Oct. 19, 2011
SEATTLE - As a senior at Washington, Ambrose Puttmann has reached the stage in his career when a rower often begins to reflect on his legacy. Although the Cincinnati native has built an impressive resume, he's still looking to leave his imprint on the storied program.
This fall, Puttmann is making the switch from rowing starboard (right side of a shell) to rowing port for the defending National Champions. The reason is need. Washington enters the season with a myriad of question marks in the varsity eight, mostly stemming from the graduation of celebrated boat movers like Hans Struzyna, who is now training with the USRowing senior team, or the decision of Conlin McCabe to focus on rowing for his native Canada in the 2012 Summer Olympics. Both were ports, and have left a considerable gap the Huskies have scrambled to fill this offseason.
The first test for the Huskies comes this weekend on the East Coast, when the varsity eight travels to Boston to race in the 3.1-mile Head of the Charles on Oct. 23. There the Huskies will face, among others, archrival Cal and Ivy League power Harvard, the latter being the only crew to defeat Washington last season.
Men's coach Michael Callahan discussed the change with Puttmann and found no resistance. With so many ports now out of the boat, Puttmann said it was any easy choice to make. He's one of the most powerful returners on the team, judging by his consistently low numbers on rowing ergometer tests.
"I've switched in the past," Puttmann said, alluding to his coming to UW as a port. "But we just lost so many guys. I felt like it was a good chance to make the (varsity) boat and put my power to good use."
There are risks, though, to switching sides. Rowing in the UW varsity eight is akin to dealing with a Formula 1 race engine - tons of power, but small changes in technique can significantly dampen the overall performance of the boat. Yet Puttmann is willing to take that chance to wrap up what he considers unfinished business, despite having a lot of success rowing starboard last season.
The backstory: Puttmann was part of the freshmen eight in 2009 that won every race by open water. As a sophomore, Puttmann rowed in the second varsity eight that won a Gold Medal at IRAs. Last season, Puttmann competed primarily in the varsity eight before an unfortunate bike accident - sustained a week before the team was to leave for the IRAs - caused a concussion and necessitated a switch back to the 2V8. Part of that class affiliation is what led Callahan to offer stern challenges to Puttmann and the rest of the group heading into this season.
"We're really going to see the identity of this 2009 class now," the fifth-year coach said. "They were heralded as one of the fastest freshmen groups in Washington rowing history. And now we're going to see if they continue to develop."
A competitive person, Puttmann stewed over Callahan's decision to sub him out of the varsity during the long summer months. It still chaps him, because he felt that he had earned his spot based on performances during the season. But he's returned to campus refocused and determined, and clearly capable of putting aside his reservations about making the switch to rowing port.
Puttmann is one of the quieter rowers on the team. He speaks with a soft voice, and on a team with big personalities Puttmann is often in the background among his affable teammates. But the rower they nicknamed "Larry" (reasons are many but few are logical) is one of the toughest in the group, so much so that Callahan feels he's one of the more underrated rowers in America.
"This is not the only way he could make the boat," Callahan said. "He is a selfless teammate that is willing to do whatever it takes to make the boat better and the team faster, but he still has something to prove."
If he wanted, Puttmann could fashion himself a lengthy post-collegiate career with USRowing. The 21-year-old senior, who competed last summer with the U-23 team in Amsterdam, plans to return for the 2012 competition in Lithuania. But the xxx major also has his sights on medical school, following in the footsteps of his father, who is a doctor in the Cincinnati area.
Returning his focus back to the present, there's plenty left to do at Washington too.
"It's funny, I'm undefeated in the varsity, but I can't say that I won the varsity eight at IRA, the fastest race in college rowing," Puttmann said. "Even though that boat won last year, I didn't. So it feels like I still haven't proven myself here."