May 14, 2010
SEATTLE - Rowing is, by any reckoning, a serious sport. But that's not for lack of trying by Conlin McCabe.
One of the most obvious examples is his nonsensical screaming during practice, if only to spark his teammates through the paces of a taxing morning practice on Lake Washington. It's also no surprise to see the 6-8 McCabe show up sporting a faux-hawk or a mullet, a hairstyle he's coined the "Canadian Waterfall," or the "Beavertail."
The Brockville, Ontario native has even been known to spray paint his Oakley sunglasses different colors, depending on the regatta. And then there are the bright hats...
"I mean if things are going kind of bad or if we're having a tough row I'll throw in a joke and lighten the sense of humor, I'm going to try and spark something; try and keep it exciting," McCabe said. "A lot of the times in the winter it can get pretty long, guys might start going through the paces, I just want to try and keep it alive and keep as fresh as I can."
But McCabe's lampooning sense of humor belies a maturity not normally associated with college sophomores. His race mantra never strays - he rows to win. Nothing else is acceptable. Every time he straps into a Washington eight, his goal is to throw down the best row possible.
The competitive edge is what leads men's coach Michael Callahan to describe the Canadian as the prototypical "Washington oarsman," i.e. someone who's apt to handle the intense competition for seats and battles on every piece, not just in races. But mental fortitude is only a part of what makes McCabe the fulcrum in Callahan's blueprint for the boat.
In the four seat, McCabe's considerable power is able to buttress the near flawless technical proficiency of the stern pair of Mathis Jessen and Tom Lehmann, his teammates from the historic, undefeated freshmen boat of 2009. This combination has given the Huskies a level of speed rarely seen within intercollegiate rowing, as evidenced by their undefeated run through the spring sprint season.
Because of his youth, the 19-year-old McCabe is still learning how to harness his abilities as a rower. This comes with seasoning, both here in Seattle and in Victoria, British Columbia, with the Canadian national team during the summer months. Like most elite-level Huskies, McCabe has designs on the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. His resume is already dotted with international experience, such as the 2009 U-23 World Championships in Poland, a silver medal at the 2008 U-23 World Championships in Germany and another silver at the Junior World Championships in China.
The international connections are part of the reason McCabe ended up at UW from tiny Brockville, an industrial town just south of Ottawa. During summers in high school, McCabe trained for the Junior Worlds on Shawinigan Lake in B.C., where he formed a fast friendship with Vancouver native Anthony Jacob, who's now a junior in the varsity eight. Jacob was later McCabe's host on his recruiting visit to Washington.
"I could tell he liked the place, and I always thought the West Coast was great place especially opportunities wise," McCabe said. "We knew that we could probably do something together on this team."
Conversely, the UW coaches were excited about McCabe's pedigree. He rose through the ranks of one of the most prestigious rowing clubs in Canada - Brockville R.C. This is a prep program that annually sends boat to Henley in England, and has consistently seeded Rowing Canada Aviron. Like most Canadian schoolboys, McCabe started out a hockey player. But once his interests diverted towards rowing, it became an insatiable passion.
When McCabe matriculated at Washington, he found himself surrounded by a wealth of talent in the freshmen boat. Both Jessen and Lehmann had the polish that comes with extensive international experience. McCabe at first had trouble keeping up. But he was patient and coachable, and it was clear to the staff that this group would be something special. He was a model freshman rower.
"He's just so incredibly talented on many levels: physically, technically and mentally," said freshmen coach Luke McGee. "He's incredibly good at this sport. His top end is way out on the end of the horizon. He hasn't even gotten there yet. But yet, he can be a goof and have fun with this sport."
The last trait is particularly important to a sport that relies so much on discipline and torturous workouts. McCabe is also a free spirit who focuses on the present; he doesn't get down about a bad row or caught up in this boat's potential legacy. His focus is on each week, and making the Huskies a faster boat with each piece.
"Each week we're building to another level hopefully and we want to keep that ball rolling," McCabe said. "It's not about being remembered. We just want to have some serious fast times."
His whimsical personality extends off the water as well. During a stint with the Canadian team, someone bestowed spirit animals on each of the rowers. Somehow, McCabe was branded with the hippo, a moniker he carries with pride around Conibear Shellhouse.
And what makes the hippo so apt a description?
"Because everyone thinks hippos are cute, well-mannered animals," Callahan said. "When in reality, they are the most dangerous animals on the planet. That's Conlin."