Novice rowing program turns walk-ons into national champions

Monday, March 25, 2019 - 7:23pm

Michigan's novice rowing team has turned many formally unfamiliar with the sport into Division I athletes -- and much more.

Michigan's novice rowing team has turned many formally unfamiliar with the sport into Division I athletes -- and much more. Buy this photo
Alec Cohen/Daily

In observance of Women’s History Month, The Daily’s sports section is launching its second annual series aimed at telling the stories of female athletes, coaches and teams at the University from the perspective of the female sports writers on staff. We continue the series with this story from Daily Sports Writer Lane Kizziah.

Last spring, as the 2V8 boats lined up at the start of the grand final of the NCAA Rowing Championships, Madison Byrd took a second to appreciate where she was. She sat with arms outstretched and her blade in the water, and as she waited for the horn to sound, something dawned on her.

Byrd was about to race for a national championship in a sport she knew little to nothing about just two years earlier.

“I was shaking because I was so nervous,” Byrd said. “But I was also so thankful for what the novice program had done for me.”

The current junior walked onto the novice team — for athletes that hadn’t been recruited to row — at the beginning of her freshman year.  Like most of the novice rowers, she was a competitive athlete in another sport in high school. Byrd knew she couldn’t play volleyball, her first love, at a school like Michigan, but she still had an “itch to compete” after graduation. She wasn’t ready to give up being a student athlete.

At the suggestion of a friend, Byrd reached out to the novice coach midway through her senior year and started training for tryouts before she even got on campus, although this wasn’t the norm for freshmen joining the team.  

“The novice coach does a lot of recruiting on campus,” Byrd said. “I’d guess every girl on campus has been approached by the rowing team at Welcome Week or in the Diag or Festifall and a mass email goes out at the beginning of the year.”

That mass email is what drew Lara Vanderbilt to the team this fall.

Like the majority of the novice team, the sophomore transfer student didn’t know much about the sport before deciding to try out. But, that hasn’t limited her success as she’s spent all spring bouncing between the top two novice boats.

“(Tryouts) were a little scary, just because there were so many girls there,” Vanderbilt said. “I really wanted to find a like-minded group of women that would be my great friends and I could get strong with.”

In such a technical sport, the novices spend the beginning of fall season working on the mechanics of the rowing stroke. From the catch to the drive and the finish, there are dozens of small details that can take years for a rower to fine-tune. Not only does a rower have to focus on her own stroke, she also has to make sure that her timing matches the seven other athletes in the boat. Despite the difficulty of this juggling act, novices are thrown into the mix off the bat.

“You start off novice year and you plop eight girls in a boat and you don’t know what starboard or port is,” Byrd said. “But, you take a hold of the oar and you start moving up and down on the slide. Slowly but surely, your coach is teaching you how to insert the blade into the water, how to pull through, how to feather the blade.”

Although it’s a very technical sport, the lack of positions in rowing make it more adaptable than others, such as soccer or basketball, where it can take years for players to learn the nuances of a particular role. Once the novices conquer the mechanics of the stroke, they are ready to race.

While the actual movements may be adaptable, the physical and mental strains of training can create a hard transition into the sport. A combination of self-selection and cuts shrink the group from almost 200 to just three boats of eight by way of conditioning inside on ergs, which rowers refer to as “torture devices.”

Those who stay — like Byrd and Vanderbilt — stick out the arduous training because of strong connections with their teammates and a competitive drive. Through facing constant physical challenges, these women are pushed farther than they ever thought was possible, leaving them to wonder what else they’re capable of.

“I love the saying, ‘Those who stay will be champions’ because if you stick it out all four years, you will be a champion in so many ways,” Byrd said. “It shapes your character into something you never thought it could be. You have a whole new take on life and how to get through difficult situations. It gives you way more motivation to get through challenges in life.”

The novice team gives these women the rare opportunity to compete as Division I athletes with no prior experience in their sport — making the physical and mental challenges of adjusting to a new sport worth the effort.

Many of these women, like Byrd, go on to have remarkable careers on the varsity team later in their careers. Senior Victoria Glunt may have started on the novice team three years ago, but by her junior year, she was rowing across the finish line in of the NCAA Championships in the top varsity eight. Senior Emily Krebs has a similar story. After starting out as a walk on, she was a member of the 1V4 that finished fifth in the country last spring.

Novice year is full of firsts, from the first time on an erg to the first time on the water, rowing under a pink sky. Another first is fast approaching for this year’s novices: the first spring race, which will take place next weekend against Harvard.

“It’s hard as a novice rower who has never had the opportunity to race — it’s hard to imagine that day coming,” Vanderbilt said. “People who have experience racing talk about it as this culminating, beautiful but very hard moment, but none of us can really imagine it. All of the physical building of this winter has been to do well at these races but we’re just sort of dreaming up what it would be.”  

Byrd remembers her first spring race well. Going in with no expectations, the top novice eight faced Ohio State and Notre Dame.

“When we lined up for our first race, we thought ‘Let’s see if we really can be good,’ and we won that race,” Byrd said. “It’s a shock to your system because racing a two (kilometers) hurts like hell. That’s what you have to deal with physically. Mentally, what you go through during a race, you have to stay so focused on the rhythm and the person in front of you. You’re also letting your competitive nature fuel you in order to walk back up on teams and cross the finish line first even though it hurts horribly.”

As the 2V8 boats lined up at the start of the grand final of the NCAA championships last spring, Byrd sat at the catch, listening to the announcer call out the boats.

In lane one, Texas. Lane two, Virginia. Lane three Washington. Lane four, California. Lane five, Michigan.

Even through her nerves — whether in her first novice race or last year’s grand final in which Michigan came in fourth — Byrd has always appreciated the unique opportunity of being able to compete for the Wolverines, an opportunity she rightfully earned through her commitment to the novice program. And now, she knows the experience has been worth even more.

“Every single day has pushed me past every single point where I don’t think I can go any further,” Byrd said. “Mostly because I’m so inspired and motivated by my teammates every day. I have a newfound sense of how far I can push myself and how hard I can work in order to get the best outcome possible.”