April 6, 2010
SEATTLE - No matter how talented or inexperienced rowers are when they matriculate at Washington, the goal of the novice program is to mold them into Huskies.
This is no easy task. Rowing is an arduous sport not for the meek, and novice coaches are charged with seeding the program with capable student-athletes who can handle the rigorous workload and have the right mental attitude. In this regard, the Huskies couldn't be more pleased with the work of novice coach Nicole Minett.
The women's novice team is off to a scorching start, coming off a sweep of Stanford, Iowa and Wisconsin at the Pac-10 Challenge over the weekend. For Minett's rowers, this was their first intercollegiate sprint competition. And yet the group managed three open-water victories against high-level competition. All in all, the Husky women won eight of nine races against their opponents at the Redwood Shores.
As the program returns to its perch as a national power, the need for a quality novice program is especially paramount. Quality freshmen lead to strong varsity rowers.
"The No. 1 goal for the novice coach is the transformation of really good recruits into Huskies," said women's coach and rowing director Bob Ernst. "The metamorphosis if you will. You can look at any really successful intercollegiate program, male or female, and the really successful ones have had good freshman - slash- novice coaches."
Minett is an integral part of the revitalization process. A Husky herself, Minett is schooled in what it takes to compete as an oarswoman at Washington. She's used to breaking down rowers and re-building them as Huskies because she went through the same process herself more than a decade ago after arriving to Seattle from the Toronto suburb of Mississauga, Ontario.
Knowing this, Minett (née Borges) puts everyone on the same playing field the first practice of the season, whether they're an accomplished junior rower or a walk-on. Then the pecking order starts to shake itself out.
"The early fall is important for those with experience to get as much advantage on the walk-ons," Minett said, "because by November the walk-ons are up to speed and know what it takes to be a rower. So hopefully the experienced ones are ahead, or otherwise the walk-ons take them down."
During an early morning practice this week, Minett's coaching skills worked on sharpening the focus of a talented, but still-developing group of novice rowers. She pushed them, asking for more than their bodies were prepared to give.
"No matter where your heads at today, I need your best effort this morning," Minett said. "Be prepared to learn how to push."
Minett came to the Huskies after a five-year stint coaching at Wisconsin. The schools are similar, so the first call Ernst made in August 2008 when he had the opening was to Minett. First off, she had impressive credentials as a rower under Jan Harville here at UW. But being a Husky was only small part of the equation. Ernst cited passion and the willingness to work hard as his two requirements for a freshman/novice coach, in order to handle the "nuclear showdown" known as recruiting in collegiate rowing. For Ernst, Minett checked out well in both.
"She's an extraordinary leader for the young women and she's a very good technician," Ernst said. "She's on fire. She's just really good."
Excited about the opportunity, Minett jumped at the chance to coach at the UW, calling it her "dream job." Now she balances coaching with married life. Her husband Charlie is a former UW captain and they're raising a nine-month old daughter, Sophia, who is a frequent visitor at Minett's office at Conibear Shellhouse.
"I was floored when they presented me with this opportunity," Minett said. "It didn't take me too long to figure out this is where I wanted to be. I think it's cool the prospect of turning this program around and getting it back on its feet."
Minett is excited about her team's performance over the weekend, but tempered her emotions by noting there was still plenty of work to do on the water. Washington State is forthcoming this weekend, and archrival Cal looms three weeks away. In the meantime, there's a lot of hard work and instilling the need for her rowers to maintain the discipline required from championship crews, which she believes is in place.
"You have to be tenacious," Minett said. "And in terms of development, it says a lot about the type of girls we have this year. We have very feisty rowers that are focused on doing the best they can to push for the rest of the team."