Straighten the legs, drag the blade through the water, lean back at the waist, draw the oar to the chest. 

The women of the Michigan rowing team’s 1V8 boat have mastered this technique through thousands — if not hundreds of thousands — of strokes during practices, erg pieces, races and training trips. Sitting at the starting line of the NCAA Championships grand final this June, they knew all they had to do was implement the race plan they’d spent all year creating. 

Coming to Indianapolis, the Wolverines retained the confidence from their Big Ten Championship victory earlier that month. They were facing off against many of the same competitors; this year, a record number of Big Ten teams — six out of eight — qualified to compete in the NCAA championships. 

After cruising through the heats, Michigan had more difficulty in the semifinals, registering the sixth-fastest time and barely edging out Iowa for the last spot in the grand final. The Wolverines went on to claim the bronze, outperforming their No. 6 seed. Michigan’s other boats, the 2V8 and 1V4, went on to place third and fourth, respectively. 

“We had a boat meeting right before the grand final and coach (Mark Rothstein) said sixth seed is the best place to be because no one is expecting you to do any better than sixth,” said senior Madison Byrd. “We knew we were capable of being on the podium. I actually think the sixth seed is a fun place to be because everyone has already counted you out. It was a freeing mindset to go in with. We can only go up from here.”

Waiting for the horn to blow, Byrd looked around at her competition, which included Ohio State — a rival the Wolverines had battled all season — but she wasn’t intimidated. Surrounded by the top five teams in the country, she felt “invincible.” 

Then the horn went off. 

Straighten the legs, drag the blade through the water, lean back at the waist, draw the oar to the chest.

Michigan went through the motions they’d done countless times before and shot out ahead of the pack. The eight rowers moved in unison, trusting the stroke seat, trusting the rhythm, trusting the race plan, and trusting their coxswain to take them down the course. 

The Wolverines stayed internal, directing all their focus on following the person in front of them. Byrd only remembers one thought going through her head in the first thousand meters:

“This is the best rowing we’ve ever done.” 

This statement is all the more weighty in the context of their regular season record. Michigan triumphed over strong competitors including Ohio State, Harvard and Virginia throughout the spring. 

The Wolverines increased their lead handily in the first 500 meters. Out of the corner of her eye, Byrd saw the Buckeyes start to fade along with the rest of the other crews. By the one-kilometer mark, Michigan had a sizable lead. 

Coming in as the underdog, the Wolverines felt they had nothing to lose, but now as the frontrunner, the pressure started to set in. 

“A few of us woke up from our daydream or whatever was happening in that first 1K because we did have a little bit of a shift,” said senior Tayla May Bentley. “A little focus lost. We were thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re really in first.’ It was surreal.”

Connection faltered in the third 500 meters. As other crews began walking back, the issue was magnified. 

“All I kept thinking was, ‘Everyone is coming for us,’ ” Bentley said.

In an effort to keep her boat calm, junior coxswain Charlotte Powers didn’t call the positions of the other teams, but the Wolverines lost their lead with 500 meters to go. As they approached the sprint, a strong wind hit them from the side and they could hear the screaming from the shore, but they didn’t let it faze them. 

Straighten the legs, drag the blade through the water, lean back at the waist, draw the oar to the chest.

They locked in their focus, moving together over the last stretch of the course. With 10 strokes to go, Powers finally called out their position, saying it over and over:

“We’re sitting in third. We’re going to be on the podium.”

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