Former novice becomes a top rower

Ali Haws got a late start but now is one of the best on the team.

Ali Haws rows during practice Wednesday on the Mississippi River. Haws started as a member of the novice team and has worked her way up to the first varsity eight.

Marisa Wojcik

Ali Haws rows during practice Wednesday on the Mississippi River. Haws started as a member of the novice team and has worked her way up to the first varsity eight.

Dane Mizutani

Ali Haws didn’t start rowing until her sophomore year in college. Now a senior, she is among the top members of Minnesota’s rowing team.

Haws was a star volleyball player at Libertyville High School in Libertyville, Ill. She was named all-state honorable mention as a senior. She was also all-conference in basketball and softball and in 2008 was named the Illinois High School Association Sportsperson of the Year.

It turns out that was a perfect match for college rowing with the Gophers.

Haws garnered scholarship interest from smaller schools for her skill in her other three sports but instead opted to enroll at the University of Minnesota. She said she was particularly drawn to the Carlson School of Management, and once she got accepted, it was a fairly easy decision to attend.

“It’s tough to come here and give up those other three sports … but I thought it would be a smart thing just to take a break and relax for a little bit,” Haws said. “I got in and was like, ‘I have to make this choice for my future.’”

Haws said she knew it was the right choice to come to the Twin Cities, but in her first year without a sport since she was a four-year-old playing tee-ball, she said she felt like something was missing in her life.

“It was just weird waking up on Saturday whenever I wanted and not having something to go out and work at,” Haws said. “I missed that a lot.”

She said she yearned for competition again and sought it out in her sophomore year at Minnesota.

Haws knew she wasn’t skilled enough to compete as a walk-on on the basketball team, but she said she contacted former Minnesota volleyball coach Mike Hebert.

“I talked to him, and he looked at [my highlight] tape and everything … but he said they already had enough [middle blockers] on the roster, so that didn’t work out,” Haws said.

She eventually found her way to the boathouse and tried out for the novice rowing team in her second year at Minnesota.

It was clear from the start that Haws — who had never picked up an oar before — had natural talent for rowing.

“I didn’t see it right away, but our novice coach told me she was one of the best of the novice group,” head coach Wendy Davis said.

Haws said it wasn’t as easy as she made it look. The sport is different than anything she was used to.

“It was definitely tough at first because the other sports I played were more coordination-oriented, and that was my strength,” Haws said. “I remember thinking when I first started, ‘How do people do this?’”

But she stuck with the new sport despite her frustration.

She was voted most valuable novice rower and novice captain in her first year with the Gophers and transitioned into the second varsity eight last season. That crew placed fourth in its division at the Big Ten championships last year.

Haws continued to develop in her second year with the team — her third year as a student — and earned the Gophers’ most improved award.

However, it wasn’t until last summer at Davis’ developmental camp that the head coach said she saw a full transformation.

“I really started to see her figure it out … so from this time last year to now she is a totally different rower,” Davis said. “She has the same mindset, same desire, but she knows what she’s doing now. It really was a nice surprise to see her make that jump.”

Katie Anderson started rowing at the same time as Haws almost three years ago and said she has seen Haws take a full leadership role this season.

“She’s been a really strong leader who is dedicated to being a student of the sport,” Anderson said. “She really puts everything she has in it … and I think once she has started to own the sport a lot of people started to look up to her.”

She added that Haws is one of the funniest people on the team — something Davis said is important in a senior leader.

“She tends to be more serious around me, but I see glimpses of it periodically,” Davis said of the senior’s humor. “It’s always a balance … and she does a good job at it.”

Haws might be comedic relief for the team at times, but on the water, she is focused.

Haws sits in the sixth seat in the first varsity eight and is one of the “primary boat movers” on the roster this year, Davis said.

Nearly a seven-hour, 400-mile drive from home, Haws said she considers the team her family.

“I only see my real family like once a year, so this is my family when I’m at school,” she said. “It’s refreshing … to take a step back off the water and know there are people supporting me in my life. That’s probably my favorite part of being on the team.”

Haws will have another year to get even closer with her new family next season, as she will return for a fourth season. She is technically a senior in school this year, but she has another year of athletic eligibility because she did not compete as a freshman.

Davis isn’t complaining.

“I’m just glad we get her for another year,” Davis said with a smile. “I would say she started September as one of the better rowers on the team, but since then … she’s become absolutely one of the top-two rowers.”