Team practices in cold before first meet

The Gophers open their season with an invitational in Oklahoma City.

The womens varsity crew practices Saturday, March 2, 2013, on the Mississippi River.

Mark Vancleave

The women’s varsity crew practices Saturday, March 2, 2013, on the Mississippi River.

Nate Gotlieb

At 8:30 on a frigid Saturday morning, the Gophers women’s rowing team hauled its boats out of the University Boathouse and onto the Mississippi River.

The team fought icy conditions during its 80-minute practice that partially froze the rowers’ seats. The coxswains, who lead the direction of the boat, and coaches wore survival suits — orange and blue full-body suits that served both as life jackets and protection from the cold.

“We always say that the survival suit is like wearing a hug,” senior coxswain Emilie Sabourin said. “When we’re out on the water and it’s freezing cold, it looks ridiculous, but it keeps us really, really warm.”

Many of the rowers went through warm-ups dressed in leggings, long-sleeve T-shirts and headbands.

The Gophers have practiced on the Mississippi six times in preparation for their first meet of the season this weekend in Oklahoma City.

“It’s definitely easier for us to head down there and be racing in 50-degree temps,” said coach Wendy Davis, the only head coach in the program’s 12-year history. “So we’re looking forward to some good racing conditions.”

Davis leads a program hunting for its first top-three finish at the Big Ten championships since 2007. The Gophers finished fifth at the championships last season.

“It’s kind of like a rut, the same exact finish,” Sabourin said. “So anything above that would be great.”

Sabourin, a team captain, rowed on a club team during her last two years of high school before becoming a coxswain for the Gophers. As the only one on the boat facing forward, she’s responsible for executing the boat’s race plan.

“A lot of people compare it to being quarterback,” she said.

Sabourin is part of a 10-member senior class that Davis called “dynamic.”

“They’ve been kind of like leaders, even as sophomores and juniors,” Davis said. “To have them now reaching the full level of maturity is wonderful in a bunch of different areas, but certainly it’s going to be great on the race course.”

The senior class is expecting the team to break through this season at the Big Ten championships, senior Kayla Thom said.

“Everybody’s kind of got the vision for this spring going into it,” Thom said. “We think we have the ability to be competing for the top-three spots.”

The Gophers return eight of nine members from last year’s top boat, which finished fifth at the Big Ten championships.

“The amount of pressure on that top boat is tremendous,” Davis said. “And until you’ve been through it and you’ve made the mistakes that everybody makes, you can’t move on to being excellent.”

Davis said she’s expecting everyone on the team, including the top boat, to make mistakes during this weekend’s competition. But with three races this weekend, she said the team will correct its mistakes as it goes.

“We don’t have to wait a week or two weeks before the next race,” she said, “before we get to implement the changes that we’ve made.”