Dec. 26, 2009
SEATTLE - Even in the relaxing environment of a beachfront paradise, men's crew coach Michael Callahan found a way to spark up a competition.
This occurred last year during the Washington rowing program's annual winter-training trip to Chula Vista, Calif., just outside of San Diego. Relaxing with his rowers on a beach on nearby Coronado Island, Callahan declared his team would "win the bonfire." Not soon after, the Huskies had constructed a bonfire so massive lifeguards had to cruise by and warn the group.
This is how Washington decompresses after a grueling fall season. Both Callahan and women's rowing coach Bob Ernst take a select group of rowers - competition is fierce - down to Southern California on Sunday for a week of intensive training and warm weather in the stylish confines of the ARCO Olympic Training Center. The trip is not only a carrot for the rowers who best produced during the fall, but also a bridge to the critical winter work that propels teams into the 2K racing season.
"It's a re-entry program," Ernst said. "We want to get the athletes from Thanksgiving to winter training in January. Honestly, when you look at the whole year, when we started the school year, we were full-tilt boogie to make something at the Head of the Charles. There's really no leisure time to play with technique."
Winter training is not just limited to UW. East Coast schools, hampered by frozen rivers and frigid temperatures, will often venture down to Florida. But the hallmark of the training excursion is the quality of the facilities Washington benefits from at Chula Vista, which are among the finest for rowing in the world. It's not uncommon for the Huskies to arrive and find a foreign national team working out on the water. The team enjoys glass conditions on the water and even better weather while participating in what has been a Washington training tradition for the past 16 years, even before the current campus onsite was built.
This pearl of a find came courtesy of Ernst in 1988 when he began scouting California training locations for an Olympic training center, a la the training complexes in Colorado Springs, Colo., and Lake Placid, N.Y. Using a private plane, Ernst scoured seemingly every inch of the terrain in Southern California before settling on Otay Lake.
"It's the best place to row," Ernst said. "It's perfect."
To be among the exclusive group, which includes 18 rowers and two coxswains from both teams, the student-athletes have to either hit a benchmark on the erg or win various competitions throughout the fall. This could be in a series of pair head races, where for the men's program the top three boats automatically qualify. The same guarantee is there for any rower who wins the annual fall triathlon (10K erg, six mile run and a stadium lap).
The coaches try to keep the decision as politics-free as possible.
This year, the decision was too close to call on the men's side. So Callahan had the four rowers in contention for two spots hold a "row off," where the two port rowers and the two starboard rowers would do the 1,500-meter pair race twice, swapping partners afterwards. The top pair earned the right to Chula Vista.
The goal for the team is still to peak in June, so not making the California trip does not cripple a rower's chances for contributing on the varsity eight boat later in the season. Sometimes, not making the trip can spur a student-athlete to big achievements in the spring.
"You don't want to be left behind, but it does happen," Callahan said. "It happens every year. Someone makes the top-two boats who didn't come with us...The main goal, as always, is June."
The week in California is not just spent on the water. The team will work out around 2-3 times a day, but sometimes the coaches will mix in some dryland training to supplement the work on the water. Men's crew brings their bikes to Chula Vista, and it's not unusual for Callahan to lead a road biking trip up and down the hills surrounding the training center. Or he'll have his group sprint up Otay Mountain - for time. Ernst will take his team for a run along Mission Bay. As with just about every aspect of the program, competition is at the forefront of each activity.
Time on the water, though, is still the lure. Rowers work more on improving their technique, which is dutifully scrutinized by their coaches, who don't have time to apply the same analysis back home in Seattle.
"It's a really good opportunity to just work on technique and not have to worry about other things," Ernst said. "You can afford to go slowly."
Rest is just as important as well. When they're not training, the rowers can be found enjoying the big-screen televisions in the lavish US complex, laying out in the sun or accompanying Ernst on his way to Point Loma for quality Mexican food.
For the rowers, there is just one hard-and-fast rule - don't go to Mexico.
"That's a pretty strict one with Bob, actually," said Callahan, laughing.