As the sun rises over the Rivanna Reservoir, the silence of an early spring morning is suddenly broken by the shouts of coxswains and the quick rhythmic strokes of the rowers seated in front of them. The men – and a few women coxswains – who take to the water this morning are marking five decades of University of Virginia men’s rowing, on the Rivanna and around the globe.
The modern men’s club rowing team – which does not award scholarships, unlike the women’s rowing team, an official varsity sport – began in 1967 with a groundswell of support from students and local alumni, but it can trace its roots back to much earlier days at the University.
UVA’s first crew team, known as the Rives Boat Club, was formed in 1877 and was the first University team to take part in an intercollegiate competition in any sport, a race that took place on June 30, 1877. Despite this distinction, the original team only remained active for six years.
Today’s team attributes its longevity and its success – five members have gone on to join the U.S. national team – to the strong culture of dedication and camaraderie the club team has fostered over the years.
Now, as the team celebrates its 50th anniversary, UVA Today takes a look back at Virginia men’s rowing through the years.
When the Virginia men’s rowing team held its first regatta in April of 1967, it had one very distinctive visitor in attendance. Dr. Halstead Hedges, then 99 years old and one of the few remaining crew members who rowed with the Rives Boat Club in the late 1800s, arrived to watch the Wahoos compete against East Carolina University, Richmond Professional Institute and Washington and Lee High School.
The nearby dam and Rivanna Reservoir were brand-new at the time, and had just happened to catch the eye of 1970 graduate Steve Plott as he drove down to UVA for his first semester. He quickly connected with friends who had also rowed in high school and went to scope out the area.
“It was really a beautiful body of water and we thought it would perfect for rowing,” Plott said.
With the help of some interested local alumni, the club soon purchased a parcel of land next to the reservoir and formed the Virginia Rowing Association. In those first days, most of the equipment was borrowed or given to the team by Plott’s former coach at Washington and Lee High School in Arlington.
After hosting some of its first regattas in Charlottesville, the team quickly began to travel. In the 1970s, a few of the racing shells even hitched a ride to races atop a classic Volkswagon Bus.
Today, the team travels all over the country and globe, taking part in such prestigious competitions as the Henley Royal Regatta on England’s River Thames.
Although every race provides a unique thrill of excitement, rowers say that it’s the many long hours spent training that forge the lasting bonds between teammates.
“It’s more about the shared suffering,” said Mike Blanchette, a 1995 alumnus and former team member. “It’s not even the one race that you remember. You remember the getting up at 5 a.m., the cold mornings and the difficulties and the challenges. Certainly, the success you remember as well, but it’s more about the friendship that you create. The best man at my wedding rowed with me and so did several other members of the wedding party.”
Blanchette, pictured above in the orange hat rowing in the 1995 Head of the Charles race, said that he regularly keeps in contact with many of his former teammates and was one of more than 100 rowing alumni who came back to Grounds to celebrate the 50th anniversary in March.
Current team members agree that for those who stick with the intense training, it’s nearly impossible not to become close friends.
“You’re physically close to the people. You’re sitting in front of or behind a guy for two hours every morning. You can’t help but get really close to them. It’s just going to happen,” fourth-year captain Nathan Heinzman said.
Even during the winter months when it’s too cold to go out on the water, rowers are training constantly, improving their strokes on erg machines.
“One of the big things about rowing is that it’s the shared experience of common suffering. Every workout is some kind of suffering, but this is the experience as a whole, getting up every morning at 5 a.m. Monday through Friday and traveling on weekends,” head coach Frank Biller said. “There are a lot of hurdles to overcome together as a group.”
Heinzman estimates that roughly two-thirds of the current team arrived at UVA with no rowing experience. While the sport tends to attract students who are already athletic, it’s usually an entirely new experience from the type of group sports they’re used to. They don’t merely coordinate with other rowers; they have to learn to move as one.
Together, the long hours and the culture of shared goals build a certain type of character that sticks with rowers long after they graduate. According to Biller, even those who have little or no experience with the sport recognize a rower as someone who can go the distance.
“We have 100 percent employment of our alumni. When you have rowing on your résumé and you’re decently qualified, you’re almost certainly going to get an interview,” he said. “You’re going to go to the top of the pile because when they see rowing, employers know that it’s one of the sports that requires a great amount of discipline.”
“People say it’s the ultimate team sport. You can’t really have a standout rower influence the boat the way you would in another sport like basketball, where if you have an MVP, he can win the game for you,” fourth-year team president Riley Hazard said. “A star rower can’t win the race for you. You need everyone to be contributing.”
Whether it helped their résumé, helped them find their group in college or simply helped them find a sport they love, the men’s rowing club has left its mark on generations of UVA students.
“Rowing wasn’t just something I did that affected my college career. You can do a lot of activities in college that shape the way that you live for those four years, but I think rowing changes the way you’re going to live for the rest of your life,” fourth-year coxswain Ellie Coles said. “It makes you a different person and teaches you a lot about yourself that you otherwise wouldn’t know.”