“What’s an erg? Are we going to capsize? What do you mean, ‘set’ the boat?”
These are all questions novice rowing coach Vita Scaglione fields annually in her second year coaching at Michigan. In just seven months, she molds a group of athletes – most of whom have never touched an oar – into a Division I crew.
In the summer months, each Michigan female freshman and sophomore receives a letter in the mail from the crew team stating that, if she is 5-foot-7 or taller, she should try out. Coming in, many potential rowers aren’t aware of the commitment, athleticism, strength and mental fortitude that are required of a rower.
While most Michigan students are sleeping, the rowers are sweating. As if living in the dorm isn’t hard enough, the rowers must find a way to go to sleep while the halls are still bustling and drag themselves out of their cozy beds before the sun even rises. The young rowers arrive at the Intramural Sports Building at 5:45 a.m. and train on the Ergometers (indoor rowing machine or the aforementioned erg) or head to to the water at Belleville Lake, which is a 15-minute drive from campus. After a grueling day of classes, the rowers practice again in the afternoon. Even on Saturday, the varsity rowers come into the erg room at 7 a.m. to complete a 6k fitness test.
In just a few short weeks, the rowers must acquire the knowledge necessary to row a boat. Some of the necessary skills include feathering the oar – twisting it after a stroke is completed on the recovery – pulling the oar into their marks, and most importantly, catching and releasing the water together. In short, a group of college freshmen and sophomores must balance taking classes, studying, making friends and exhausting their bodies on a daily basis.
Women’s rowing is one of the only sports where an incoming student can be part of a varsity team without any prior experience. It takes a special kind of athlete to learn something completely foreign to her and to put in the time and effort necessary to succeed.
“It’s not necessarily the rowing that I love, but rather the kinds of people the sport attracts,” Scaglione said.
In addition to dealing with a heavier workload in class, the rowers are also getting a crash course on the water. It won’t take long for the athletes to figure out and learn to hate the erg, or to realize that they won’t in fact capsize – unless they hit a log, which happened last year. But, rowing is a sport of constantly perfecting and re-perfecting the body and mind. In school, in life and in rowing the questions never cease.