Washington's rowing program, born almost 100 years ago, is steeped in tradition. A cornerstone for the Huskies' entire athletic program, Washington's history reads like a Who's Who of rowing. From national championships to Olympic glory, the trademark white blades of Washington have cut through the water of race courses around the world.
Rowing at Washington dates back to 1901 when the first Class Day race was held. The Class Day races still mark the end of the winter training period and the start of the spring racing season for the rowers. Rowing was not considered a "major" sport at the University until 1904. That year, James C. Knight, who became the first crew coach in 1903, led the team to its first Pacific Coast Championship, rowing in Seattle in four-oared shells.
In 1905, Stanford and California joined Washington in the first triangular regatta. A year later racing was abandoned when California sent word that its squad would be unable to attend the meet because of an earthquake, bringing the racing scene to a standstill until a revolutionary gentleman came along in the Fall of 1906.
Hiram Conibear, whom some recognize as the founding father of Husky crew, started a spectatular coaching career in a rather unspectatular fashion. A one-time athletic trainer, Conibear took over the Husky program without any eight-oared shells and no basic knowledge of the dynamics of rowing. Undaunted by the challenges at hand, he began raising the "voluntary funds" necessary to purchase two new shells.
Conibear converted an old lighthouse from the Alaska Exposition into the first Husky shellhouse. It was not much, but it was a start. Today, Conibear would be proud to know that the Huskies' current shellhouse is named after him. The Varsity Boat Club and the Board of Rowing Stewards were other innovations instituted by Conibear and are still in existence today.
In order to better understand the dynamics of the stroke, Conibear borrowed a skeleton from the medical department and used it to study the most effective and safest body positions for rowing.
The "Conibear Stroke" was born and quickly accepted nationwide. His coaching ability resulted in Washington's oarsmen rowing to a third-place finish in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., in 1917 against the country's fastest crews. Tragically, a few months after the Poughkeepsie race, Conibear passed away and the future of Husky crew seemed uncertain.
Ed Leader emerged as Conibear's successor and the crew program moved from its makeshift boathouse/lighthouse to the corner of the Montlake Cut into what is now referred to as the Canoe House. With a new home base, and new coach, Husky crews continued the school's winning tradition.
Taking over the helm upon Leader's departure was Russell S. (Rusty) Callow. Washington Rowing flourished during Callow's tenure (1922-27), winning three Intercollegiate Rowing Association Championships and becoming the first west coast crew to win the Hudson River Classic.
Under Callow, a young man named Al Ulbrickson became the varsity stroke. Following his graduation in 1927, Ulbrickson was hired on as an assistant coach. Courted by the University of Pennsylvania for the head coaching position, Callow took the job on the east coast and Ulbrickson became the fifth coach in Washington history.
Ulbrickson took his team to even greater successes. The 1936 crew (bow-Roger Morris, 2-Charles Day, 3-Gordon B. Adam, 4-John G. White, 5-James B. McMillin, 6-George E. Hunt, 7-Joseph Rantz, 8-Don B. Hume, cox-Robert G. Moch) competed in the Olympic trials on Lake Carnegie. In dominating fashion, the Washington crew won the right to represent the United States at the Berlin Games. Coming from behind for an unprecedented victory, the crew of 1936 won the Olympic gold medal.
That was not the only time Ulbrickson escorted a crew to the Olympic Games. In 1948, the Olympics were held in London, England on the Thames River. Washington sent a coxed four that won the gold (bow-Gordon Giovanelli, 2-Bob Will, 3-Bob Martin, 4-Warren Westland, c-Allen Morgan) and in 1952, another Washington coxed four secured a bronze at the Helsinki Olympics (bow-Fil Leanderson, 2-Dick Wahlstrom, 3-Al Ulbrickson Jr., 4-Carl Lovsted, cox-Al Rossi).
Ulbrickson's 1958 crew had a new challenge. They needed to go undefeated during the racing season to qualify for the prestigious Henley Royal Regatta. The team made quick order of California, Stanford, and the University of British Columbia, to earn the right to row in England. There, a powerhouse team from the Soviet Union handed the Huskies their first defeat of the season. A scheduled side trip to Moscow set up a rematch. This time, on the Soviets' home course, the Huskies shocked the rowing world by overpowering the juggernaut USSR team. The event, broadcast by Keith Jackson on Seattleis KOMO-Radio, is believed to be the first sporting event ever aired from behind the iIron Curtain.i Future Husky coach Dick Erickson was a member of the crew that played one of the biggest parts in the programis history.
Ulbrickson retired after returning to the States and Fil Leanderson became Washington's head coach. Leanderson coached from 1959-1967 and then stepped down, allowing Erickson to head up the program after coaching the freshmen for four years.
Under Erickson's direction, in 1977, the Huskies won the Grand Challenge Cup and Visitor's Challenge Cup at the Henley Royal Regatta and, as a result, were invited to compete at the Nile Invitational Rowing Regatta in Cairo, Egypt. In 1984 Erickson's varsity crew won his first IRA championship.
Women's rowing, virtually non-existent following a short period in the early 1900s, eventually returned to the UW campus. In 1969 women's rowing sported a club team with Bernie Delke at the coaching reigns. In 1971, the women participated in their first joint regatta with the men, the Steward's Cup race. It was a successful debut for Washington. The Husky rowers placed first and second in the women's eight race.
The Husky women competed in their first national championship regatta in 1970 on Greenlake in Seattle and captured several medals, including a silver (won in the pairs by Jan Harville, Washington's current head coach).
Colleen Lynch and Paula Mitchell jointly coached the women from 1972-75. During that time, Washington traveled to the national championships in Philadelphia where the lightweight eight became the first women's crew to win a national title.
In 1975, women's rowing was elevated to a varsity sport at the university.
In 1977, Title IX (under the Federal Education Act) allowed members of the women's team to join the Varsity Boat Club which, until that time, had been comprised solely of men. The Varsity Boat Club still provides leadership for the program with a membership of more than 1,000 men and women.
Bob Ernst, the freshman men's coach and Erickson's assistant for six seasons, succeeded John Lind as the women's coach in the fall of 1980. It did not take him long to put his mark on the Husky program.
In Ernst's first season, both the varsity and junior varsity crews won national championships (1981) and repeated the feat for the next five years. The 1987 season was Ernst's last year as head women's coach. His varsity, junior varsity, and varsity four crews swept at the nationals, capturing all three titles.
He became the varsity men's coach in 1988 when Erickson retired. In 1997, Ernst led the UW to a sweep of the varsity, junior varsity and frosh races to capture the IRA Championship in Camden, N.J. It marked the first time since 1950 that Washington had swept the three top races at the IRAs.
Jan Harville stepped up from the novice women's coaching position, which she held for seven years, to take over where Ernst left off. Harville, who rowed at Washington in the early '70s during the program's revival, also had a stellar head coaching debut.
In her first season, the varsity crew duplicated its performance from the year before and won another national championship (1988). The 1989 and 1994 junior varsity crews also captured national titles. In 1997, Harville made history as her crews won the first NCAA-sanctioned championship at Lake Natoma in Sacramento, Calif. It was the first NCAA championship for the UW.
In the 37 years that the men's program has competed at the Pacific Coast/Pacific-10 Conference Championships, the varsity men have won 28 titles, including the last eight in a row. The women joined the men at the competition in 1976 and have been competing at the championships for the past 21 years. They have claimed 17 titles, including the last six.
The varsity men have won a total of seven national titles, including the IRA sweep last year. The varsity women have won eight national championships, the first in 1981 and the most recent in the first NCAA regatta last year.
History is hard to miss around the Washington crew program. There are a multitude of reminders for the current Husky oarsmen and women who spend endless hours training and studying at the Conibear Shellhouse. Banners of past regattas are scattered throughout the shell bays while photos of past crews and competitions line the hallways.
Even the shells are daily reminders to the team of the success of the program. New boats are christened and named for individuals who have worked to make the Husky crew program a consistent national powerhouse. Among those honored by this tradition are: The Olympic Champion crew of 1936; the Dolly Callow; Dick Erickson; the Varsity Boat Club and dozens more.