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Gregg Bell Unleashed: Do-it-all Crew Coach Michael Callahan Never Stops Competing
Release: 07/13/2011
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July 13, 2011

By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing

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SEATTLE - I wanted to find out how the national-championship coach of Washington's oldest and most successful sports program, Michael Callahan, kicks back during his summer vacation. After all, this is one of the only stretch of weeks in the year his crew team isn't fiendishly training or competing.

Yeah, right.

Husky crew never stops competing. At anything.

Since the time his Huskies won their second Intercollegiate Rowing Association championship in three years under his direction, Callahan, has not stopped competing. It is fitting that this 37-year-old former Navy brat is comfortable with a fast pace. Callahan's resume includes: Bloomberg News, a temporary job at Goldman Sachs, the U.S. Olympic Team, and a cross-country move for a coaching internship at his alma mater U.W.

The 2011 Pac-10 rowing coach of the year is in the community, raising money to sustain his national power during one of the most important fund-raising periods of the year. He is planning a fall season, winter training, and the defense of UW's national title in 2012. And he's going up against Harvard, California, Wisconsin and other national powers all summer in recruiting the top teenage rowers in the world. Callahan is also planning his wedding for this fall to former Yale rower Joanna Hess, daughter of two-time Husky crew captain Mike Hess

Callahan has been in New Jersey through June, watching high-school seasons end and watch the club teams season's begin. By stroke of luck, I caught him in his office at the impressive Conibear between more meetings on fundraising, training and recruiting.

Now he's on his way to Europe, first to coach the United States' straight four at the 2011 World Rowing Under-23 Championships in Amsterdam. He will stay overseas into August, looking to add to the Huskies' dominant and international roster and scouting the World Rowing Junior Championships in Eton Dorney, Great Britain.

"Rowing is a very European-centric sport. Plus there is Australia, New Zealand and other spots. So you see the youngest, best people in the world - and we've attracted some to the University of Washington," said the youthful-looking Callahan, who rowed for legendary coach Bob Ernst at UW from 1992-96, won gold medals at the world junior and under-23 championships that decade, and then made the 2004 U.S. Olympic team as a spare.

Callahan isn't coming back from his summer travels with pictures and postcards. His team is one of the most diverse and accomplished in the country, and not just on the water.

"I really enjoy the fact that at the University of Washington, we can go get the best rower in his age in the world. We are that attractive to him," the coach said. "It's interesting, they are attracted not only by the rowing, but the school, too. They say, `I really like your computer engineering program. I really like your mathematics program.'"

In one quarter last academic year 39 Washington rowers combined for a grade-point average of 3.30, second among men's sports only to the 3.48 of Huskies men's tennis - which has 1/3rd the number of athletes on its team. Sixteen members of the national-championship crew team made the most recent Pac-10 All-Academic team. The list of majors among crew looks like one from a Rhodes Scholar competition: biochemistry, mathematics, physics, pre-engineering, and anthropology, among others.

The Huskies also have three rising senior rowers who are in ROTC and aspiring to be in the Navy and Marines: C.J. Miller, Reiner Hershaw and Robert Squires. That's another column in itself.

Callahan had 14 foreign athletes on his roster in 2011, including eight from both Germany and Canada, two from Serbia and one each from Croatia, Australia, and New Zealand. Some of the Huskies' rivals hold UW's foreign influx against the Dawgs, as if it is a liability.

Callahan sees the opposite.

His goal in recruiting is simple: "Find a person who fits the mentality of how we do things."

And it's unlike almost anywhere else.

IT'S, UH ... `FUN'

Walk through Conibear's ground floor, just off the boat garage, or inside the football weight room in Graves Annex across the street on a dark winter day and you hear a barrage of primal grunts and roars.

UW strength coach Ivan Lewis and his staff - now including assistant Tyson Brown, added this spring and a new creator of welcomed, rower-specific workouts - lead the team on sessions like few found inside a weight room. The accent isn't on raw strength. It's on speed and endurance, just like out on the water.

Huskies time each rower's reps. They chase each other around stations of the room. They try to get their sets done faster than anyone else.

"It's a muscle-endurance sport," their coach explains.

They emerge as soaked as if they'd capsized off their boats into Lake Washington.

Like I said, EVERYTHING is a competition with Husky crew.

"It's fun," Callahan said of the team's notorious winter workouts.

"It's so that you know when you are on that starting line in the race, the one thing you can bank on is that you've competed and you are good at it, and it's not intimidating.

"These kids REALLY like it. They go home, they compete on grades. They compete on PlayStation."

See, that's where Callahan's job is tougher than many of his UW coaching colleagues, in identifying and discovering the intangibles that make a rower succeed. It's not like football, basketball, baseball , softball or volleyball, in which recruits are rated and endlessly evaluated with film, coaches' visits and interviews, etc.

Callahan seeks to get inside a teenager's psyche, to find out if he has the makeup to survive Washington's training, let alone compete for the Huskies. And some of the young men he is evaluating may have just picked up an oar days ago.

Such as Matt Zapel. Callahan found UW's 6-foot-5, departing senior when he was a two-time league champion in basketball and third-place finisher in Washington state hoops at Vashon Island High School.

"In rowing, it's not like soccer where the kid has been competing in it since he was four and you can identify the kid. You are recruiting on physiology," he says. "A lot of kids end up switching sports say from football to rowing, and they might have a great physiological gift - lung capacity or what have you.

"We're looking for personality types. Are you competitive? Do you have a really strong work ethic? So we identify people early and also pretty late, too."

Once the rowers are on campus, the focus turns to developing them into international-caliber oarsmen. Washington has a tradition of successful walk-ons, many of whom have won IRA Championships, World Championships and Olympic medals. Conversely, Callahan coaches rowers who come from high-powered, successful national systems, such as Rowing Canada.

"These kids know a lot about rowing, and you can't pull the wool over their eyes," Callahan said. "That becomes a management challenge, to take so many different people from so many different spots. There are a lot of variations and style, but I feel we do a good job of making sure everyone understands how to do it the Washington way."

"Competion is the best form of development. Our guys are ready to compete during and after going through this program. We teach comparison."

Oh, but if all Callahan had to do was train, recruit and develop his rowers.

Sure, college coaches in all sports work year round. But how many win multiple national championships while also managing the challenges associated with rowing, a sport often underfunded at the collegiate level.

"Once you become a coach, you realize it's not all the stuff on the water. I mean, the business of running the team financially, to coaching these kids, to making the atmosphere - there's just a lot going on. It's a pretty dynamic position. I think that's what I'm most attracted to. ... You have to become a fundraiser, a PR-marketing-brand guy, you have to figure out a lot of skill sets."


One of the many beauties of Conibear, renovated in 2005 from the original, on-campus boat house built in 1949, is its location. It's on campus and on the water. And it is all-inclusive, with training, locker-room, dining, studying and meeting places in one place for Husky athletes.

"There are other schools that have amazing boat houses, too. Yale built a new one, Cal built a new one. Wisconsin built a new one - (but) I know so many rowers who have to go 30 minutes to a lake or a river," Callahan said.

Instead of commuting to work out off campus, detached from their fellow athletes, Husky rowers are in the epicenter of UW sports. They are housed inside the same building in which all teams eat and study. Washington's compliance office is also inside Conibear, upstairs near the dining hall and its sweeping views of Union Bay.

"I would say the services we possess here are far and away (the best). It's actually given us more exposure," Callahan said. "Our other athletes get to see us coming in from the dock. Hopefully they have some appreciation for what we do. We have appreciation for what they do - our guys are fans of the other teams. So it's made us a central figure on campus, especially the academic campus. I think that's a super-positive thing for us.

The renovation of Conibear galvanized an already passionate rowing community in Seattle to become even more involved in the Huskies. On any given day at the dock, one is likely to see a Husky recruit, a reporter, alumnus or a local businessman wanting to learn more about rowing.

"It made this a place people were proud to be," Callahan said. "In the last 5-10 years, we've gained a lot of momentum with the alumni, we've gotten more connected. It's been pivotal to our success, too. Without them we wouldn't be doing what we do."

"They've enhanced it enough where we can regularly compete for championships. There is someone at the shellhouse everyday to ride my launch with me and watch practice. We had a coach in this year from Dartmouth. He couldn't believe how many people came by. Even the media attention. We've always had this relationship here - maybe because we started here before professional sports developed. And we've been able to carry it on.

"Hopefully people consider us a Seattle team, not just a University of Washington team. That's what makes us unique."

About Gregg Bell Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for The Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.

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