What makes a Division I athlete? 

Enthusiasm for improvement, a mindset for work, physiology — one thing is noticeably absent from Dan Harrison’s list: any skill in the sport. 

This year, the majority of the 36 novice rowers on the Wolverines’ team have no experience with an oar. While this isn’t unheard of for collegiate rowing, Harrison, Michigan’s novice rowing coach, has led a concerted effort over the past few years to recruit inexperienced athletes from across the state.

Harrison and his coaching staff travel throughout Michigan, going to high school tournaments and practices in every sport, looking for their next championship boat. Getting the word out through coaches and even the current Michigan rowers, Harrison finds driven high school high school athletes and encourages them to check out the team. 

The theory behind the strategy is that Michigan is looking at a pool of untapped potential — future DI rowers who’ve never gotten the opportunity to get on the water.

“I think the reason it’s such a big walk-on opportunity is that it’s not a sport you can just pick up as a little kid,” said assistant coach Liz Tuppen. “You can’t just walk outside your house and go play. It’s not offered in all communities and so that’s why it’s an opportunity later at a place like Michigan where athletics is so prominent and well supported.”

The sport does come with a hefty price tag. A competitive boat alone can cost anywhere from $25,000 to $50,000 — a cost most high school athletic programs can’t swing, particularly in lower socioeconomic areas. There are just 18 high school programs across the state, leading Harrison to look elsewhere for new talent. 

Even if kids do have access to a program, very few start rowing before their freshman year because of how physically taxing it can be. For those not starting until college, it’s easy to make up the ground.   

I think within the state, there are a lot of athletes who have that physiology and just haven’t found their sport yet,” Harrison said. “They might be playing basketball, but just have too much slow-twitch. They might be running cross country, but they’re six feet tall. They should probably be rowers.” 

Six-foot-one freshman Olivia McMullen fit the bill perfectly. A former three-sport athlete, McMullen heard about the opportunity from her high school volleyball coach. She knew she wasn’t going to get the option to continue with either of her first loves —  volleyball and basketball — collegiately, but she didn’t want to give up hope of being a Division-I athlete. She already had the height and athleticism, and after talking to Harrison, she decided to give rowing a try. 

“I love that you have individual goals and you’re trying to get faster individually, but it’s so much of a team sport too,” McMullen said. “It’s just a cool sport and I just couldn’t wait to try it out.”

But, it takes much more than the right physique to do well on Michigan’s team. As physically demanding as rowing is, it may be more a test of determination than strength. Repeating the same motion over and over, perfectly in sync with the other seven athletes in your boat, takes willpower, teamwork and a strong competitive drive — all things McMullen learned from her previous team experiences. 

When she made the decision to try collegiate rowing, McMullen spent the rest of her senior year building up her fitness using a training plan Harrison gave her. Counterintuitively, he advised her against one thing: joining her high school’s rowing team.  

“We want them to be a part of their (original) teams,” Harrison said. “I think a big part of it is it’s important to be part of your community, be part of the program that you were with. To abruptly switch away from your team, I don’t think is a great practice and we preach team here, so it would be pretty hypocritical for us to say, ‘We want you to abandon the teammates you’ve had for the last three years for this one pursuit,’.”

Beyond that aspect, there’s an argument to be made about form. Harrison doesn’t want to his future rowers developing poor technique before coming to Ann Arbor. Rowing is an extremely technically refined, repetitive sport — once bad habits are learned, they’re hard to break. When Harrison meets his team at the first day of practice, he wants to be working with a clean slate. 

In fact, the new novices don’t even touch an oar on the first day. Instead, they do a two-mile run and circuit workout. While Harrison is looking to see who stands out, he knows a team isn’t built in a day. 

“When it does get challenging, that is when you see the true character of someone,” Harrison said. “When the fatigue builds up, when we’re doing lots of volume, it’s dark out, that’s when you see the true character of the rowers come out.”

Understandably, not all the novices make it through. As winter season gets into full gear with demanding indoor workouts, at least a few novices each year decide rowing isn’t for them. In Harrison’s mind, one thing differentiates the ones who stay from those who don’t: an enthusiasm, almost love, for hard work. 

“There’s definitely a level of motivation and adherence to the idea of excellence (at Michigan),” Harrison said. “When you want to set that standard, they’re really excited about it and it’s not intimidating. Being a Michigan student athlete is a big deal. The expectation is high and you don’t have to sell that. It’s just known. So, when people join, they understand what they’re getting into.”

For those who stick it out, the rewards are worth the work. Last year’s top novice eight came in first at the Big Ten Championships and some members of that boat are already starting to make a name for themselves on the varsity team. Sophomore Elizabeth Schlyer rowed in the second varsity eight at the largest race of the season, the Head of the Charles. 

Harrison has seen many of his former novice athletes climb the ranks of the varsity team, starting in one of the lower boats and working their way up to the top eights, becoming team leaders and even reaching All-American status. While this may seem daunting to someone joining the team, novices like McMullen aren’t scared off by the challenge. 

“With rowing,” McMullen said, “what you put in is what you get into it is what you’ll get out.” 

And McMullen is all in.

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