The University of Wisconsin men’s rowing team is ranked No. 11 in the country after their home race at Devil’s Lake in Baraboo this weekend. With Eastern Sprints coming up next weekend the excitement surrounding the team is as high as it has been in years.
Though what is perhaps more interesting is how as a program Wisconsin is able to compete with some of the best rowing schools in the nation despite a lower number of recruits in the Midwest than the East and West coasts.
Wisconsin Rowing is built primarily on the strength of walk-on talent with about 70 percent of the team going unrecruited. But ead Coach Chris Clark sees this as an asset rather than a hindrance.
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“The fewer the kids that rode in high school we find the better we are as a rule,” Clark said. “If you’ve got length and the right kind of body and the right attitude that can take you a long way.”
Clark said that since rowing skills overlap with football many of the team’s best rowers are ex-football players with a little less bulk. Coxswains or steerers at the boat’s bow are also in high demand on the team but have a smaller build of around 130 pounds.
Since most high schoolers in Wisconsin have never even tried out rowing, often time this talent can go under the radar. Coach Clark believes that untapped rowing talent exists much more frequently on campus than we may think.
“Out of every ten kids that [go] here usually two to three have the chance to be top-level college rowers,” Clark said.
Many of the team’s races though have been against rowers that have been involved in the sport much longer than those on Wisconsin.
Just a few weeks ago, the Badgers traveled to California to take on some elite rowing competition in then No. 12 Stanford and No. 1 Cal.
“These are international rowers. Most of them are older. Almost all of them have been on national teams,” Clark said.
Despite many of the Badgers being newer to the sport they were still able to keep pace with these elite teams.
Against Stanford, Wisconsin won the latter two Varsity Eight races but lost the first by 4.1 seconds at 5:47.5. While the Badgers lost all three races to Cal they still put up some decent times, staying within 10 seconds of the No. 1 team in the country for the first Varsity Eight at 5:46.4.
“The only disappointment was it should have been closer in the first eight. I would say Stanford and us we’re really closely matched,” Clark said.
The Badgers then played Oregon State the next day, who they swept in all three races.
While the Badgers have had this type of success before under Clark, even winning the national championship in 2008, there was a lull in the program a few years ago where Clark saw a lack of drive in some of his athletes. Though he doesn’t want to speak for the seniors on the team now, he’s seen a definite shift in culture with the current group.
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“The [current] seniors there’s no question they didn’t like the culture when they got here at all,” Clark said. “I’ve heard them say it of the guys that were here before them and they wanted to change it and that’s not easy.”
In their most recent races at Devil’s Lake, the Badgers laid out a lineup in the first varsity eight with seniors in seven of the nine rowing positions (including coxswain). At coxswain was Theodore Van Beek, followed by Tristan Amberger, Nickolas Montalvo, Andrew Griffin, Thomas Walker, Kyle McCarthy, James Bernard, Jacob Wenner and Jonah Van der Weide.
In their first races Saturday against MIT and Boston University, the Badgers followed the same order in all three varsity eight matches, with No. 10 BU placing first, Wisconsin second and MIT third. This gave the Badgers bragging rights for their 14th straight Cochrane Cup against MIT, but fell less than half a second short of gaining the Jablonic Cup with a time of 5:45.95 to BU’s 5:45.49.
In their next match against No. 6 Northeastern, the Badger’s lost all three varsity eight races. But the second varsity eight actually outperformed the first by seven seconds timewise, though they still fell to Northeastern in a tight contest 6:13.92 to 6:12.55.
Wisconsin’s next race will come in the Eastern Sprints from Worcester, MA on May 13 with the IRA National Championships also just a month away, starting June 1 in Princeton, NJ.