March 25, 2011
SEATTLE - You would think with all the fury on the water that comes from hours of seat racing that the week leading up to the 110th annual Class Day Regatta would be stressful.
Actually, that's not the case. In recent years, the Washington crew program has manufactured a light-hearted atmosphere leading up to the first sprint race of spring, fostering team unity while making sure improvements are made in the boat. In the days leading up to Class Day, the Husky crew teams take part in a talent show, eat training table with one another and bond in their downtime at the Conibear Shellhouse. Because the UW is on Spring Break at the moment, the student-athletes turn Conibear into their home away from home. Spirited practices in the morning give way to a technical row in the afternoon. There is more personal attention from the coaches.
The skits and dance-offs bring out the personalities of the rowers, which are sometimes muted when the focus is strictly directed to training.
"You get to see (teammates) in a way you don't normally see them," said senior oarswoman Kerry Simmonds. "They open up and really see a different side to their personality. I haven't seen some of the guys talk this much before."
Outside of the competition on the water, the rowers also race to design the most creative and outlandish Class Day shirt (such as last year's pink tuxedo t-shirt and-sombrero combo) to be worn during the regatta. All week long, women's coach and rowing director Bob Ernst has been wearing shirts from previous years, often changing several times a day.
Class Day week is also steeped in tradition, no surprise given its history at Washington. On the men's crew team, the Grunties (the program's nickname for freshmen) become officially indoctrinated, and sport the freshly shaved heads to prove it. The men also hold "Conan Night," which essentially boils down to a lot of flexing and yelling by the seniors to pump up their teammates.
The fraternal aspect of Class Day has become even more so in recent years. Men's coach Michael Callahan instills in his rowers to be loyal to their class years, and this is evident by the number of oarsmen who walk around the boathouse with sweatshirts and beanies bearing their graduation year. Callahan feels this gives his rowers an identity, and helps foster a sense of duty to teammates and program.
"There's brotherhood here," Callahan said. "I always tell the older guys: `Treat the younger ones like your little brother.' Yeah, you might have to kick them in the butt a few times, but you also have their back. You also bring them along. You celebrate when they do things well. And that helps teach them unwavering work ethic."
In past years, the Huskies have taken Spring Break trips to California and Lake Whatcom outside of Bellingham. But with a training facility like Conibear Shellhouse and Lake Washington a stone's throw away, the team hasn't really felt a pull of late to get away from campus.
"We have the best boathouse in the world for a college rowing team," Ernst said. "What can be more fun than going out and practicing hard in the morning, having your life depend on whether you race or not and then go upstairs have brunch ready for you."
Another plus to the Class Day Regatta - just about everyone races. And that's the joy of the event, according to Ernst. There are some UW oarsmen and oarswomen who have Class Day bragging rights over teammates with Olympic credentials and medals, yet have never boarded a plane to face competition on the road.
"You can stand out in front of a thousand people and have your day in the sun," Ernst said. "It's endearing, it's tradition and this program is a lot about tradition."
Of course, this week isn't completely stress-free, particularly for the coaches. While the students cruise in bikes around campus or lay out in the sun, the coaches bunker in their offices and go over practice times and splits, trying to formulate a lineup for the intercollegiate races that follow. For Ernst, who needs to build a boat for next week's San Diego Crew Classic, the morning competition for seats gives him a clearer sense of who is capable of racing for the UW. It's similar to how Callahan is analyzing practices, although the men have an additional week to train before traveling to Oregon State on April 9.
Callahan never won a Class Day Regatta as a student-athlete at Washington, but he stresses to his rowers to buy into the importance of this week and the tradition.
"You can have a huge impact on a program," Callahan said. "We want people to be remembered not by individuals, but as a class. We have the feeling that we're in it together."