Michael Callahan, the former Husky and world-champion rower and now coach of the three-time defending national-champion Washington crew, surprises his rowers and 300 of his program’s supporters by bringing the hallowed Varsity Challenge Cup to UW.
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
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SEATTLE – Michael Callahan and his Husky crew team were back inside Conibear Shellhouse for yet another celebration of yet another national championship.
Washington’s coach and the architect of a dynasty was welcoming about 300 donors, rowing alumni, the parents of team members and all current rowers to the latest commemoration Friday night. Many of the same supporters had been here for Intercollegiate Rowing Association title celebrations in each of the previous two seasons.
“Welcome to our annual national-championship celebration,” Callahan kidded to the well-dressed, well-heeled crowd as a cocktail-and-appetizer hour ended.
“You know, we joke about it … But don’t be fooled. These are hard to get.”
After introducing each of the five men’s crews that swept the IRA grand finals in June on Lake Natoma outside Sacramento, Calif., and earned UW a national-record seventh consecutive Ten Eyck Award for most overall points at the IRAs, Callahan made the crowd that had seen this all before – twice before – gasp.
He unveiled from a purple covering the 115-year-old Varsity Challenge Cup. The tall, sleek, ornate trophy is solid silver. It is in the shape of an enormous pitcher and looks similar to yachting’s cherished America’s Cup.
It is the most revered trophy in U.S. men’s rowing.
It’s the same Varsity Challenge Cup trophy that Washington’s IRA champion crews got in 1923, ’24 and ’26. It’s the same trophy hoisted by Joe Rantz and his Husky “Boys in the Boat,” further immortalized this summer in a captivating book by the same title. In 1936 Rantz and the Huskies won the Challenge Cup about two months before the eight-man UW crew shocked Adolph Hitler’s Nazi and the world by winning gold at the ’36 Berlin Olympic Games.
When Callahan surprised the entire room – even his current and former rowers didn’t know he had secured the cherished trophy – Judy Willman let out an audible gasp. Then she smiled. Standing in the front of the crowd a few feet from the Challenge Cup she seemed to immediately recognize it as a trophy her father, Rantz, had held 77 years earlier.
The Varsity Challenge Cup dwarfed the other, “normal” trophies on the same table. The smaller, silver ornaments, more like bowls, are what that the Intercollegiate Rowing Association has been giving out to its champions for each of the last 18 years. Washington has five of those last 18, including four of the last five.
The most hallowed ornament in American rowing is at Washington only because of Callahan.
“In 1898 Dr. Louis Livingston Seaman (Cornell class of ’72 – that’s 1872) first gave this out to the University of Pennsylvania for winning the IRAs at Saratoga Lake in New York. It hasn’t been given out in 18 years,” Callahan explained to the crowd.
“Our action,” he told the crowd to begin the evening, “is the pursuit of excellence.”
And this is most excellent.
The original Varsity Challenge Cup is 31inches tall and weighs 16.5 pounds. It is all solid, sterling silver, made two years before the 20th century began by Theodore B Starr, a silversmith company of the day in New York City. It is a freestanding pitcher with a silver dragon at arch of the handle. A silver angel holding a laurel wreath is below the handle.
The trophy has on its sides the inscriptions of all the IRA national champions from that Penn crew in 1898 to Brown in 1995, a year before the Cup went to Mystic Seaport in Mystic, Conn., for supposedly permanent display. It also has the Latin phrase Spectemur Agendo inscribed, which translates to “let us be seen (or judged) by our actions.”
The IRA says the winner of its varsity heavyweight eight grand final each season wins the Varsity Challenge Cup. But for the last 18 years that’s been a merely symbolic designation. The actual Challenge Cup trophy has remained in a glass case on display in Mystic Seaport, “The Museum of America and the Sea,” since 1996.
That’s where Callahan saw it, when he was visiting the National Rowing Hall of Fame inside Mystic Seaport. He had known of the trophy since he rowed for Huskies until his UW graduation in 1996.
“I’ve been on this mission for years to get this trophy here, to honor our past and recognize what we’ve accomplished here recently,” the coach said after Friday night’s ceremony.
“The trophy is worth a lot. Virtually irreplaceable,” said Callahan, who wore his signature gold-and-purple saddle shoes for the trophy’s unveiling. “The silver is a fortune itself.”
How much is a fortune?
I asked Paul J. O’Pecko, vice president for collections and research at Mystic Seaport, about the estimated value of the Varsity Challenge Cup.
“As a museum object we prefer not to put a price on the piece as we do not count it as an asset of the museum,” O’Pecko responded, “although, of course, we consider it a priceless object.”
Mystic Seaport and the National Rowing Foundation’s Hall of Fame were eager to oblige Callahan when he recently requested to celebrate the trophy in Seattle.
“We do not take such requests lightly as we normally only lend to other museums that have proper spaces and conditions in which to show, and protect, such artifacts,” O’Pecko said. “However, because of our association with the foundation that donated the Cup, we felt that we should honor their wish for the Cup to be at such an event.”
As Callahan and I talked Friday night, Willman, who lives in the Seattle suburb of Redmond, was standing a few feet away. I profiled her relentless father as a member of UW’s gold-medal winning crew at Hitler’s 1936 Berlin Games, in July about a column on the release of “Boys in the Boat."
Friday Joe Rantz’s daughter kept nodding her approval at the trophy coming back to Washington.
THE “BIGGEST, TOUGHEST, HARDEST GUYS”
It wasn’t just any ol’ UPS shipment that arrived at Conibear Shellhouse two weeks ago.
When Bob Ernst, UW’s director of rowing, its current women’s crew coach and a past Olympic and multiple IRA champion himself, saw the box with the Mystic Seaport return address on it in the Husky rowing offices, he smiled. He knew Callahan had pulled off a coup.
“Our action is the pursuit of excellence.”
“The trophy was sent via UPS at its maximum insurance level in special packaging that was made for the trophy years ago,” the museum’s O’Pecko said, “along with updated reinforcement for it that was managed here at Mystic Seaport.”
Turns out, no college program has ever asked for, let alone received and displayed, the vaunted Cup before Callahan.
“We have not fielded any other such requests,” Mystic Seaport’s O’Pecko told me, “and we would need to have proof of an exceptional reason to loan the piece once again.”
UW is indeed exceptional.
Some of the visitors in the Conibear dining hall, with its huge picture windows looking out of the crew team’s docks and practice area on Union Bay on the east edge of campus, knew. They, especially the parents, know of the grinding, nauseating, pre-dawn workouts, the carrying of shells across iced-over docks on cold, damp, dark winter mornings. The 13 seniors from last season’s champion program did that for four years to win all these titles.
Callahan noted some of the seniors graduated with zero career match-race losses. And that they possessed 12 different race jerseys of the California Golden Bears, signifying while as Huskies that they beat their archrivals a whopping dozen times and then collected their jerseys, like pelts of prized conquers.
Callahan’s workouts, on erg machines by land and in the boat by water, are legendary for their fiendishness -- and their effectiveness. Rowers joked Friday night about how they thought perhaps their coach might mellow a tad after he and his wife Joanna, a Washington native who attended UW’s School of Law, had a baby girl this summer.
Not this coach, who won four Pac-10 championships as a Husky rower then won gold at the Under-23 World Championships before returning to lead a juggernaut.
“We have the biggest guys. We have the toughest guys. We have the hardest guys,” said Alex Bunkers, the senior captain of last season’s varsity-eight champions.
Before the coach surprised everyone by unveiling the Varsity Challenge Cup, Callahan presented on the dining room’s flat-screen televisions replays of each of the five grand finals that the Huskies won in Gold River, Calif., in June. The videos included the audio from UW’s coxswain inside the boat during each race, providing authentic, booming voice-overs.
Bunkers, who is from Maitland, Fla., also won the 2012 IRA title as the seven seat in the varsity eight. He told the crowd he overheard Harvard in the boat next to UW’s at the starting line just before the 2013 final.
“I heard the Harvard coxswain say, ‘This is Harvard’s day. We are going to win it in the middle 1,000 (meters),’” Bunkers said.
“I was thinking, ‘If you guys wait until the middle thousand, you guys are screwed.’”
The Conibear visitors Friday night roared as the video of the varsity-eight IRA final played and UW flew past Harvard and everyone else to win by 2½ seconds.
Callahan then showed the junior-varsity eight win its IRA grand final. The coach doesn’t like the term “junior varsity.” At UW they call that boat the “Fun V,” and it’s talented and driven enough to push the varsity each day through Union Bay and the Montlake Cut in practices.
“At Washington we don’t have a varsity and a junior varsity,” Callahan said. “We have two varsities.”
After each race video, Callahan introduced each of last season’s national-champion crew members and had them speak. That’s when the rest of Husky crew’s excellence revealed itself.
“Pass the mike down,” the coach instructed his rowers. “Tell how many degrees you have or are going to get, and what cancers you are going to cure.”
See, UW rowers major in aerospace engineering and mathematics. They double major and then, like Seamus Labrum, last year’s senior coxswain who earned UW’s D. Wayne and Anne E. Gittinger Endowed Scholarship for law, go to law school. They come from New York, New Jersey, California, Ohio and Georgia, from England, Germany, Australia, New Zealand.
Because, as Callahan says, “Our action is the pursuit of excellence.”
SECURING HUSKY CREW’S TRADITION
I went back this week to Conibear’s ground floor, the “engine rooms” of UW’s rowing powerhouse, to see where Callahan is storing the Varsity Challenge Cup for the month he has it on loan from Mystic Seaport.
It was nowhere to be found. A couple of his assistants thought the head man had put it in a bank vault.
“I have it hidden now,” Callahan said, fearing he doesn’t have a secure-enough storage place on campus – or anywhere else.
“I don’t want to be the one responsible for losing that thing.”
Thursday, Callahan will lead a new crop of Husky rowers on his varsity four and eight boats, his youngest team at UW after the departures of the 13, champion freshman, back to Boston for the Head of the Charles races Saturday and Sunday. The top national boats from France and The Netherlands, plus national contenders Cal, Harvard, Wisconsin, Princeton and Brown will be gunning for No. 1 in the Men’s Championship Eights final Sunday at 11:54 a.m. Seattle time.
That No. 1 is UW freshman Michael Trebilcock, sophomores Alex Perkins, Marcus Bowyer and Henry Meek, juniors Myles Neary and Julian Svoboda, seniors Sam Dommer and Ryan Schroeder and sophomore coxswain Parker Ksidakis. The average age of the Huskies’ boat is 20. France’s is 25. Holland’s, with some world champions aboard, is 28.
“Yeah,” Callahan deadpanned Tuesday, “that should be a good challenge.
“This is a great way for me to produce urgency on our team during the fall (outside of prime) season.
“Everyone would like to bring us down.”
Racing again on the Charles River, the surprise unveiling of the Varsity Challenge Cup, they are part of Callahan’s campaign to acknowledge not just the glorious present for Husky crew but also the program’s legendary, world-renowned past.
He is in the process of procuring three Olympic medals won by Husky rowers over the past 80 years. He already has the bronze of Carl Lovsted, a member of Washington’s coxed-four crew that finished third at the 1952 Helsinki Games. And Callahan is coordinating with Willman, Rantz’s daughter, to display his father’s 1936 gold medal within the program – again, if he can find a suitably secure place to display the treasures and symbols of Washington rowing’s timeless excellence.
“It certainly reminds us of our past,” Callahan said of the trophy, the medals, the legacy of Husky crew.
“Right now, especially with ‘Boys in the Boat,’ people see the importance of it. They see more of the importance of the history of rowing.”
Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director or 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.
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