May 24, 2010
SEATTLE - A.J. Brooks doesn't fit the mold of a prototypical rower - or at least, that's the perception. Outsiders tend to think of Husky oarsmen as hulking ogres pulled from some foreign hinterland, capable of pulling insane erg scores. The reality, of course, is quite different.
At 6-0, and 160 pounds soaking wet, Brooks has the build of an East Coast lightweight rower. Yet he's managed to earn himself the No. 2 seat in the nation's best freshmen eight, a prestigious accomplishment considering there are often over 100 rowers who come out each fall. Brooks succeeds because he embodies the Washington philosophy. He's the type of rower who races as if his hair was on fire and earns it on every practice piece.
"I'm undersized," Brooks said. "I felt like I had to put it all on the line each day to compete with everyone here. But I focused on rowing well and being efficient."
Because Brooks lacks the additional leverage on the oar that comes with height, he has to compensate in other areas. For one, he pays strict attention to his diet and fitness. So while he may not be able to produce the same power that a 6-6 oarsman can, he can make up for the deficiency with endurance, technical ability and intensity.
For example, Brooks took up Crossfit while in high school in Newport Beach, Calif. The workout discipline involves a random selection of sprinting, Olympic lifting and gymnastics, which often brings a person to muscular and metabolic failure at the same time. His fitness pays now because it allows Brooks to give maximum effort during a piece, and then recover quickly enough to go all out on the next one.
In many ways, his arrival to UW is similar to that of men's coach Michael Callahan, who came to Seattle from Arlington, Va., as a 160-pound rower himself. Another reason Brooks is given the opportunity to succeed is the meritocracy of the Washington program. So much of what the Huskies do is based on work in the pair boats, which is the best pure test of a rower's ability. For much of the fall, everyone is tested by a finite number of pair trials, and this is where Brooks proved he could move on the water.
"He's really maximized the gifts that he has," Callahan said. "When we have a boathouse full of people like that, good things happen."
Rowing in the pair plays right into his strengths. Before coming to Washington, Brooks honed his pair-boat skills so much that he eventually earned a selection to the 2008 Junior Worlds in Linz, Austria. His boat finished fourth, just missing the podium by .4 seconds. That setback has fueled Brooks' training at Washington, particularly when it comes to the Cal Dual. The boat that Brooks' pair lost to in Austria was guided by an Australian duo, one of whom now rows on the freshmen team in Berkeley.
"We went in being a big underdog," Brooks said. "Our first step was to make it through the trials, second step was make it through the heat, make it through the semis, and then all of a sudden we're in the grand final. And then it's like, `let's go for it.'"
The opportunity to row internationally is back on the agenda this summer. Brooks was recently invited to the U-23 lightweight selection camp, where he'll compete for a spot at the World Championships in Belarus. This goes lockstep with Washington's mantra of developing and producing oarsmen who can compete at the international level. Brooks' selection confirms that eight Huskies from the men's team will have that opportunity.
It also dispels that the perception of Washington is a factory where only the archetypal heavyweight rower can succeed. The endgame for the Huskies is to man boats with people who can move them the fastest down a 2,000-meter course. This will be tested one last time at the IRA Championships in June on the Cooper River in New Jersey, where the boat hopes to put a cap on an undefeated season."
"It goes to show you don't have to be a huge guy or pull a big erg," said freshmen coach Luke McGee. "So long as you work hard and move the boat you will be a successful Washington oarsman."