Rowers press on despite recent adversity

Brett Angel

When Wendy Davis arrived in Minnesota as the first head coach of the University’s women’s rowing program in 2000, she brought with her high expectations for a school that had never before competed in the sport at the NCAA level.

Despite the challenges of building a competitive Big Ten program from scratch, Davis targeted the upcoming 2002-03 season as the year Minnesota rowers would garner national attention.

“When I first got here, I figured by this year we’d be a sure shot to go to the NCAA Championships,” said Davis.

Now heading into their third season as an official varsity sport, the athletes are doing their best to make sure their coach’s words do not go unfounded.

“The level of commitment and the standards are just so much higher this year,” said senior captain Jill Peters.

At least six rowers met daily over the summer to practice with the Minneapolis rowing club. Many others trained on their own and showed up this season in great shape, Peters added.

That list includes senior rower Amber Riopel, who competed in and finished the Iron Man triathlon in Madison, Wisc., earlier this month.

Fall practice officially started Sept. 3, and that means 6:30 a.m. practices six days a week. That’s a level of commitment every college student can appreciate.

Although only two of the 20 varsity athletes are true recruits, Davis said the team is already far ahead of where they were at this point last year.

“Frankly, I knew there would be a really good work ethic, but they’ve exceeded my expectations – they’re really hard workers,” she said.

Optimism that the team can reach the NCAA’s and place in the top four at the Big Ten Championships next spring remain high, but a number of unexpected events have made the task harder than Davis envisioned.

In addition to the difficulties of attracting athletes to a newly created program, recruiting efforts have been hampered as well. The University imposed a building moratorium last April, halting construction plans on the rowing team’s new boathouse.

“We had two recruits on tap last year from Canada who were all set to sign,” Davis said. “Then when they heard that we would be operating out of a tent in Minnesota for three more years they went elsewhere.”

Among other amenities, the new building would have contained locker rooms and an indoor practice tank, “which is what you need if you want to be competitive as a northern school,” said Davis.

The head coach recalled her surprise after first learning of the moratorium.

“The design was all done, the builders were all on board, we were all set to go before the regents for approval,” Davis said. “Everything was finished, and then wham.”

The team has also dealt with the loss of assistant coach Kerry O’Keefe, who died of cervical cancer last fall at the age of 33.

“They recovered relatively quickly,” Davis said of the athletes, “but it changed the focus of the team.”

Davis is hoping the obstacles her team has been forced to overcome will bring them closer together, and looks forward to a fresh start this season.

“I’m very encouraged,” Davis said. The department has a freshness, the athletes have a freshness, I know I do. What we’re aiming for is to stay on target and to snag an NCAA bid. Whether we accomplish it or not, we’ll find out.”

Minnesota hosts the Head of the Mississippi on Oct. 5.