By Mason Kelley
As Bob Ernst walked through the Conibear Shellhouse on his way out to a 6 a.m. practice, the Washington women’s crew coach turned to his assistants, Conor Bullis and Colin Sykes, and said, “another chapter.”
After being invited to compete in The Gallagher Great Race on the Waikato River in Hamilton, New Zealand, the Huskies’ varsity eight is preparing to make history.
When Washington puts its boat in the water Sept. 14, the program will become the first North American women’s team to compete in the race, which has been a nationally televised spectacle in New Zealand since 2002.
This isn’t your ordinary crew competition. Ernst said it is the rowing equivalent of a NASCAR race.
“The thing just flows like crazy,” Ernst said. “It’s like the Colorado River at flood stage, and they decided to have a race on this thing. It’s racing upriver. The oars are bashing together, boats are bashing together. Everyone knows where the best line on the river is, and they’re fighting for it.”
The NCAA only allows programs to travel internationally once every four years, so the trip sets up a special moment for the Huskies.
“It’s a really great reward for the last four years and the time and commitment on the team,” said Maddie Cordner, who graduated this year. “I think it’s really great to get a chance to do something that’s really fun, really exciting.”
With three New Zealand natives on the team – twins Grace and Phoebe Spoors and Kirstyn Goodger – Washington won’t have to worry about tour guides during the trip.
“I’m so excited,” Phoebe said. “We love rowing on the team, and the team is really special, so I feel really lucky that we’ll, hopefully, be able to go home and race. It’s a unique opportunity.”
Grace added, “It would be really cool to show the girls we row with here where we’re from.”
During Tuesday’s practice, the Huskies rowed through the Montlake Cut. They passed Gasworks Park and turned toward the Museum of History and Industry before returning to Conibear Shellhouse.
The conditions on the Waikato will be drastically different from Washington’s home training course, so the Huskies are traveling to Everett on Wednesday for some river work.
“We’ll work on our technical skills out there, but we’ll also work on our racing skills,” Ernst said. “We’ll go under two or three bridges (in New Zealand). You have to understand how water goes around the caissons that hold up the bridge when the water’s flowing really hard.”
This race will provide a tough test for the Huskies, but they are determined for a strong showing.
“It’s a bit of a street fight, as Bob refers to it,” Goodger said. “It’s going to be a really entertaining race if we can keep our hands on our blades and our blades in the water.”
Washington leaves for New Zealand on Sept. 5 and, while they are going there perform well, they plan on bringing their bathing suits. After all, this isn’t an everyday opportunity.
“What a thrill,” Ernst said.
In addition to sending the first North American women’s team, the Huskies also sent the first North American men’s team in 2005.
“Last time we went there with the guys, we pretty much just got any crew together we could to get to go down there to race,” Ernst said. “This time, this is a selection camp. These girls are training really hard. It will be really tough competition, but we’re going to go there to try and win it. That’s the Washington way.”