June 20, 2011
SEATTLE - One of the best years of Ty Otto's life was off to a rotten start. Like most seniors, Otto entered his final season at Washington with high expectations - but found reality was not so accommodating.
Already balancing a complicated double major with rowing, Otto struggled academically in his fall classes. Then an illness sapped much of his strength and led to sub-par results in training with the UW men's crew program, leading to his eventual demotion from the varsity boat.
Fast forward to the present, and those struggles are now only a memory. Otto ended his rowing career back in the varsity boat and with a National Championship at IRAs in his last collegiate race. Academically, Otto graduated with degrees in political science and physics, and was awarded $4,000 through two scholarships: the Pac-10 postgraduate scholarship and the Gertrude Peoples scholarship. Total it up, and Otto won two of the six academic awards the UW athletic department presents each year.
The most impressive honor, though, was Otto's selection as the UW's Arts & Sciences gonfaloniere - the student who leads the department's banner at graduation. Considering only six graduating seniors out of thousands are selected for this each year, the achievement spoke volumes about Otto's success in the classroom. It came as a surprise to Otto, who received an email asking for his participation in the event. Behind the scenes, the process for selecting gonfalonieres is a laborious process involving faculty recommendations and several rounds of vetting.
"The chance to play a role in the graduation ceremony was really special for me," Otto said. "And it was nice to finish off the academic side of my career on a high note."
The process started when Dr. Robert Stacey, the divisional dean for the College of Arts & Sciences, contacted Kim Durand, the UW associate athletic director for student development.
"It's a pretty exclusive group," Durand said. "There's a committee who decides who best represents the value of the College of Arts & Sciences, which is the largest on campus."
What surprised Durand is that in six years on the job at Washington, no student-athlete has earned the honor of carrying the banner. Otto's scholastic accomplishments are at the forefront of what Husky coach Michael Callahan - who graduated from the UW in 1996 - has made a priority since taking over in 2007. Not just content with success on the water, Callahan has challenged his rowers to be better students.
"Mike really does stress academics and he sets clear goals," Otto said. "I think when you factor in the amount of work that rowing adds it's a pretty big accomplishment."
Washington oarsmen accounted for 16 Pac-10 All-Academic honors recently, including nine rowers who made the first team. This tied for the conference lead with Stanford, considered one of the definitive academic institutions in the world. No other Pac-10 school had more than 10 total honorees. The team also set an athletic department benchmark with the highest GPA of a team with more than 25 members.
"It's gone from my idea to one of the definitive standards of the team," Callahan said. "One of Ty's legacies was helping to raise the academic legacy of our team and raising what they're expected to accomplish while they're here."
The outside perception of Washington as a large state institution belies the reality of endless opportunities and top-notch professors. When Otto took recruiting trips, he recognized the academic support for rowing at UW was peerless. On campus, Otto formed a tight network of advisers and mentors to help facilitate his academic goals. Otto graduated from one of the top magnet high schools in America (Thomas Jefferson), meaning he had his pick of elite schools to attend college. He chose UW, and hasn't looked back.
"Whatever major you want there's going to be someone in that field who is an expert," Otto said. "I really saw the payoff for that here."
Athletically, Otto emerged from his winter malaise. His fitness improved during the spring, and his performance in the second varsity eight was worth merit. But the Huskies' top boat was undefeated, and after a convincing win at the Pac-10 Championships, Otto wasn't sure Callahan would be open to seat-racing. To Otto's surprise, that was exactly the plan Callahan formulated when the team began training for IRAs.
"It was a risk, for sure," Otto said of the late-season change into the varsity. "But it was also a big opportunity for me. I kept going out to every practice thinking, `This might be the day.'"
Otto is currently in San Diego training with the U-23 USRowing squad. The team is in the midst of selections for the U-23 World Championships this July in Amsterdam. But Otto has his eye on his professional future as well. He's applying to policy research firms in both Seattle and Washington, D.C., and is also waiting to hear back from Oxford.
Ultimately, a great senior year dovetailed with a great career at UW.
"This has been a tremendous growth experience for me," Otto said. "When you look at all the support from the community, the alumni, the facilities, the coaching, Windermere Cup and the media, I can't say enough about everything that I've been fortunate to be a part of here."