April 13, 2010
SEATTLE - When Jay Thompson arrived at Conibear Shellhouse last year for his "Intro to Rowing" meeting, he wasn't quite sure what to expect. Neither were the other 100 people who had come out.
But the reality of the sport hit them like a bucket of ice water when freshmen coach Luke McGee laid out the hard work and commitment being a Husky oarsman entails. The next day, Thompson saw 40 fewer faces.
The walk-on tradition for rowing at the University of Washington is one of the most heralded aspects of the program. It creates something imminently attainable for athletes who would be unable to compete at the Division I level in other sports. There are tales at Conibear of athletes walking in the door having never touched an oar, and leaving an Olympian. A rower who works hard and is disciplined, for example, can compete with the elites of the sport.
This is the storyline Thompson followed when he matriculated at Washington. He rowed five seat in the freshmen eight that went undefeated last year, leaving their footprint as one of the most impressive crews in the history of the program. But attaining that level of success is something Thompson never could have imagined when he set foot on campus. Never mind the legacy walk-on rowers have attained on Montlake throughout the history of the program at Washington.
"The bulk of our rowing alumni constituents walked on here, and that's why it's such a special tradition here," said men's coach Michael Callahan. "It's important that we still offer the opportunity for student-athletes at universities, and we like to think that we're a leader in that regard. It's one of the great niches that rowing fulfills in intercollegiate sports.
A native of Boulder, Colo., the 6-5 Thompson was a quarterback and swimmer at Fairview High School, possessing the multi-sport background the rowing coaches prefer - but do not require - in walk-ons. While talented in both pursuits, Thompson was never a Division I candidate in either. But his sister was a collegiate rower (Wisconsin), and so Thompson made an introductory phone call to McGee.
McGee invited him to the intro meeting, and ominously added that Thompson "come in shape." The first few meetings were more meet-and-greet, but then McGee took the rowers over to a nearby field for sprints, and that's where the real introduction began. More and more kids filtered out. The coaching staff, though, never worried about Thompson.
"He was tough enough from other sports that you just knew, literally, from Day 1 that he was going to make it," McGee said. "He had it. Some kids take a long time to blossom. But Jay was one of those kids that just had it instantly."
While Thompson stood out by how quickly he adapted to the sport, he made it a point to align with the recruited rowers in his class. He mirrored how they prepared for a practice. He took their advice and criticisms, and leaned heavy on their race experience.
For all the successes Thompson achieved as a freshman, it's here in his sophomore year that has presented the first glimpse of real adversity. Competition at the varsity level is intense, and Thompson narrowly missed out on the team's winter training trip to San Diego during the fall duels in the pair boats. Frustrated and upset, he returned to Colorado and took a week off to regroup. Then he put himself through his own "hell week" to make sure the rowers in Southern California were not a leg up when the team reconvened in Seattle.
"Not going to San Diego really hit me hard," Thompson said. "I felt like I had worked really hard in the fall, and that I was on an upward trend. To not go on the trip, that was really disappointing. So I definitely carried that into the winter."
It's a harsh reminder of how deep the Washington program is at the varsity level. Thompson still competes in practice because he knows seats are always in play. But he's achieved his goal of rowing in the second varsity, which has won both of its races this season against Stanford and Oregon State. Meanwhile, Thompson also serves as a sympathetic ear and mentor for the current freshmen walk-ons. It's an honor he enjoys bearing, mostly because it's so easy "to root for those guys."
What's helped overall is a philosophy where Thompson worries about what he can control, and less about what his teammates are doing.
"I keep track of beating myself each day," Thompson said. "And if I keep beating myself, I'll hopefully end up where I want to be."