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It’s still early on a crisp fall morning in Ann Arbor, the sun just starting to peek through the fog, the dew settling into the still-green grass.

As the city begins to wake up, the Michigan women’s rowing team has long since started their day. The coxswains’ cries of encouragement rise above the constant whir of ergometer fans, set in formation on the field, six feet apart in the shadow of the Michigan Stadium’s block ‘M.’ 

When the pandemic hit and canceled the remaining 11 regattas of the Wolverines’ 2020 spring racing season, it came as a shock to the team. But since then, with pandemic protocols in place, they have not let the strong headwind that is COVID-19 prevent them from making headway on their goals. 

“It’s been a big change for everybody,” Michigan coach Mark Rothstein said. “Those have been some big changes, though — imagine rowing in a mask; it can get pretty uncomfortable, especially during the hard workouts.”

Rowing is a sport that relies on team chemistry to a degree that few others do. If one rower is even a fraction of a beat off-rhythm, just the slightest bit off-balance, the boat can rock back and forth or oars can catch crabs underwater, amongst other things that can happen to slow the boat down. 

With social distancing still firmly in place, the Wolverines have had to find other ways to bond as a team. 

“We’ve all had to rely on reaching out to each other a lot more, because last year, you could go up to your friend after a workout and give them a pat on the back or just say hello and physically be there,” sophomore Elena Collier-Hezel said. “This year, the biggest difference is that we can’t really see a lot of our teammates at one time, so we have to reach out to each other more, and when we get the opportunity, saying, ‘Hey, I’m here, hope you’re doing well.’ ”

It’s been particularly tough on the underclassmen: the freshmen, because their first season of college rowing (not to mention their first year of college) is abnormal beyond anything they could’ve imagined; the sophomores, because they are yet to have a first season under their belts, having had every spring race canceled. 

As a result, the juniors and especially the seniors are stepping up to perpetuate the team atmosphere that was a key factor in many of these women’s decisions to come to Michigan. 

“Our biggest strength as a team is our team culture,” fifth-year starboard Madison Byrd said. “It’s just taking advantage of those moments where we’re putting the boats in the bays, or during water breaks, those are really the only times you’re going to have in close proximity together, so just taking advantage of that. 

“As a senior class, we’ve really had to just keep the main thing the ‘main thing’, which is training to win and win for Michigan.” 

Confident in the bonds his team can create, even in a pandemic year, Rothstein is focusing on making sure that the Wolverines are still on track to the lofty goals he’s set for them. The bar is high: Michigan won the Big Ten in 2019 and placed third at the NCAA championship the same year. 

And it turns out that, as grueling as the rowing workouts tend to be, there have been a few pluses to this very negative year. The team has had more chances to get out on the water, thanks to a few unseasonably warm winter days. Also, working out at the Big House, on the field and under the lights, is undeniably cool. 

For the coxswains, whose job is to steer the boat and spur the rowers on, encouragement and motivation have taken on a new meaning this year, spurring a new approach. 

“I’m usually a pretty big hard-ass 100% of the time,” senior coxswain Charlotte Powers said. “But especially with COVID, the importance of positivity and keeping everyone’s attitudes up has been super important because it’s obviously really hard for them both mentally and physically. So I just think keeping that mindset of ‘we’re on the water, we’re getting to practice, we’re here still’ is huge. It’s way more ‘let’s enjoy this and let’s keep using this as a building block.’ ”

It’s been an effective adjustment — there’s a sense of gratitude in these rowers’ voices, an appreciation for the chance to compete at the sport they love, no matter what it looks like. 

“We had to keep reminding ourselves that we are here to win a national championship, so as long as that’s still on the table, we’ll go through anything,” Byrd said. “Keeping our eyes on the prize — I know it’s kind of cliché, but keeping our hearts and our minds focused on training for Michigan so that, come May, we can win for Michigan has been what we’ve been trying to keep at the forefront of our minds.

“Just because of a new change that might come our way, or a new protocol, or new rules or something else gets taken away, we have to remember that we’re not here for the gear or the free meals. We’re here to represent the Block ‘M.’ So always coming back to that, in spite of whatever difficulty we’re facing, that’s been crucial for us.”