April 29, 2010
By Andrew Gospe
SEATTLE - For Ty Otto, there will be no "Rocks for Jocks." Not this quarter, not ever.
Between his position as captain of the undefeated men's crew team and a double major in physics and political science (a combination that even he admits is "unusual"), Otto has time for little else.
"I normally take two physics classes and one poli-sci class pretty much every quarter," he said, shortly after indicating that he would soon be spending most of his afternoon in a lab session.
In an age of academic probation and tutoring centers specifically for athletes, Otto is a dying breed: a student-athlete who manages to fulfill both sides of the hyphen. "There are plenty of times when you find yourself struggling to manage both of them," he says of his dual commitments. "Especially when you have a paper due the same day as a race."
Despite the challenges, he's learned to cope with the balancing act. "I've been able to ease myself into this," he said.
Growing up in a military family, Otto attended 12 different schools before graduating from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a prestigious magnet school near Washington, D.C. As an Eagle Scout and a National Merit Scholar, he had multiple options when the time came to choose a college. "He had a choice between Harvard, Yale [or] Princeton," men's freshmen coach Luke McGee said. "He could have gone to any Ivy League that he wanted."
Instead, he chose Washington, largely due to its illustrious rowing tradition and the support for crew in the Seattle area.
"I felt that UW was unique," he said. "There's nothing holding us back." He recalls being impressed by his recruiting visit, the state-of-the-art crew facilities and the views of Mount Rainier and the Space Needle while rowing on Lake Union.
In his third year at the UW, he says the Pacific Northwest feels like home: "As of a month or two ago, I've officially been in Washington longer than anywhere else I've ever lived. Now I say I'm from Seattle."
Crew has been a natural fit for Otto ever since his first exposure to the sport in eighth grade.
"The sight of the shells on the river, everyone in unison; it really impressed me," he said.
He joined his high-school team soon after.
At 6-foot-7, Otto has the kind of length and power that makes coaches salivate. Nicknamed "The Hurricane" due to the wake caused by his commanding stroke, Otto's three-seat is right in the wheelhouse of the No. 1 varsity eight in the country. The middle four seats of a boat are usually reserved for the most powerful rowers on a team, and Otto is no exception.
"He never stops," men's head coach Michael Callahan said. "He's an engine that just keeps going and keeps on grinding away. As an oarsman, you need that mentality all the way to the finish line. It's almost like he increases his intensity as he goes down the course."
Last year, Michelle Darby was the coxswain on the same boat as Otto, the junior varsity eight that won a gold medal at the IRA championships. This year she's with him again, coxing the varsity eight.
"Ty's a great guy to have on the boat," she said. "He really sets the tone of what it means to be a Washington oarsman."
Perhaps the biggest surprise for Otto this season was being named team captain, a rare feat for a junior, after the Class Day races in late March. The selection process is unlike that of most other sports, in that teammates, not coaches, vote for the captain.
"I was really surprised, honestly," Otto said. "I'd say it's uncommon for a junior to be captain ... When I first heard I was nominated for captain, I was pretty honored." Now that he sports the captain's traditional green star on his white oar, Otto sees his role on the team as that of a facilitator and a leader.
"It's really important to have everyone unified, knowing what their goals are, focused on the next challenge," he said. "That's kind of what I see my role as: trying to put everyone in a spot where we're best prepared for our races."
Even with all of his accomplishments, Otto remains humble, claiming that he still has "a lot to learn." Perhaps more than anything else, Otto's modesty is what impresses his coach.
"He doesn't take himself too seriously," Callahan said. "He has a lot of humility, and that's good in rowing, especially for someone who's so talented."
Otto's future is bright, if uncertain. With his unique double-major, Otto may look for a government job after graduation, possibly with the Department of Defense.
"My dad's in the military, so I grew up with a public-service orientation," he said. This summer, Otto intends to participate in the U-23 World Championships in Belarus. Until then, Otto will try to lead the Huskies to a second consecutive national championship in the sport that he loves.
"It demands a lot of work to reproduce," Otto said. "But I think everyone's on board."