March 1, 2013
By Jocelyn Perry
SEATTLE - Four years ago, Madison Culp was making one of the biggest decisions of her life. Like her friends around her, the then high school senior was deciding where to go to college. Having rowed for Green Lake Crew, Madison was recruited across the nation to join elite-caliber programs. After narrowing down her decision to Cal and Washington, she took an official visit to UW.
Between the cherry trees, Rainier Vista, Conibear Shellhouse and the famous Montlake Cut, Culp fell in love. She also knew she would have a great support system, she went to Roosevelt High School, but she knew she would come to have another family with head coach Bob Ernst at the reins.
"I was getting up and watching a lot of kids row, and Madison was clearly one of the hardest working, most aggressive kids that was rowing in anyone's program," says Ernst. "I just really, really, really wanted her to come here."
Coming off a successful senior season at Green Lake, Culp was expected to commandeer the water at UW, but more importantly she expected no less than greatness from herself. But instead of rowing for herself, she rowed for the coaches. So she focused on getting good ergs, rowing machine results, and tried harder and harder to increase her numbers. As any upperclassman knows, there are more variables on the water than erg numbers.
Her sophomore year wasn't much better. Her performance on the water was stagnant, her ergs weren't improving and on top of her rowing slump, her grades were dropping. Culp decided to try out for the U23 Women's National Team Camp in 2011. She made it through to the trials in Oklahoma City, Okla., then Princeton, N.J., for roster finalizations. Culp was cut during final team selections before the team headed to Amsterdam for the U23 World Championships.
"When I was cut from U23 team it was one of the lowest moments in my rowing career," recalls Culp. "To have a result like that was devastating."
Culp hit a crossroads. She had dedicated the past six years of her life to the sport only to come up short. Her friends and family expected her failures to break her. How could a 20-year-old rebound from this many losses?
The summer she got cut, Culp was angry. She had put in hours upon hours of work, but those hours didn't translate into how fit she should be. Those hours didn't translate into her getting cut from U23s.
She began reflecting on the past two years. Had she truly employed every opportunity for her to be successful? Success isn't simply the sum of hours and work ethic, but is also the result of a healthy environment.
Culp went back to the drawing board.
Summer 2011 she refocused and reinvigorated her thinking. Instead of solely having an end goal, she took her training day-by-day and focused on making herself a little bit better each day. This mentality transferred outside her training. Culp was eating better, studying properly, earning better grades. Not only were those small daily changes making her a better rower and a better teammate, but also she was a happier person.
Junior year was a development, a transformation year. After looking back on what she could improve upon, Culp knew she had to go back to the basics and improve her base fitness.
Those small focuses gave Culp the building blocks to move the smaller boats better, which would hopefully convert to the bigger boats.
"Some days were definitely better than others but what kept me going was that I never want to be back in the same state that I was during U23s," recalls Culp. "Hopefully the little decisions and training moves I was doing on a daily basis would catch up to me one day."
She began working out with All-Pac-12 Conference Kirstyn Goodger in the pair, and Culp immediately saw results from the changes in her training. The two were focused on making the boat as fast as possible, and the sport finally clicked in her head.
"That was when I finally learned that rowing was not just about going hard, it was about fitness, finesse and vibing with the women you are rowing with," said Culp.
That year, rowing clicked for both Culp and the women's program. Every rower was working hard and progressing both individually and as a team. The women's team finished second at the Pac-12 Championships, a significant improvement from the year before. And as Culp figured out, it's a recipe for success.
With everything falling into place, Culp decided to try out for the U23 camp once again.
"I was extremely apprehensive to try out because that outcome would be a direct reflection of my work as an athlete and I wasn't sure if I was ready to face that again," remembers Culp. "But I needed to face that reality head on."
She survived the cuts and made the team, which won gold at the U23 World Championships in Lithuania.
"I still listen to the coxswain recording and I get shivers," Culp thinks back, with a smile. "That was by far the greatest moment of my life thus far."
Now in her senior year, Culp has all the tools in place to make her and the team successful.
"She's strong, she's fit, she's really skillful now," says Ernst. "She's matured as an athlete and she's developed into a really beautiful person. She's what you really hope the local kids turn into. She's a world champion; she's the whole package now."
"The biggest rowing change I made from freshman year until now is my overall focus in training," Culp says. "What once was the erg scores and bench pull contests, now my mentality is `how can I make these boats move as fast as possible?'"
When her senior year comes to an end, Culp plans on trying out for the U23 team again. After that, she plans to go to the east coast and work at a training facility.
"But she has stepped up, she's doing well in school, she's a leader on the team and there's just no question in my mind that Madison has the tools and the motivation to be one of the country's best rowers," says Ernst. "I think she can be an Olympian if she stays healthy. The sky's the limit for Madison."
No matter where she ends up with her rowing career, she will take the skills learned on Montlake wherever she will go. More importantly, she will leave her formula for success at Washington for the future of the women's program.