here, but I slept through the tryouts. I guess it worked out for the best.”

Since most novices don’t realize the grueling aspect of the sport, some will drop the extracurricular activity after only about a month or two. Those who stick with it, though, will experience workouts they have never been through before.

The team starts training six days a week¬ — every day but Sunday — in the fall while also competing against other teams on the lake. These races, which are roughly 5,000 meters in distance, are mostly used for measuring time. Simultaneously, each rower will complete a 12,000-meter piece during the week.

Sometime in November, the lake freezes and the team will move inside and complete their workouts on indoor rowing machines. Winter workouts are centered around the three two-kilometer tests that happen once in January, February and March. As the winter progresses, the workouts get increasingly shorter but more intense, as the team prepares itself for the spring racing season.

The team tries to get back out onto the water during spring break. During the break, the Wolverines start to have two workouts a day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. After spring break, the team will return to indoor workouts until Argo Pond thaws and is accessible for rowing.

“I’m pretty confident in saying that I’ve got guys that work much harder than some of the varsity athletes do,” Hartsuff said.

While completing these demanding workouts and competing at an elite level, most of the rowers are also competing at a high level in the classroom. The team’s grade point average is a 3.3, an impressive feat considering that roughly half the team is enrolled in the School of Engineering.

The team realizes that while some of its members will be fortunate enough to row at an international level, there is no professional rowing avenue and there are no riches to be made. Each person must prepare for their futures while also embracing the present.

There are various reasons why these students choose to devote countless hours and thousands of dollars to be a part of the rowing team.

For some, like William Grier, it’s about pride; it’s about being able to represent Michigan and wearing the block ‘M’ on their back.

For others, it’s about the camaraderie and the memories.

“What keeps me rowing is knowing that it’s shaping who I am as a person,” Schreuder said. “It’s now so much a part of my identity that I don’t even know what my life would look like without it. It’s something that you take with you. You take all those memories with you. None of us are going to actually remember exactly what it felt like to sit down in February and feel savagely unpleasant during a 2K, but we’ll remember all the stupid stuff we did while traveling.”

***

The last test of the night is underway, and these eight rowers have surpassed the halfway point. Sweating and rowing at a blistering pace, they’re trying to break the personal goals that coach Hartsuff set for them. In the group, two freshmen are on pace to challenge the all-time freshman two-kilometer records set by their predecessors. A crowd of about 30 rowers has formed behind them, cheering madly.

The crowd is cheering louder and louder, trying to push the rowers to go faster. An assistant coach has planted himself behind the two freshmen, encouraging them to keep up their breakneck pace. As the two-kilometer test comes to a close, the freshmen finish slightly slower than the all-time freshman record at Michigan. Individuals in the crowd pat them on the back, congratulating them on a magnificent test.

The test is over but the electric atmosphere in the room lingers. The crowd has dispersed. No longer talking about the painful test they just took, the remaining rowers in the room discuss their plans for that Friday night.

They talk. They laugh. They bond.

You see, spring will come.

They will continue to race. They will continue to beat varsity teams with annual budgets far greater than theirs. These rowers will continue to shed their sweat, blood and tears. They will probably win another club national championship, and they will do it with little recognition.

The team will continue to compete at an elite level with or without varsity status because this isn’t about the future earnings, the fame or the glamour for them.

This is about so much more.