May 1, 2013
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
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SEATTLE - Seamus Labrum surprised his parents four years ago. He decided to break free from his native East Coast to be a coxswain in Washington's national powerhouse rowing program.
When he did, his coach at Holy Spirit High School in Cape May, N.J., took a poster off his office wall and gave it to the newest Husky.
It was commemorating the Windermere Cup.
"My high school coach had coached at Penn, and he had the poster from when he was there," Labrum said Wednesday. "I have it in my house here now.
"That's when I learned it's a pretty big deal here. It's special, the Windermere Cup."
If you are anywhere near Seattle on Saturday morning, and especially if you've never been to a Windermere Cup, you owe it to yourself to be at the Montlake Cut.
It's the largest free party in Seattle, put on by UW, Windermere Real Estate and the Seattle Yacht Club. Windermere spends about hundreds of thousands of dollars per year putting on the event. It flies in the opposing teams - this year it's Cornell and Dartmouth -- then houses and feeds them here for three or more days. The company's employees take as much of 20 percent of their work time towards the regatta each year.
The Seattle Yacht Club pays for the log boom in Lake Washington to which swarms of boats tie to view the Cup races and boat parade afterward; this year's theme is "Hawaiian Magic." SYC also pays the overtime for Seattle Police to patrol and secure the event, and for the Seattle Fire Department to inspect the sites.
And for you and me, it's all free.
Before the college powers go at it late in the morning, 800-plus athletes race, from kids to masters, from British Columbia to California, in a mega regatta. The first race at 9:55 a.m. features men's eight boat for 50-plus-year olds. Teams from legendary Puget Sound boat designer Pocock Racing, plus from Sammamish, Vashon Island, and Willamette, Ore., are in that one.
The University of British Columbia has a boat in the women's college open eight race at 10:31. So does the University of Portland. The University of Victoria in B.C. is in the women's freshman eight race at 11 a.m. Lake Oswego, Ore., is in the Referee Cup, the boys' high-school eight, at 10:52. And so on.
"It's a renowned, international regatta now. It has been for years," says UW director of rowing Bob Ernst, who with legendary UW coach Dick Erickson and Windermere founder John Jacobi got the world-champion Soviet Union to come for the first Windermere Cup in 1987.
Those Soviets thought Ernst, their host and van driver for that week, was in the CIA.
"The most important thing is, it's part of the fabric of the community, you know?" Ernst said. "Seattle is an outdoor-sports community. It's still a work-hard community. And the people identify with rowing in our part of the country - in a different way than football or basketball, but they see it as one of the parts of our culture.
"And the Windermere Cup is a hallmark for that sport."
Just before noon on Saturday, when Labrum commands the No. 1-ranked UW men's varsity eight boat to stare down Dartmouth, Cornell and the tens of thousands of fans that will line the 2,000-meter course from Union Bay through the one-of-a-kind Montlake Cut, it's supposed to be idyllic. As in, 70 degrees and sunny, with little wind.
I mean, the Windermere Cup is a rockin' party when it's raining, blowing and 50. What do you think it's going to be like in this weather this weekend?
"I'll tell you what: The statement will be this Saturday with everyone out on the log boom, 75 degrees, everyone cheering, families bringing their kids down on blankets along the Cut," Ernst said.
"And all for the right price."
"AN EVENT LIKE NO OTHER"
This is Labrum's fourth and final Windermere Cup.
UW's senior coxswain has coxed the United States' national four in the grand final of the 2011 under-23 world championships in Amsterdam.
He has coxed the U.S. men's four to a silver medal at last year's U-23 world championships in Lithuania. This school year he's won gold for UW at the Head of the Charles Regatta in Boston, and then beaten host the graduate students of Cambridge on the famed "Boat Race" course along the Thames in London.
Yet to him, nothing compares to the Windermere Cup.
It's, well, poster worthy.
"I mean, I've also been to Henley to race, but as a competitor there is nothing like the Windermere Cup," Labrum said in the dining room of his team's Conibear Shellhouse three days before the 27th renewal of perhaps the most unique crew race/civic celebration in the world.
"Nothing comes as close to racing inside a stadium. All the boats. All the people lining the cut, screaming and cheering. They drown me out.
"It's exhilarating, it really is."
"I've also been to Henley to race, but as a competitor there is nothing like the Windermere Cup."
As former conference and world champion Husky rower Michael Callahan, the coach of Washington's men's team that has won four of the last six national championships and 10 of the last 11 Windermere Cups, says: "When you are warming up behind all the yachts you can feel it. Then when you come around the yachts to line up and look down the cut a tingle goes down your spine."
Labrum's job as coxswain is to make the stroke calls and keep the eight rowers in perfect harmony for just under 6 minutes across all 2,000 meters of the course. That's relatively easy to do for practices, which UW does at dawn in front of a few geese and maybe a shoreline jogger or biker.
It's an entirely different challenge unlike any other in the world for a coxswain when he tries to make his calls over 30,000 screaming partiers and their blaring yacht horns - not to mention the Husky Band rockin' full notes out from along the finish line.
Todd Kennett, the coach of Cornell's men's team, raced for the Big Red. He came in second to UW in the 1991 Windermere Cup.
"It's just insanely loud," Kennett said Wednesday of the Montlake Cut crowd. "We couldn't hear the coxswain, so someone has to knock on the side of the boat to make a call.
"As awesome as many events go, this may be one of the premier ones. Just the way it's set up, the course, the fans, and how fair it is for everyone to race.
"It's definitely an event like no other. It's unreal."
When all those cheers are for the Huskies, no wonder Washington's varsity eight is 19-2 in Windermere Cup final races since 1991.
"Oh, yeah, it's pure adrenaline for the guys with all that noise in the cut. You can definitely feel it. If I don't call a split the power in the boat still goes up," said Labrum, who coxed the men's A boat that won the varsity four in last year's Cup - while fellow New Jersey native Sam Ojserkis coxed Washington's varsity eight to win in his senior year.
Rather than throw up his arms and enjoy the ride, Labrum and the fellow modern-day coxswains have technology on their side.
"Now, we've got the speaker system," Labrum says while a wry smile. "I can turn it up to 11 so they can hear me."
This is just the 10th time in 27 Windermere Cups that UW's men's and the women's teams will each face the same opponents. Plus, Cornell and Dartmouth are each bringing their junior-varsity-eight teams to Seattle, giving this Cup added depth.
Ernst and Callahan and Windermere have wanted to get top Ivy League crews into the Cup for some time now. Because Cornell and Dartmouth had been scheduled for their own event late in the season, UW invited both to the Windermere and combined the two Cups. That's how this is the first Windermere Cup to not have an international entry.
Ryan Ganong is Dartmouth's senior captain. He is as pumped as he is honored to be rowing in his first Windermere Cup. Even though UW is coming off a come-from-behind victory over archrival California on a windy, choppy day on a shortened course in the Montlake Cut last weekend, he doesn't see the Huskies letting down. Not for this huge opening day to Seattle's boating season.
"We see Washington every year at the IRAs (rowing national championships in New Jersey)," Ganong said via Skype on Wednesday. "And we are really blown away by their rowing.
"We aspire to be them. It's a huge privilege to be racing out there."
A CUT ABOVE
Here's the thing about crew: Not only is the Windermere Cup a top-flight event with some of the world's best teams, the rowers themselves aren't too shabby.
Ryan Schroeder is UW's national-champion six seat. He rowed from the five seat in the Americans' gold medal boat in last year's world championships. The senior from Thousand Oaks, Calif., was also on the Pac-12's All-Academic second team last year. He is about to earn - and I mean, earn -- his degree in aeronautical engineering.
Last year, days after they won the national championship, departing Huskies seniors Robert Squires, Reiner Hershaw and C.J. Miller became commissioned officers in the United State Navy and Marine Corps http://www.gohuskies.com/sports/m-crew/spec-rel/062012aaa.html.
And Ojserkis accepted an admissions officer to do graduate school at Cambridge University - and hosted the Huskies when they raced there this season http://www.gohuskies.com/sports/m-crew/spec-rel/021313aap.html.
Seamus now has a chance to follow him to England.
He is a double major, in communications and political science. He was on the dean's list last quarter and last year. He was on the Pac-12's All-Academic first team in 2012.
He's already been accepted to Cambridge. He's also weighing law school; he's on the waiting list at UW's and is also considering Santa Clara's.
"The kids on our team are competitors. Not only do they compete on the water, they compete in the classroom," Ernst said. "It is pretty rewarding when you see the number of student-athletes that actually get into med school, that get into law school, that get into the MBA programs that they want to get into. It's a big hallmark. It's a big part of Washington rowing.
"Across the country I think in rowing programs academic achievement is important. And I think one of the reasons that it's important is that nobody is going to hand you a contract to play another sport when you done with college. The apex of our game is making it to the Olympics. And win a medal at the Olympics and usually what you end up with is that - plus a whole bunch of bills to pay.
"That's the difference. Our athletes understand that they have to make their own way when they graduate and after they finish their sport. For the most part, they take advantage of that opportunity."
So Saturday morning -- on what will be an ideal day at an ideal, one-of-a-kind Seattle event -- you should take advantage of one, too.
About Gregg Bell Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for The Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.