April 27, 2010
SEATTLE - Oxford rowers enjoy a certain celebrity status over in England. When Washington freshmen coach Luke McGee stepped off a bus in London almost a decade ago - and was immediately recognized by a rowing fan - he discovered just how bright the spotlight can be.
The addition of Oxford to the 24th annual Windermere Cup has added a marquee-worthy opponent to what is already one of the best events for rowing in the world. McGee spent a year working on his masters at the English university, where he also rowed for the prestigious Dark Blues.
In the sport of rowing, there are no two older programs than Oxford and Cambridge. Both schools set the trend for intercollegiate competition back in 1829, when two schoolboys agreed to settle a challenge on the Henley-on-Thames in London. By 1836, the race had become an annual event. Now the race has evolved into an international rowing gala, complete with full television coverage both in England and abroad.
Outside of the Olympics, rowing for Oxford or Cambridge is one of the highest honors to achieve in the sport.
"It's like being a star of the football team here in the States," McGee said. "People know who you are. Imagine (Washington QB) Jake Locker walking around campus and everyone says, `Oh man, that's Jake Locker. People know who you are...You get the sense that you are a part of a bigger picture."
As an oarsman for the Dark Blues, McGee was fortunate enough to experience the pomp and circumstance that surrounds "The Boat Race," the official term for the Oxford-Cambridge dual. It was certainly nothing like what he experienced as a collegiate rower. After graduating from Brown in 2001, the Bridgeport, Conn., native was accepted into a master's program in comparative social policy at Oxford, a diploma that now hangs above his office at Conibear Shellhouse.
His introduction into Oxford rowing, though, was an education almost by itself.
An example: Fresh off a plane ride from the United States to London, McGee was soon on his way to mainland Europe, where Oxford was racing a Spanish club in Zaragoza. He would regularly turn open a newspaper and see full breakdowns of races, with lineups posted and pundits offering their analysis. Press officers within the university regularly met with rowers to polish them before news conferences.
"It was really an exciting environment," McGee said. "It was cool to see the level of interest people had in the sport."
The crush that surrounded The Boat Race was not the biggest takeaway for McGee from his Oxford experience. Instead it was the deep historical roots and the traditions that go back with the Oxford Boat Club, a tight-knit fraternal group who are in constant support of the program. The tradition is similar to what oarsmen have experienced at Washington, and McGee makes sure to remind his freshmen that their path is entirely shaped by their own accomplishments. In a nod towards nostalgia, McGee also recounted his experiences on campus, where he was fortunate to have the academic guidance of a single advisor and experience an academic environment that challenged him.
Acceptance into Oxford is a difficult hurdle. But McGee put himself through the gambit after reading "True Blue," an insider's perspective of Oxford rowing by Dan Topolski. It led him to an experience he'll remember for his lifetime.
After Oxford decamped at Conibear Shellhouse on Tuesday morning, McGee greeted a few familiar faces within the traveling party. The Dark Blues spent the afternoon training on the Montlake Cut as other members of their group snapped pictures of Lake Washington and the nearby Cascade Mountains.
Seattle is now the place McGee calls home, and an area where he's had incredible career success. Under his stewardship, the 2009 Husky freshmen swept through the spring season on their way to an IRA title. McGee has been so instrumental in Huskies' success that men's coach Michael Callahan said he is still "the most valuable person I've ever recruited to the University of Washington."
"Luke does an amazing job of playing the dual role of motivating his own team while supporting the overall goal of the Washington Rowing program," Callahan added.
Professional success aside, one of the reasons McGee enjoys his life in the Pacific Northwest is the attention rowing receives here in the region.
"The number of people who are interested in the sport out here with the masters and the juniors and the UW; it is a sport that gets publicity," McGee said. "There are a lot of people who are interested in what our oarsmen are doing."