Unleashed: Champion UW Rowers Get Historic London Test
Feb. 13, 2013
By Gregg Bell - UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - Husky crew has been just about everywhere. It has won just about everything.
The Huskies' men are the two-time defending national IRA champion. They have raced on the Nile River in Egypt. The Moskova River in Moscow. In China.
Twice in the last three years UW has even won at the birthplace of collegiate rowing. The Huskies have taken the Temple Challenge Cup, the featured race for eight-man crews for individual colleges at England's historic Royal Henley Regatta.
But this weekend this Husky crew team is doing something it has never done before. Washington, led by coach Michael Callahan, is beginning the main spring season and quest for a third consecutive IRA national championship by challenging Cambridge University on its famed, treacherous Tideway course on the Thames River in west London. It's the home course of The Boat Race, the hallowed, annual, 184-year-old showdown between Oxford and Cambridge.
The best crew in American college rowing today is challenging one of the world's best and most experienced teams on one of the most hallowed courses on the planet.
"In some ways its surreal," Otto said Wednesday by email from Cambridge. "After having put on the "W" tank so many times myself on race day, I never thought I'd have the chance to go to the line against the Huskies.
"I'm friends with most the guys on the boat, and after going through the Callahan training regime for four years, I think I have a unique grasp of the fitness and competitive drive that UW's going to bring to London. So I know we'll have to be on our A-game."
True to his ultra-competitive and driven sport, though, Otto isn't yielding even a stroke to the Huskies - former mates or not.
"Ultimately though, it's a race and I'm racing for Cambridge. I'm thrilled to reunite with my UW friends, but I'm going to lay down everything I can to try to put my bow ball ahead."
A third Husky, two-time national-champion coxswain Sam Ojserkis, said by phone Tuesday night from England that he is on Cambridge's second boat. Though he won't be racing against UW, he will be practicing with his former teammates Friday and Saturday before the main fixture Saturday afternoon (8:30 a.m. Seattle time).
No, this isn't your normal cup of tea.
"It's a unique opportunity," Huskies coach Michael Callahan said Tuesday as we discussed the trip that was to begin Thursday for nine UW coaches and two coaches with the 10-hour flight to London.
It's a unique opportunity...Guys get to do something that is totally out of the ordinary.
"Number one, it provides motivation here. Guys get to do something that is totally out of the ordinary. Two, hopefully it inspires the guys to want to go do this (for Oxford or Cambridge) after they get done here.
"Three, it's the middle of the spring season. So it's been a carrot out there. Guys have been competing to get in the boat for England. They had to win a pair race to get in there.
"It's exposing people to something that is different. It's coming back to the root of our sport. And there's the educational component, too.
Yes, Washington is the U.S. collegiate power Cambridge wants as its major test before The Boat Race.
Nine Huskies won pairs races in the last few weeks to qualify for this first-time-ever trip to the Tideway. And they aren't mere warm-up fodder for the Englishmen:
*Sophomore coxswain Lisa Caldwell, from the Seattle suburb of Bellevue, piloted the Huskies' freshman eight to a course-record while winning the 2012 IRA championship. Caldwell also led UW to victory last year at Henley in the Temple Challenge Cup, the race for rowers from a single university.
*Senior stroke Dusan Milovanovic, from Novi Sad, Serbia, stroked the Huskies' varsity eight to the new course record in New Jersey last June while winning that IRA title.
*Sophomore seven seat Henry Meek from Melbourne, Australia, was in Caldwell's boat in winning the freshman eight at the IRAs and Temple Cup at Henley last year.
*Towering senior six seat Conlin McCabe, 6-foot-8 from Brockville, Ont., won a silver medal for Canada at last summer's London Olympics. That was after he won an IRA national title for the Huskies in 2011.
*Senior five Alex Bunkers from Maitland, Fla., is another two-time UW national varsity champion. He is also a 2012 under-23 world champion for the United States.
*Sophomore four Marcus Bowyer is coming home. The native of South Moorland, United Kingdom, was a freshman national champion and Henley winner last year, also in the boat piloted by Caldwell.
*Senior three Sam Dommer, from Folsom, Calif., was also on last season's national-champion varsity eight.
*Sophomore two seat Alexander Perkins, of Westport, Conn., is another 2012 national champion in the freshmen eight who won at Henley last year.
*Junior bow Julian Svoboda, from North Canterbury, New Zealand, won a 2009 junior world bronze medal the men's quad before his 2012 IRA title as a Husky in the second varsity eight.
"We are definitely living in a global world right now," Callahan said. "International players come here. Our rowers go there.
"They are some veterans in this boat. There are some rookies in this boat. This will show us what we need to work on. We are not a finished product yet, by any means. So it's good to see, hey, how do we perform under pressure?
"It will motivate the team. We don't want to be complacent. It's a new year. We aren't talking about repeating or anything. Every year has its new code, its new challenges."
Like this special race.
Saturday, eight months and 14 days after they finished a dominant perfect season with their second repeat national rowing title in more than 70 years, the Huskies will be stroking down the Thames on a winding, rushing, 4.2-mile route.
It's more than three times longer than the 2,000-meter course on which the Huskies train inside its Montlake Cut. As the British say, "the river over that stretch looks like an upturned hat."
"In American collegiate racing, they try to select courses that are as tame and uniform as possible. No wind, no currents, no bends," Otto said. "On the London Tideway they throw that all out the window.
"Perhaps the River Thames will be kind to us. But it could get pretty grim."
Cambridge and Oxford first held The Boat Race on the Tideway in 1829. It was the second intercollegiate event of any kind, held two years after the first varsity cricket match.
"So it is essentially the birthplace of intercollegiate athletics," Callahan said.
The Huskies are going to London by way of a little-used bylaw in NCAA rules. Many teams from all kinds of sports at schools across the U.S. go on international exhibition tours during the offseason.
Last August and September, the Huskies' men's basketball team toured France, Spain, Monaco and Senegal, four years after it went on a summer tour of Greece. Women's basketball played in Scandinavia two summers ago. Women's soccer has been to Brazil, and this coming summer is scheduled to tour Italy. Men's soccer has toured England. Baseball went to Cuba in a groundbreaking trip in 2000.
But few college teams in the U.S. go in season, as Husky crew is doing in London.
"I would say that these are kind of rare, but not unheard of," said Kyle Pifer, UW's assistant athletic director for compliance. "Our golf teams are both playing in the Topy Cup in Japan in the next couple of years.
"I can't think of any other sport that takes advantage of this one on a regular basis."
Former Huskies assistant Luke McGee, who has since left Washington to become a coach with US Rowing, won The Boat Race while attending Oxford. That was the link that helped
UW race in that fixture at Oxford in 2009, also on The Boat Race course. Cambridge came to race in the 2010 Windermere Cup, the Huskies' annual extravaganza on the first Saturday of each May.
"The coached asked then would you come back for a fixture and we said, `Absolutely,'" Callahan recalled, knowing the Huskies had to wait four years from their last racing in England.
Callahan, to assistant Rick Gherst and the nine Huskies rowers will be in England for four days and three nights. They will spend Thursday night in a hotel near Cambridge and the other nights staying more bunk style in the quarters used for The Boat Race, two hours from Cambridge.
That only adds to the sense of brotherhood among rowers in this trip.
Callahan will be there Thursday evening when a Cambridge tutor proctors a test for some of the UW rowers on the hallowed campus. The proctor will email the completed tests back to Washington.
The Huskies are borrowing a Cambridge Empacher boat, "The 800th. It's the same shell they rode to victory at Henley last summer. Cambridge will be in a Hudson, made in Canada.
Coxswain Lisa Cadwell and the Huskies carrying "The 800th" at Henley last summer. Washington is hoping they can get a second win in this shell.
Cambridge coach Steve Trapmore explained in an email to Callahan on Tuesday that "The 800th" is so named "to mark the 800th year of the university which was originally founded in 1209!"
I asked Callahan if he feared the Cambridge chaps might, um, poke holes in "The 800th" before the Huskies arrive.
"No, they won't do that," he said, not really amused.
In fact, Trapmore has been emailing Callahan this week giving his visitor tips on the course and its three, unique bends. Trapmore detailed the approximate advantage distances in fractions of boat lengths for each turn, to help Callahan plan for Saturday's race.
Think LSU's Les Miles was sending Steve Sarkisian the skinny on how to navigate the bedlam at Tiger Stadium before UW football played in Baton Rouge last September?
"We're kind of one of the marquee programs in the United States right now, so it's good for them," Callahan said of Trapmore and Cambridge. "They probably want to draw people from our American system to row for them after they are done here. We've got some British guys in our boats. Same thing; they want to attract the best guys from Harvard, Yale, Washington, to get a master's or Ph D there.
"They just want good competition. I mean, we are on their turf."
YES, THIS IS A BIG DEAL
Friday, the Huskies will travel from Cambridge two hours into the outskirts of London to practice on the race course. CUBC is providing a coxswain who won The Boat Race a few years back to UW to sit with Caldwell, to give her Huskies counterpart expert advice on how to navigate the tricky Tideway.
Beyond the three turns, there are also tides that can raise and lower the Thames' depth as much as 10 feet. And there are currents. The strong flow relatively close to the English Channel is so much more vigorous than UW experienced last year at Henley, or anywhere in the U.S. In many places on the Tideway it is better to be in the middle than on a shorter track of hugging the turn, because of the strong flow in the center.
"You are running with the current, generally. And it's raging," Callahan said. "And there are a lot of turns, so it is very tactical."
That also makes for NASCAR-like jockeying, with boats banging and bumping for that prime space in the fast lane down the center of the Thames.
Asked how many Huskies have experience with any of this, Callahan took a breath and said, "None."
"There is going to be a lot of pressure on our coxswain, for sure," he said. "It's not like you just keep going straight for 2,000 meters (as in the Montlake Cut). You are constantly winding and turning, and you are side by side. Plus, it's four miles, so you don't just burn it up all the way.
"It's different than any kind of race that we do. When I saw it I gained a lot more appreciation for how tough this race is. I mean, they train nine months for this one race."
The closest Callahan could come to replicating what the Huskies will be experiencing this weekend was by taking them to practice recently in the Snohomish River, near its mouth in Everett, Wash.
Saturday morning the Huskies will practice on the Thames course again before racing the fixture at 4:30 London time that afternoon. The race will be umpired by Sir Matthew Pinset, a 42-year-old English rower and broadcaster whom his country knighted for winning 10 world championship gold medals and four consecutive Olympic gold medals.
Sunday, Callahan hopes to have time to lead his team on a tour of London before the flight back to Seattle. Monday is a school holiday for President's Day. The team will be back to class and training at UW on Tuesday.
"Now, I feel vested in them. We are helping them prepare," Callahan said. "They are bringing us over there. Part of our job is to make sure they are prepared for The Boat Race."
The trip jibes with what Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott's hope to expanding the conference's international presence in an array of sports.
"This is another way to getting exposure to our conference," Callahan said. "There are a lot of great universities in our conference, and this is a great way to show that."
HUSKIES VS. EX-HUSKIES
The reunion with Otto, Garratt and Ojserkis makes Callahan especially proud. It's a continuation of the legacy of former UW rowers attending England's prestigious schools as post-graduates.
Ojserkis is in a one-year graduate business program in Cambridge's Jesus College, one of the oldest schools in the university's group of sub-colleges. He isn't sure if he will stay a second year there to row and to perhaps pursue a Ph D.
Garratt already has a great Cambridge story. He stroked his new school to victory in one of the zaniest Boat Races ever last year.
Midway down the course a protestor against elitism jumped into the Thames in front of the shells. The Oxford and Cambridge coxswains decided to stop their boats rather than run over Trenton Oldfield, a now-infamous - and jailed - Australian and graduate of the London School of Economics.
Oxford had been winning but the race was re-started. The two boats collided after the restart, and a Cambridge oar chopped off a blade of Oxford's. Garratt, Cambridge, and all their intact oars rowed to an easy win from there.
Callahan told me that story Tuesday while speaking from a seat beneath a framed picture of Otto. The Huskies bestow that honor beset on all their departed Husky captains in the conference room of the Conibear Shellhouse.
"We also want to showcase that we recruit student-athletes that are strong academically," Callahan said. "We want to emphasize that you study at Washington and then pursue postgraduate work at Oxford or Cambridge.
"It shows we have ties there and that we will try to get them into the best grad schools possible."
Otto's in one of those, studying in Cambridge's nuclear engineering graduate program. He is already seeking jobs in the nuclear industry upon graduation, including back in the Pacific Northwest.
CAN UW WIN?
After hearing all this I had one overarching question.
What if the Huskies win?
What if the kid champions of U.S. colleges - guys I see training at 6 a.m. in the weight room and then again on the water late in the afternoon following classes, to the point of nausea, bang the veteran graduate students out of the current and turn this supposed tune up into a stunner on the Tideway?
Callahan knows it's way early in UW's season, saying "We are trying to find our character."
For all UW has won recently, a Huskies' victory on Cambridge's home course would be their biggest coup yet. CUBC's teams are historically strong the year after an Olympics, as rowers come back off their national teams to complete their graduate studies at Cambridge.
So can the Huskies win?
"Possibly," Callahan said. "I'm not really sure. A lot of it is tactical. If we get out of position, if they push us out and they are in the stream and we are not we will definitely lose."
But if not?
"That," Callahan said with a smile, "would be something."
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.