Making a collegiate rowing team is a completely different experience from being recruited to play football or basketball. Because these teams rely much more heavily on talented walk-ons than any other sport, the 25-person novice rowing roster is one of the more difficult ones to crack in college sports.
Here are some reasons why.
As many as 400 athletes compete for limited roster spots.
What most people don't see is the first month of collegiate rowing, in which anywhere from 100 to 400 potential athletes show up at boat houses across the country for a chance to make the rowing team. The sheer number of athletes who attend information sessions, along with the number of rowing scholarships available because of Title IX, make some people think that making a collegiate rowing team is doable by anyone. But the difficulty is there, and it runs deep.
Assistant rowing coach and recruiter at the University of Minnesota, Christine Holm, and novice rowing coach at Indiana University, Katie Bitz, broke down novice rowing to better explain this experience.
Both coaches hand out flyers to potential athletes when the new freshmen officially arrive on campus. They bring varsity rowers with them to get kids excited about the sport and try to get them interested in showing up to large information sessions at the boat house. During those meetings, coaches are scanning the crowd to find anyone who's 5-3 and shorter or 5-10 and taller.
Rowers have to fail many times to be good.
Most women who show up to the information sessions are excited about the opportunity to become a Division I athlete – until they get to the first few practices.
Coach Bitz describes this time as "survival of the toughest."
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She uses her first practices to see who's actually tough and wants to be in pain and push through it. That means women who don't complain and can roll with the punches, even when things get extremely tough.
"Rowing is such a risk/reward sport. You really do have to fail in a good way a lot before you can really reach your potential," she says. "It's such a training sport that you have to be able to push your body on a regular basis. To find your edge, you have to fail multiple times."
The first task Bitz throws at her novices is running the football stadium for time. She says that they don't have to be the fittest right away, but she's watching the way they run it. "If you try to cut corners, that's not a good quality," she says. The rest of the week consists of a circuit on the indoor football field that is designed specifically to be challenging to the point that people want to quit. Throw in a one-mile timed test and some short erg tests, and a lot of athletes are pushed to their max. Bitz emphasizes that she's not looking only at how they perform or what their power output on the erg is, but the kind of athlete they are mentally.
For Bitz, someone who responds to her asking why they like rowing with "I like being outside" isn't going to cut it. "But if they say 'I like almost throwing up at the end of a workout,' I say you will do great on my team."
After the initial week of testing, Bitz has her athletes rowing inside on the ergs for the first semester. So, even for those who were tough enough to make it through the first week, many will be gone by the end of that first month. This is a major point of differentiation between rowing and other collegiate sports.
"People really don't have any clue how hard rowing is physically," says Bitz. "It's not about cutting people – people self-cut themselves because it's so hard. If everyone could make it, we would be slow. If people aren't quitting, we're not going to go fast."
Tryouts at the University of Minnesota are run a bit differently, focusing more on getting on the water than on training indoors. But her tactics work just the same in slimming down the team.
The Gophers spend more time on the water working very technically. Although they're not going fast, it's a different type of tough.
"A lot of athletes have never had to coordinate their own bodies, so coordinating their bodies with the person in front of them and the person in front of that person is a challenge in itself," Holm says.
Athletes have to be just as tough mentally as they are physically.
Holm usually notices most people dropping out at about six weeks into practices – when they've got blisters covering their hands and the sport is no longer shiny and new.
"That's when true colors start to shine in terms of who's respecting the commitment and all that it takes to be successful," Holm says. "A lot of people hear that you can just walk on the team and get a scholarship, but it's those athletes that come in with a respect for the sport and how difficult it's actually going to be who stick around."
But Holm says that even after those first six weeks, there's another roster weeder – winter training. By January, the volume has ramped up significantly and coaches are expecting athletes to know what they're doing. Besides that, this is the first experience most athletes have out in the freezing cold weather before the river has frozen over for the season.
"It's maybe the first time someone has worked out in 30 degree weather, and they're sitting there and an ice chunk is floating by," says Holm. "They're out in nature, they're the only ones up at that hour, and their hands feel like they're about to fall off while we're telling them to go hard every stroke. It's a lot more taxing on the mind and the body."
By the time conference championships roll around, Holm usually has two 8s worth of rowers, as well as a few spares. Along with the physical hurdles athletes have to overcome to get to this point, Holm also points out some mental hardships.
She says it takes a certain kind of person to learn something new as an adult and say they're going to try a new sport. The equipment is heavy and intimidating, and athletes have to carry and clean all of it themselves. On top of that, they're constantly worrying about progressing as quickly as all the other women around them.
And, like Bitz, Holm recognizes that many people think rowing is an easy sport to walk onto, and much easier than a lot of other collegiate sports.
"I encourage anybody who doesn't understand the sport and thinks it's so easy and we're just handing out scholarships to go give it a try," says Holm.
But, rowers say the struggle is completely worth it.
Despite the difficulty of the novice season, both coaches say their novices say it's completely worth it.
"With the workload that's required by novices, you're going to create a bond like a bond of brothers, military style," says Holm. "If you're having to work really hard, maybe the hardest you've ever worked in your life, you're going to want to stick around because your teammates have seen you at your best and your teammates have seen you at your worst."
Bitz sees the same thing with her athletes.
"I think if you make it to Big Tens, you're probably going to come back," she says. "I think a lot of people would say novice is the hardest year, purely because it's their first year of rowing and they're never worked that hard before. But once we start racing, they're having fun and we're crushing everyone and they understand why I made them do it all."
So, although outside perception may make it seem like rowing is one of the easier sports to compete in at the collegiate level, it's actually one of the most difficult to make it through. Keep an eye on the roster of your favorite team from now, the beginning of information sessions, until the end of the season to see how many athletes actually make it all the way.