Rowing Bridges the Gaps

By Bryan Kitch

The 2017 Windermere Cup on May 6, 2017. Photography by Scott Eklund/Red Box Pictures.

In 1958, Washington Rowing had traveled to Russia to face the Soviets on their home turf. That was the background and inspiration when, in 1987, two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Soviet men’s and women’s crews were invited to compete for the inaugural Windermere Cup at Opening Day. And boy, did they compete.

The Soviets won two victories that day, and while their performance against the Husky men was impressive, the Soviet women set a course record on the Montlake Cut (6:11.73) that would stand for 30 years.

This year, Washington head coaches Mike Callahan and Yaz Farooq welcomed crews from the Shanghai High Performance Rowing teams, guided by legendary New Zealand coach Dick Tonks (unfortunately, Tonks was unable to make the trip along with the athletes this year). Again, the connections went back 20 years, with Farooq’s former coach when she was a coxswain with the U.S. national team, Hartmut Buschbacher, now working with the Chinese rowing federation. Buschbacher was their first point of contact when piecing together the logistics of this year’s cup race.

But, unlike in 1987, it was the Dawgs who had their day on the Montlake Cut in 2017, winning going away—and setting two new course records of their own.

“Well, funny thing, I raced against that same Soviet eight the following summer in Lucerne just before the 1988 Olympics,” Farooq says. “These were big, strong, elite women rowers, so in some ways it makes sense that in the very first Windermere Cup they set a record that would stand for some time. Back then the start for the Windermere Cup was floating, and now we have a surveyed course with a starting platform, so I know our eights raced the full 2,000 meters. Still, it’s crazy to think that that record stood for 30 full years.”

The Washington women bounced back from a tough loss against California—a race they had entered as the No. 1-ranked team in the country, only to see the defending national champion Bears get the better of them—with a 6:07.03 performance, with their second varsity eight also finishing ahead of the Chinese development squad.

“I know our eights weren’t thinking about the record,” says Farooq. “Competition in practice has been so fierce everyone was focused in on just trying to win the race. I think it was the confluence of some key elements: Our eights were primed and ready to throw down; a light tailwind puffed up; there was some flow through the Cut from recent rains; and then of course a packed venue of enthusiastic Husky fans on a beautiful sunny day. It was magical and I feel really lucky to have witnessed it.”

Not to be outdone, the Washington men also reversed their fortunes from the 106th Cal Dual, setting the new mark for the Montlake Cut at 5:27.48 (breaking the previous record, set in 1997, of 5:30 against California) and taking Windermere honors. When all was said and done, the Huskies had taken open-water victories in each of their Opening Day races.

“The cool thing is, those guys were there,” says men’s head coach Callahan. “We had a reunion the night before—the ‘77 guys, the ‘97 women, and the [record-setting] ‘97 men. So they were at the venue—bittersweet, I’m sure, in some ways for them. But great that they were there to see it.”

Regarding the Husky men’s performance, Callahan was happy to see them perform so strongly at such a pivotal point in the season.“Obviously, it was good to get a W, and gain some confidence back,” he says. “In the end, you’re learning how to make your own boat go as fast as it can, so that’s what the weekend was all about.”

Of course, ultimately, it’s not all about margins or the results of one race or another—it’s about tradition.

“You hear the stories about how loud and fired up the Windermere Cup crowd is, but when you are following the varsity eight race in the Cut behind your crews, it genuinely hits you that you are rowing in a stadium,” reflects Farooq, after her first experience coaching the Huskies through Opening Day.

The nature of rowing means that often spectators and fans will be separated by long distances from the action on the water. But there are a few venues where the lay of the land (and sea) allows for a more immersive experience. Henley Royal Regatta benefits from a similar, and rare, combination of tradition and close connection between those on the banks and in the boats. The difference with the Cut, however, is the amplified sound as you row through the narrow passage.

“The closest thing I can compare it to was the last 500 meters of the Eton Dorney rowing venue during the London Olympics, except that in the Cut you are truly surrounded by fans—on yachts, on shore and overhead on the Montlake Bridge. From that standpoint, a better home crowd or venue doesn’t exist.”

“We have the topography to do it. We have the population to do it. We’ve got the university on the water,” echoes Callahan. Those things, combined with sponsorship and international competition make Windermere so compelling—and perhaps a guiding light for how to engage the masses beyond the rowing community.