The glow from the boathouse pierces the dark of a Salem most residents never see. Except for the semi trucks and their sleepless drivers, few vehicles traverse the bridge above the river at this early hour, just after 5 a.m. A lone bird twitters insistently from an invisible perch in the darkness, reminding everyone that dawn will arrive soon.
Inside the boathouse, Head Coach Susan Parkman walks from shell to shell, checking the equipment before the day’s practice. She typically arrives about a half hour before the 5:30 training. Her only partner is her dog, Emma, sleepy and hiding under a couch for fear of the dock’s slight bobbing.
This is the reality of crew. Any rower will tell you, one of the most difficult aspects of the sport is the early morning practices — not to mention traveling every spring weekend to a race, or regatta, sometimes as far away as Sacramento, Calif. To row properly, without interference, you have to take the water before motorboats cause too much wake. Plus, it’s the only meeting time that seems to work for several dozen busy college students.
Coach Parkman is soon joined by sleepy rowers, men and women, who trickle in and drag out the ergometers (rowing machines, called “ergs” for short) for warm-up. The boathouse fills with the back and forth whirring of the machines.
It requires a lot more commitment from people than many other sports.
The river is low today, Parkman notes — about 10 feet lower than three weeks ago. If you ever want to know the level of the Willamette River, ask Parkman. If the water is high, the current is too strong to row safely, strong enough that what might normally be a six-minute trip one way takes 47 minutes when rowing against the current.
It’s not long before the athletes hoist and carry the shells above their heads and set them in the water. It’s early April, still pitch black, and when the swift current ferries the students away from the boathouse, only the small beacons of light on the bows of the boats are visible. Parkman follows in a motorboat, megaphone in hand, calling out encouragement to her athletes by name. She knows them by their silhouettes.
Geese honk from the shore as the sky slowly brightens. Rowers see the sun rise almost daily. “It’s just really nice out there in the morning when no one”s up,’ says Kimber Grady ’07. “A lot of people who don’t stick with rowing miss the water and miss the sunrises.”
The athletes are preparing for their sole home event of the year: the Governor’s Cup. They practice a racing start and row for about six to eight minutes down their 2,000-meter course, under three bridges, stopping near the docked Willamette Queen sternwheeler. Racing speed is the toughest on the rowers’ bodies. Imagine sprinting for eight minutes straight against a tough wind. If they’re rowing well, the full complement of oars appears to move effortlessly in sync, cutting the surface of the water with little splash. At top speed, rowing shells have gone fast enough to pull a small water skier.
Crew is a deceptively easy-looking sport. The rowers and boats move smoothly through the water, their reflections rippling across the surface. Parkman compares it to an impressionist painting — the feature that first drew her photographer’s eye to the sport. But look closer and you’ll see the strain on the faces of the rowers as their arms and legs hammer with each stroke.
As practice nears an end, the sun well above the horizon, Parkman continues encouraging the rowers on the way back to the boathouse. She maneuvers her boat near the Bill Webber, an eight-man shell named for the late trustee and generous donor. “Don’t be afraid to push the envelope,” she tells the men. “You’d be surprised what you’re capable of. Don’t let your mind be the limiting factor. Push your legs, push your body. Just swing.”
Don’t let your mind be the limiting factor. It’s a motto for all rowers, from Olympians to novices. “The race is a very mental game, and the dialogue going on in your head is frenetic,” says Laura Jones ’08. “Your body is telling you that there are all these other women in the boat, and you can’t give up now. It’s like a battle. The people who are really successful let the mind win.”
“You reach that point in your rowing where your legs are exhausted and your arms want to give out,” says Becca Ralston ’07, who rowed for two years before switching to coxswain, the person on board who steers and keeps the rowers in sync by calling out stroke rates. “You have to get past that point and realize you actually have more to give.”
Rowers often collapse immediately after a race. Their bodies feel completely worn out, but their minds spar with them — did I use my body to its full potential? “Our minds played tricks on us,” says Tobias Read ’97, who rowed for WU for three years. “Though the truth was obvious — we had given all we could — I often thought that maybe I could have given just a little more.” When they remain confident that they did indeed use every last ounce of energy, “that is one of the most satisfying experiences,” Read says.
Those who have competed in other sports often say crew is more challenging. With boats containing two, four or eight rowers, it has a unique reliance on teamwork. “Until I joined crew, I’d never experienced a sport where you can’t even do it if someone doesn’t show up for practice,” says Grady, who also has played soccer, basketball and softball. “It requires a lot more commitment from people than many other sports.”
“You have to have faith in your teammates, faith that they can all move the boat,” Ralston says. “If you don’t believe it, then the boat can’t move.”
Rowing is easy to learn but takes a long time to truly master, participants say. And it’s not the most compelling sport to watch. Spectators on shore can see only one small fraction of a 2,000-meter race, can’t always tell who won unless they’re standing at the proper angle, then strain to pick out their favorite athlete in the boat.
Life is more about the long run — balancing your work, your family, your health, your passions.
It’s a sport that, at least on the West Coast, often struggles for attention. Crew has a long storied tradition in Europe and in the Northeastern U.S., where an 1852 race between Harvard and Yale became the first collegiate athletic competition for any sport, leading to an intense rivalry that continues today.
But the difficulties also lead to a special bond among the athletes. Many rowers marry other rowers. Parkman did: She recently married Olympian Tiff Wood, a famous name in rowing, after meeting him on the national circuit. John Peschel ’97 and Laura (Ryan) Peschel ’98 met on the water, as did Adam Withycombe ’98, MAT’01 and Jenny (Schaecher) Withycombe ’02, MAT’03.
The athletes know that only other rowers can understand their dedication, their great love for a sport they can try for the first time as a college freshman and take all the way to the national level within a few years. “Rowing is one of those things that’s so all-encompassing, it’s really hard for people outside of it to understand the lifestyle,” Jenny Withycombe says.
Parkman first fell in love with rowing while lying on a railroad trestle at 5 a.m., photographing rowers gliding by in morning practice.
It was 1979, and she had just started classes at Humboldt State University. Her roommates on the rowing team invited her to check out a practice, and the beauty of the boats on the water immediately appealed to her as a photographer. She spent the year taking pictures and listening to coaches talk about the sport.
Then she rowed herself? — and fell in love again. It was the beginning of a nearly 30-year career as a success-ful athlete and coach. After college, Parkman rowed a single and discovered her heart lay with racing. She competed all the way to the international level — though she has never raced on a national team.
It wasn’t that she didn’t have the skill to compete nationally. Over the years she coached teams of various sizes and ages, and even made it to the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens to coach a single sculler. But she discovered that wasn’t the level of competition she wanted. Working with young people — showing them a new sport and the life lessons they could gain from it — was dearer to her heart.
“I think rowing at a smaller school, where it’s not as competitive, is a much better introduction to what life is about,” she says. “It’s very rare that people become professional athletes. Life is more about the long run — balancing your work, your family, your health, your passions.”
Parkman came to Willamette in the middle of the spring 2006 season. The University’s previous crew coach, Rodney Mott, had taken a job coaching at Vassar College. Parkman and Wood had recently relocated to the Portland area, and she was looking for new coaching opportunities. When Willamette called, Parkman agreed to help out interim, thinking she would be here for a week. When she arrived at the boathouse for her first 5:30 a.m. practice, Athletics Director Mark Majeski handed her the reins.
WU crew had suffered several blows to enrollment in recent years, so Parkman has tried to plant her own seeds to re-grow the program. The rowers say they thrive on her experience and technical expertise. They say Parkman is meticulous, bringing out a chalkboard before every race to sketch out the course. It’s been quite a transition for her, from coaching some of the country’s top rowers who have completely dedicated their lives to the sport, to leading dedicated but busy college students trying to divide their time among multiple activities. “She’s been accustomed to working with people who wouldn’t stop rowing if their lives depended on it,” says Greg Henselman ’08. “It’s not always like that here.”
This is the first sport that I’ve really fallen in love with.
“Crew gives these kids so many life lessons,” Parkman repeats often. “Ninety-seven percent of these kids never rowed before they came to college. That’s the beauty of the sport. Anyone can have their novice season and learn how to row, and all of a sudden they’re a varsity athlete in college. They learn that if you really love something and you just stick to your guns and work hard, you can achieve what it is that you want to do.”
Coming into college with no previous rowing experience is typical of crew athletes everywhere. They might have played other sports in high school but didn’t feel as connected as they do when they go out on the water. Or maybe they’d never even tried a sport, thinking they couldn’t make a team unless they’d been playing since they were young.
When Marc Whitehead ’10 played sports in high school, he felt he didn’t have the same drive to be competitive as many of his teammates. When he tried crew at Willamette, he immediately sensed a difference — here was a sport where he could stay in shape, make close friends and just focus on his own strength.
“I realized I can actually be a good athlete if I apply myself,” he says. “This is the first sport that I’ve really fallen in love with. Not to say it’s not frustrating at times, but if you really truly love something, you’re still here the next day, no matter how frustrating it is.”
Laura Jones never rowed before college, but it wasn’t from lack of exposure to the sport. Her parents, Luther and Linda Jones, both rowed for the University of Pennsylvania. Luther Jones made it all the way to the Olympics — twice — in 1968 and 1972. Laura grew up with oars in her family’s garage and remembers her dad’s trunk full of Olympic uniforms. But the relics hold more meaning to her now that she’s a rower.
“This has been a great way for my dad and me to connect because he understands the commitment and the sacrifices you have to make for the sport,” she says. “It has opened up the communication between my father and me and given us tools to talk about other things.”
Jones is quickly making a name for herself in collegiate rowing. She spent the past summer attending two national rowing development camps — a prestigious honor. But like many of her teammates, when she talks about the sport, she focuses on the mental lessons she has gained from it. “Crew has changed my life for the better. You have to go to bed early, learn to manage your time, and make smart decisions in your social life. It’s a great life skill to be able to balance everything.
“Being one of the varsity athletes means people look up to you and trust you, and that gives you confidence in leadership. Knowing that you go out there every day and give it your all, that makes you feel good about yourself.”
Henselman commits himself to rowing because of the opportunities for personal growth. “The way crew expands you as a person, not just as a physical athlete, but as someone with a strong mind, is immense. There are so many lessons you can glean from it that carry over to the rest of your life.”
For Henselman, that included his academic life. In the past when he struggled with his stroke in crew or in swimming, his other sport, Henselman recalls focusing too much on one aspect of the stroke while ignoring the rest of his body. When he went back to the classroom, he applied the idea to his coursework by trying to remember the outline of the lesson rather than zeroing in on small details. “It’s really cool to see myself transferring something I got in crew — the ability to develop a level head — to other parts of my life. It’s something that you can’t really take as a lesson from someone else because it’s so internal.”
Academic lessons happen for many of the rowers. About a third of the team made last year’s Northwest Conference Scholar-Athlete Team, meaning they earned a cumulative GPA of at least 3.5 while on varsity. Five rowers posted a GPA of 3.75 or higher. “Rowers are dependable,” Parkman says. “Part of it is getting up so early. They’re more disciplined. They have to do a high number of strokes before they’re ready to race, so it takes a lot of dedication.”
Rowing may be the oldest intercollegiate sport, but at Willamette, its storied history stretches all the way back to ... 1991. That was the year a few students idea to create a team truly began to take shape. They formed a club and scrounged for donated boats. The shells they got were rickety, heavy and several decades old. One had reportedly sat at the bottom of Lake Washington.
Instead of a boathouse, they had a storage unit. For each practice, the athletes carried the heavy wooden boats on their shoulders about a quarter mile to and from the river. “Uphill both ways, of course,” John Peschel jokes.
They went through an array of coaches in the first few years. Two were later honored with their names on boats: The Spencer (after Bart Spencer, the first coach) and the Cynthia L. Cavanagh. Many early rowers stayed on as volunteer coaches after graduation, including Adam Withycombe, Ryan Kinnett ’98, MAT’02, Will Schmautz ’98, MAT’99, and Zack Page ’97.
Page and Sara Boylan ’95 are the two most credited with getting the program up and running. Both fondly remember those early years, when they would practice wherever they could find space, borrow other schools’ shells at races and incorporate boat renovation projects into their workouts.
“We trained hard during practice, but we never won a race,” Page says. “We’d show up at races wearing cotton T-shirts and baggy sweatpants, and we looked like a motley crew. It was the most eclectic group of rowers you’ve ever seen. We were all different sizes, shapes, athletic abilities.”
I’d heard from people what a fast boat was supposed to feel like and sound like. They said you can hear bubbles running down the hull.
Recruitment efforts were creative. Many early rowers remember Page scouting at Opening Days or going through the hallways of residence halls, looking for tall people and convincing them to come to a practice. Boylan, whose name also graces one of today’s boats, recalls novice rowers carrying wooden oars on campus to provoke others to ask questions. It worked. By 1994 crew had achieved varsity sport status.
“In the first couple of years, we had so many people turn out for crew during the first few weeks that we didn’t have enough boats for them,” Page says. “We were stretching in this dark shed with one light bulb and upwards of 130 people.”
But, typical of crew, many didn’t last.
“All these kids show up at first, and then day after day, more and more drop out,” Peschel says. “By the end of two months, you only have 15 to 20 percent left. It’s a lot of hard work and the learning curve up front is just so steep.
“The people who stick around, you know what they’re made of, regardless of their politics or what they decide to do. You know at their core they can go through all those 5 a.m. rainy practices. There’s just that common level of respect.”
One of the early memorable experiences for the men’s team was rowing at its first Pacific Coast Rowing Championship in 1996 in Sacramento, Calif. The men worked hard all year to make it to the race, hoping it would truly define Willamette’s program. They showed up looking green and scrappy as usual, but rowed their best and made it to the grand finals. “I’d heard from people what a fast boat was supposed to feel like and sound like,” says Adam Withycombe, the coxswain in that boat. “They said you can hear bubbles running down the hull. We never heard that until about two weeks before our race.”
Then came the boathouse. In 1997, thanks again to donations, the team was able to hire a construction company to build the basic frame for a boathouse in West Salem. It was the rowers themselves who painted, sanded and pounded many of the nails. Kinnett remembers a group of rowers spending a night in the boathouse with their sleeping bags, before the doors had even been hung. They rowed out from their new building at dawn’s light.
Many early rowers say the building of the boathouse led to crew becoming a serious sport at Willamette. It also helped when they got a steady coach, Rodney Mott, who led the team for a decade; many of his athletes credit his hard work and dedication with developing the program into what it is today. Throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, numbers steadily increased and the team raked in honors. After he graduated, Read used his public relations skills to help create the Governor’s Cup — ending crew’s status as “the permanent road team.”
Like today’s rowers, these alumni define crew as a turning point in their lives. “The empowerment I got from crew was something I didn’t feel when I did any other sport,” Jenny Withycombe says. “Everything about it really grounded my sense of self.”
“It’s amazing when you’re out on the river early in the morning. It’s so peaceful, you’re doing something great for your body, and you’re creating this amazingly tight group of rowers,” Boylan says. “You get something physical out of it, and you get something spiritual out of it.”
Willamette rowers will tell you that it almost always rains during the Governor’s Cup. And so the skies opened at this year’s regatta in early April. At the boathouse, Parkman briefed her team on the rules of the day and which lanes they would race in. Her final advice: “Just enjoy yourselves.”
As the novice girls lined up beside their boat, preparing to hit the water for the first race, Parkman walked slowly down the line, patting each young woman on the shoulder. “Have a good race,” she said, sharing a smile with each athlete.
It was one of the last races of the day that drew the most attention: the women’s varsity eight boats, with Willamette competing against Seattle Pacific University and Lewis & Clark College. WU’s boat was almost half-filled with novices due to the lack of varsity participants. The women in this boat had struggled all season to get in sync.
But they came off the start line quickly and pulled ahead of the other two boats early. They were rowing 32 strokes a minute — high for them — but they tried to stay relaxed and put all the power they could into every stroke. For the first time, several of the women said later, it felt like they were really working together. When they reached the bridges, they sailed through, leading second-place SPU by about a boat-length.
They continued pulling away in the last few hundred meters, when they finally came into the spectators’ view. The cheering gave them that extra push they needed to cross the finish line with a time of 6:29.90 — 15.3 seconds ahead of SPU. It was the boat’s first win of the season.
Onlookers from the dock could see the girls heaving, trying to catch their breath and come down from the adrenalin rush brought on by the full-out sprint of the last six minutes. Those who squinted through the rain were rewarded with a better sight.