March 8, 2010
SEATTLE - In a program full of traditions, the `Ham n Eggers' might be the one Washington rowers look forward to the most.
On a windy, raw afternoon Monday, the varsity Huskies were placed into four boats and sprinted down the 2,000-meter course, splitting the Montlake Cut and emptying into Lake Union. But this is no typical practice. The lineups are chosen at random, a lunch pail and egalitarian practice that has defined the `Ham n Eggers' tradition since Stan Pocock started it back in 1950. Coxswains of each boat pull tongue depressors - which have the rowers' names inscribed on them - out of a hat, giving them a random boat with rowers from all levels (sans frosh) of the program. This allows for a sometimes fair, always random, race.
Winners of a `Ham n Eggers' race receive a star on their tongue blade. Those who have won four stars have their tongue blade retired. For the oarsmen and women at Washington, it's a fun way to start the week, compared to the typical heavy workloads most of the student-athletes stomach during the winter training season. "This is fun," said men's coach Michael Callahan. "After the weekend you want to get people excited about the week. It's a fun thing to do when everyone is focused on hard work. It really unifies the team."
While the premise is fun for the rowers, it's a test for the coxswains. Coaches grade the coxswains on every detail. Their race strategy is critiqued (ex: did they pick the correct line going down the course?), and each one is outfitted with a recorder so their calls can be listened to later.
The program currently does seven `Ham n Eggers' a season, though that number has varied over the course of time.
During these trials, rowers learn what it takes to win races. This is how assistant coach Ben Fletcher described the process, given what is at stake for each of them. He drew upon an anecdote from legendary women's soccer player Mia Hamm, who famously said that while she lost just one collegiate match at North Carolina, she was defeated in practice all the time.
"You have to learn to succeed with what you have," Fletcher said.
The random nature of the draws can make for some interesting lineups. It's not uncommon for the varsity stroke to lead a boat filled with oarsmen from the third or even fourth boats. Throughout the race's history, there have been future Olympians who have few `Ham n Egger' stars on their tongue blades, and vice-versa.
On Monday, the winning boat had a handful of rowers who earned the right to retire their tongue blades. Both Blaise Didier and Rob Munn picked up their fourth star, while stroke Mathis Jessen tallied his seventh. Coxswain Michelle Darby received her second.
During the race, the winning Lane One boat walked through Lane Two, providing a valuable experience for the future. How much the race means to the rowers was evident afterwards, as several lost their lunch in the Montlake Cut during the soft row back to Conibear Shellhouse.
"We feel like this really unifies the team," Callahan said. "It simulates the race-day experience for us."