The night before hitting the water against
Cornell, one of the top teams in the nation year-in and year-out,
the Michigan men’s rowing team was busy making s’mores
and staying warm at a Boy Scout camp in upstate New York. At least
it got beds this time.

J. Brady McCollough
Matt Hughes leads the first varsity eight boat. (RYAN WEINER/Daily)

Usually, you’ll find the 60-plus team members packing into
youth hostels or sleeping on YMCA gym floors just to get the chance
to ruin some varsity team’s morning.

“One of the guys on our team two years ago would bundle
his shirts up and use them as a pillow,” senior Matt Hughes
said. “You could put that kid anywhere and he’d be
fine.”

You could say the same about this varsity-club program, made up
of kids who pay more than $1,500 a year ($137,000
collectively) to pull an oar back and forth everyday and puke
afterwards. The men of this crew invest their money, their bodies
and their hearts into the hope that they can attend the ball with
all the rich folks and dirty up their tuxedos on the way out.

“Whether we’re termed ‘varsity,’
‘varsity club,’ whatever, when we go on the line and
we’re sitting there about to row, it doesn’t
matter,” senior Sasha Duchnowski said. “It’s the
work you’ve put into it.”

“It’s all us paying for it, and nobody is giving us
anything,” Hughes said.

They give themselves everything they need through alumni
donations and fundraising through a program called
“Rent-a-rower,” in which people from the Ann Arbor
community pay members of the team to do random chores. Aside from
the usual lot of raking leaves and moving furniture, Hughes even
had to clean a man’s lawn chairs with a toothbrush once.

“He was serious about his lawn chairs,” Hughes
said.

 

‘Where’s he from?’

Hughes, known as “the animal” by his teammates
because of his beastly beard and superhuman genetic makeup, takes
rowing pretty seriously. Like most of the team, he had no previous
rowing experience before joining coach Gregg Hartsuff’s team
his freshman year. Now, he’s considered the top collegiate
rower in the country, varsity rowers included.

Hughes, who has upped his commitment to two or three practices
per day, finished fifth at the World Indoor Rowing Championships in
Boston during Spring Break and was first among U.S. collegiate
rowers.

“Right before the competition, nobody knew who I
was,” Hughes said.

The announcer went through the list of rowers who were competing
and named their respective colleges and homelands. Then he got to
Hughes.

“Matt Hughes … where’s he from?” the
announcer asked.

“He just went on to the next person,” Hughes said,
laughing.

It’s getting tougher to overlook the Michigan program, a
perennial finisher in the nation’s top 10. Still, the team
begins each season ranked out of the top 10. The rowing
powers-that-be must keep hoping the team’s performance the
year before was somehow a fluke.

So Michigan just keeps investing. Four hundred dollars for a
Spring Break training trip to Tampa, Fla. Six back-breaking
practices each week including Tuesday mornings bright and early on
Ann Arbor’s Argo Pond.

“You have to have the heart to kill yourself harder than
that guy has killed himself,” Duchnowski said. “When we
go to Cornell and race, they have a million-dollar boathouse. When
they go to national championships, they stay in a hotel; we stay on
a Salvation Army floor. We’ve all paid out of our
pockets.

“If I beat you, what did that boathouse do for
you?”

 

The purest form

Hughes remembers his first impression of Michigan’s
boathouse: “Man, that place is a dump.” A dump, yes,
but it’s a fitting house for this team, built by the callused
hands of the 1985 team.

The first thing you see when you walk into the boathouse is a
sign with Bo Schembechler’s classic words painted in maize
and blue: Those who stay will be Champions. The funny thing
is, not many kids stay. The team starts out with 70 freshmen each
year — there are just five seniors on this year’s
squad.

“It’s a huge battle of attrition in this
sport,” Hughes said. “They are paying to put themselves
in pain early in the morning. There are no cry-babies or prima
donnas. We’re here because we want to be.”

As junior Josh Brown put it, being on the team can almost be
sadistic. Hartsuff, a rarity as a salaried club coach, is familiar
with the pain and knows the guys on the team don’t have to be
there every day like on a varsity team. Even though he wishes the
team received varsity funding, Hartsuff embraces the uniqueness of
club status.

“It’s the purest form of sport there is,”
Hartsuff said. “It’s the way intercollegiate athletics
started. We have people here who got into Michigan on their own and
are here for academic purposes and end up finding our team.

“I like working with people like that.”

Duchnowski quit the team before his junior year because he was
worried the commitment would ruin his Business School grade point
average. But after a year away, he chose to return to the team for
his final year at Michigan because it “keeps me on my
toes.”

“(It creates a better atmosphere) because the guys
aren’t here because they are getting a scholarship,” he
said. “It’s an opportunity (for a regular student) to
represent Michigan as a Wolverine and be an athlete.”

It’s an opportunity to show the rest of the country
— and the rest of campus — that you don’t have to
be a varsity athlete or have a Nike swoosh on your jersey to be a
champion.

J. Brady McCollough can be reached at
“mailto:bradymcc@umich.edu”>bradymcc@umich.edu.

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