The University of Wisconsin men’s rowing team is finding ways to overcome adversity as a result of having its fall 2020 season postponed.
The conversation of COVID-19’s effect on collegiate sports has primarily centered around college football, regularly dismissing how less mainstream sports programs are dealing with the Big Ten’s decision. UW men’s rowing is one of these programs. Drawing attention to the postponement’s effect is something Head Coach Chris Clark said is incredibly important.
“It is easy to forget that the vast majority of college athletes are in sports like rowing that don’t get a lot of attention,” Clark said. “For people that aren’t really aware of athletics, they have no idea how impactful college sports are on a kid. They don’t see how much it changes your life.”
The team is not new to dealing with coronavirus-related cancellations, already experiencing a compromised spring season earlier this year. March 13, the team and staff abruptly canceled their Friday afternoon practice, instead gathering for a farewell meeting and departing back home. Clark said this experience was unprecedented in his time as head coach.
“This was the first time for me since 1992 that I didn’t have a racing season I was involved with,” Clark said. “For me, personally, it was bizarre.”
Beyond coaching staff, seniors on the team were deprived of the final season of their rowing careers. Assistant Coach Beau Hoopman said this loss was quite a blow to those graduating in spring.
“They didn’t get their final say on their career, and they kinda just went off into the real world without any finality to their rowing careers,” Hoopman said. “You feel for those guys.”
Months later, an Aug. 11 statement released by the Big Ten created additional hurdles for the rowing program as it was announced the Big Ten would be postponing the fall season. Clark said this decision was not a surprise to him.
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“We’re watching football, and we realized if football’s not doing it, we’re not doing it. Not just rowing, any other sport,” Clark said. “So once football looked like it was going down the tubes for at least the near future, we figured we were as well.”
As a result of the prolonged off-season, a major concern for the program is the team’s inexperience. Limited contact this summer has furthered the problem with out-of-season rules prohibiting coaching and practices at the facility.
Unfortunately, this means a number of the team’s current sophomores still have no rowing experience whatsoever. Hoopman said targeting this problem is the biggest priority for UW men’s rowing.
“If we can control having practice and getting the guys some experience, that’s what we wanna do. We’re not worried so much about not having a legit racing season at this point,” Hoopman said.
Identifying as a “development program,” Clark said he and his staff pride themselves on finding the team’s hidden gems. The program looks to build up experience and skills this fall while modifying practices to follow pandemic-related guidelines.
The team begins practices this week, focusing on running as well as developing rowing skills in single and pair boats at remote rowing sites. Every rower also gets tested for the virus weekly. Despite having to rework fall plans, Clark said the team looks as promising as ever.
“The makeup of the people we have is starting to resemble what we had in years’ past when we were pretty good,” Clark said.
The coaching staff has also altered their techniques with recruiting potential walk-ons at UW. In past summers, team representatives have visited Union South during student orientation to speak with incoming freshmen. This method has proved successful for maintaining the program’s impressive participation, as walk-ons make up well over two-thirds of incoming numbers every year.
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The team has now shifted to online resources as a way of contacting participants. This summer, men’s rowing sent an online questionnaire to all incoming freshmen via email to spark potential interest. With freshmen having persevered through lots this year, Clark said he is encouraged by their resiliency and how it has translated to their level of interest in the program.
“I’ve already been really impressed with how many are excited about rowing,” Clark said.
The program has also taken time to analyze the postponement’s effect on finances. At least half of the budget is not being spent this year due to lack of need for travel and equipment. In regard to funding the team, Coach Clark said he hopes UW Athletics can develop a system similar to many of his team’s opponents.
“The Ivy Leagues, which are a lot of our competitors, have endowments that pay for their entire programs,” Clark said. “I think that’s a great way to go, and we should be moving in that direction.”
Despite the drastic changes thrust upon men’s rowing this fall, Clark said he is ultimately supportive of the Big Ten’s decision.
“The Big Ten did exactly what they needed to do. They had all the information, and I’m part of that team, so I support it 100%,” Clark said. “There’s no other option.”
Coach Hoopman said he also agrees with there not being a season right now.
“From our perspective, it’s viable not to do it. We don’t need to put anybody’s life at risk to watch a game,” Hoopman said.
Clark said he is also impressed with how UW Athletics has navigated this situation.
“I’m proud of not just our guys but the entire athletics department. Believe me, I know from talking to other institutions how well and unbelievable Wisconsin Athletics has handled the entire thing,” Clark said.
The team looks to make the most of resources and time available in hopes for a regular spring season. In spite of the challenges being faced, Coach Clark said he is confident in the work being done by his program and realizes the impact this experience will have on his rowers.
“We’re communicating with the team a lot more and everybody seems to be motivated,” Clark said. “In the long run, these kids are gonna be really prepared for life.”