gainst the Current

Rowing became the University’s 12th women’s varsity sport in 1999, and as soon as the “For Sale” sign came down, expectations for the future shot up.
But visions of the palatial digs to come are still hazy. For now, an aspiring varsity squad lead by coach Wendy Davis is building over the remains of a rustic club team.
There’s optimism on all fronts about the Gophers infant program growing from its rudimentary roots to make an impact on the Big Ten rowing scene.
“I’ve had interviews at other places where they are truly just adding rowing to comply with Title IX and could care less,” Davis said. “Here, they’re saying, `If we’re going to do this, we’re going to win.'”
The dedication and ambition starting from the top somehow manages to reach all the way down to the banks of the Mississippi River where the program’s meager practice facility — a giant white tent surrounded by fences and barbed-wire — is located.
“We call it the prison,” rower Beth Hornby said.
Getting to this makeshift boat house requires a daily journey through a claustrophobic, fenced-in catwalk running under a bridge and winding around the industrial decay of the steam plant.
“The first time I walked through it, I thought I was in Gotham City,” said rower Shelley Miller.
The journey and the destination leave something to be desired. One won’t find the frantic energy of Williams Arena or the shrine-like qualities of Mariucci. It’s two docks and a tent, spread out over 100 yards on the East bank of the Mississippi River.
But when practice begins, a new impression resonates from the group.
A few rowers do jumping jacks to ward off morning chills before Coach Davis takes roll and briefs her athletes on practice objectives. Then they head for the water.
Eight rowers hoist a boat to shoulder level, hull side up, dew glistening in the morning sun. With water bottles tucked into their waist bands like canteens, the athletes move on commands of, ‘Up,’ ‘Walk forward’ and ‘Slow it down.’
They portage the boats nearly 100 yards before arriving at the wooden ramp leading to the dock.
After rolling the boats out of suspended positions and onto the water, the group loads their oars. A barge chugs by, sending waves which partially submerge the floating dock.
The athletes remove shoes and take their places in the boat. After carefully dispatching themselves from the dock, the group takes off down river, out of the shadows of the East Bank and into waters brightened by the sun.
Getting a new program into the light is the primary objective for Davis, and for the athletes she’s inherited.
Miller, who rowed for the club team, said the women making the varsity jump are ready to take their commitment to the necessary level.
“We realize this is a larger commitment, and we want to be good,” Miller said. “All along, we’ve been planning for this and are ready to step up to the challenge.”
And a challenge it will be. Six other Big Ten conference schools participate in rowing: Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin.
Last season was the inaugural Big Ten women’s rowing championship, held at Wisconsin. Michigan earned two first-place finishes in three scoring events en route to winning the conference title.
Three Big ten schools went on to place among the top 10 at the fourth NCAA championships.
“We have some strides to make if we’re going to be competitive in the Big Ten,” Minnesota assistant coach Maggie Romens said.
The team looks to do more than simply make its introduction to collegiate rowing this season, believing themselves capable of a strong first year.
On one hand, the foundation of the Gophers program is a group of athletes with no varsity experience. On the other, it is a group of athletes who persevered through the club level. It is a group hungry to prove themselves in the varsity rowing circles.
“We’d like to make a statement, and say, `We’re here in full force,'” Miller said. “And come Big Tens, we will be a force to be reckoned with. We’d like to come in with a bang.”
Minnesota will compete at the Head of the Mississippi Regatta on Saturday, Oct. 7 beginning at 9 a.m. The Gophers will race at 11 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. in the only fall competition to be held in state.

David La Vaque welcomes comments at [email protected]