June 23, 2010
SEATTLE - Brandon Taft could not have envisioned the impact rowing would have during his freshman year at Washington. The sport has offered the Fircrest, Wash., native the chance to succeed as a walk-on and win both a Pac-10 gold medal and a National Championship as the bow man for the Grunties, as freshmen rowers at UW are called.
Now, he's been presented an opportunity to row at the Henley Royal Regatta - one of the finest accomplishments a rower can achieve.
The Huskies are England-bound this week to train and race at Henley, a knockout head-to-head series of races on the River Thames that pit the best of the world against each other. Prior to arriving at Washington, though, Taft would have never thought such a trip was feasible. Primarily a football and basketball player at nearby Bellarmine Prep, Taft had never touched an oar before he was reluctantly convinced to attend a crew walk-on meeting at Conibear Shellhouse.
"I came to UW thinking I might row," Taft said. "I never dreamed it would take me as far as a place like London. It's a pretty exciting experience for me and especially our boat in general."
Ten months later and Taft has been molded into a bona fide boat mover. His power is what made freshman coach Luke McGee perk up and notice from the beginning, and from there the challenge was to teach Taft how to translate those skills to the water. Originally, Taft was set on attending a small college and playing lower-division sports. He considered schools like Occidental, Willamette and Redlands, but during the process it became apparent he was burnt out on football after nine years of butting heads with the other powers of the Tacoma area for Bellarmine. It was time for something different.
What makes rowers like Taft special is he doesn't have to be prodded to row hard. The first time McGee sat him on an ergometer, Taft smoked the workout.
"He was a guy that you know was going to work extremely hard," McGee said. "You knew power wasn't going to be an issue for him. Technique? We can figure that out. That's the beauty of the walk-on; he had that drive before he even showed up."
While Taft learned to develop and grow as a rower, the same had to occur for the Grunties as a whole. This group was nowhere near as heralded as the 2009 version, which featured several student-athletes who had already achieved success on the international level, such as Mathis Jessen, Tom Lehmann and Conlin McCabe. For the early part of the season, they searched for an identity. One day during the winter, McGee was so fed up with his group that he left their workout on the whiteboard and left. During the next practice piece, a fired-up freshmen boat came out and walked-through the second varsity. More impressively, they hung with the varsity for much of the workout, a grand accomplishment when you put novice rowers against the best in the nation against one another.
Now the Grunties will go against the elite crews of the world in England, an experience unlike anything collegiate rowers can claim. The course at Henley is slightly longer than 2,000 meters and the racing is done side-to-side, i.e. up close and personal. It's as close as possible to putting two crews in a cage and letting them fight it out.
But when McGee told the freshmen about Henley, it was a scramble for Taft, who didn't have a passport and had never left North America before. The logistical hurdle was fairly easy to correct and with passport now in hand, Taft is pumped to hop on a 10-hour flight and go race - an experience possible when he made the decision to walk-on at Washington.
"I want to go represent our country and the University of Washington," Taft said. "I want everyone to know what we do here."