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“The Watchers” is a film adaptation of the 2022 book of the same name by A.M. Shine.
Review: “The Watchers”
Published June 13, 2024

Walk-ons continue to be the heart of Gophers boats

Despite wanting top-level talent, walk-ons are still the key to Wendy Davis’ team.

For most collegiate sports, recruiting allows coaches to get an idea which athletes will be able to have an immediate impact on the team.

Not so with Minnesota’s rowing team, in which walk-ons are counted on to learn skills quickly and eventually contribute on varsity boats. Despite the push for top-level and international recruits, walk-ons continue to fuel the Gophers’ boats.

Approximately two-thirds of the current varsity team is made up of former walk-ons, and there are only three recruits on Minnesota’s top boat.

Though having walk-ons move up to varsity is common practice, coach Wendy Davis said they need a few years of hard training and practice before they are really ready to contribute.

“Every year, we get freshmen who are incredible athletes, and by their junior year, they’re just as good as any sort of top-level recruit,” Davis said. “But the thing is, it takes until their junior year.”

Davis said that during the first days of school, the coaching staff campaigns through postcards and fliers to recruit the top athletes in each freshman class. As a result, the Gophers get approximately 100 walk-ons each year – most of whom never make it to the varsity team.

For some former walk-ons, rowing started as just a way to stay involved in sports without any consideration of someday being on a Division I team.

“When I walked on, I didn’t even realize how extreme it was, how intense of a program it was,” said senior Andrea Pierce, who has worked her way up to team captain. “I definitely got myself involved in something I never ever thought I’d be involved in.”

As the program has progressed during its five-year existence, Minnesota has begun to integrate recruits and walk-ons on the varsity team.

Last season was the first that the Gophers were able to convince top-level recruits to visit Minnesota. Though they all decided to go to other schools, Davis said, the fact that they even visited was a huge step for the program.

“We need those two to three honest-to-goodness blue chip everybody-wants-them athletes in order to be top-three consistently in the country,” Davis said.

Minnesota has also followed in the footsteps of many other rowing programs by recruiting internationally – an important factor in creating a top-level team. The Gophers currently have three Lithuanians on their squad.

Junior Cheryl Wick said the mix of walk-ons and recruits benefits the program.

“I think it makes for healthy competition within the program when those top eight spots are for the top eight people, regardless of if you were a walk-on, or a recruit or an international recruit, or whatever,” Wick said.

But even as Minnesota continues to attract more recruits, Davis said she will always put a strong effort toward finding good walk-ons.

“We’d be crazy not to,” she said. “The more talented athletes you’ve got on your squad, the better you’re going to be.”

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