The Talented Yaz Farooq

By Jen Whiting

This story starts with an MG convertible, a “For Sale” sign, and a decision. You know this kind of decision. It’s the kind that requires everything you have to embark on a path with an uncertain outcome. It’s the kind of decision that stops you, but only for a moment.

When the moment has passed, you sell your MG, take the $3,000 you got for it, move to Boston, and rent a room in a ramshackle house with five other girls. Every morning and every afternoon of the summer of 1989 your voice crackles through the coxswain’s microphone. After every practice on the Charles River, you stand on the dock of Weld Boathouse, rowers towering over you as the boat is hoisted from the water. You’re 100 pounds and committed. You’re trying to make the national team and your $3,000 is running out.

“I had an MG convertible,” recalls Yaz Farooq, now the head of women’s rowing at the University of Washington. “I sold it because I needed the money to try to make the Olympics.” There isn’t a shred of doubt in her voice as she explains what she did the summer after she graduated from the University of Wisconsin. “As I was trying to make the team, I was so broke I didn’t even have the $25 to pay for my USRowing membership. I said to myself, ‘If I make it [the team], I’ll be able to afford to pay my dues. If not, that’s it. It’ll be over.’”

Farooq made the national team, and coxed the women’s eight from 1989 to 1996, taking sixth in the 1992 Olympics and fourth in Atlanta four years later. Along the way, she coxed the 1995 world champion U.S. eight, the first American women’s eight to win a world title in the 2,000-meter era. I ask her about the culture of women’s rowing in the 1980s and ‘90s, and how it’s changed since then.

“There wasn’t a tradition yet,” she says. “Hartmut [Buschbacher, the U.S. women’s head coach from 1991 to 2000] came in. He’d just coached the German boats to Olympic gold and we all just wanted to win. When Hartmut was hired it was the first time USRowing committed to a full-time coach for the women. He brought a new method of training. We embraced it because we wanted to win. I still use some of his workouts. He went to bat for us, got us better boats, did fundraising. He helped establish the training center for the women.

“I think he’s always been under-appreciated,” she continues. “What is most important is that he established a system whereby college kids had something to aspire to in an organized way. If you were to ask Tom [Terhaar, the women’s coach and an assistant coach under Buschbacher], there are key parts of his training that he took from that time.” Farooq is contemplative, but with a rapid-fire delivery, and she leaves nothing left unsaid, it seems. “When we came up short, we learned lessons that are used to teach athletes today.”

A journalist by training, Farooq was a walk-on coxswain for the University of Wisconsin Badgers. It’s no wonder, then, that after her eight years as the national team coxswain she would receive a call from NBC asking her to do commentary for the 2000 Olympics. “I was a sports intern at a television station in Madison my senior year of college,” she says. “I was always behind the scenes—not on the mic—and after the 1992 Olympics I started doing production at a station in Chattanooga. I moved into station management and sales, and did voiceovers when they needed different people’s voices. I did my time in TV.”

She keeps explaining, not missing a beat to see if I’ve gotten her Midwestern humor. “When NBC called me, I essentially auditioned for it. That’s why I got into coaching.” I do a quick double-take and she backs up a bit. “I thought I was going to go into TV management. By then, my husband and I were living in Eugene, Oregon, and after the 1996 Olympics we were driving by Dexter Lake and saw some rowing. We pulled over, someone recognized me, and they asked if I’d be interested in coaching their club.”

As Farooq started coaching again, her work with NBC kept her at the elite rowing events. “I studied our sport like hell. I knew I needed to be immersed in it. I went to at least one World Rowing Cup or world championship event every year. I love elite rowing. I’m a student of the sport. That’s why I became a college coach.”

Farooq was named the head women’s coach at Stanford University in 2006. In her time at Stanford, she led her team to the NCAA championships, winning silver in the varsity eight in 2008 and the NCAA team title in 2009. Stanford became a rowing powerhouse, routinely winning on both coasts. She talks about her coaching style, and how it’s changed in the past 10 years.

“The way I coach now is entirely different. It’s a different generation and you’ve got to communicate to the generation you’re coaching. In my generation, we followed a little more blindly,” says Farooq. “First off, most of us walked onto the teams we rowed on in college. There was no recruiting and there weren’t any scholarships back then. When I got to Wisco in 1984, Kris Thorsness and Carie Graves had just won gold at the 1984 Olympics—they were from Wisco. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, you can learn to row in college and make the Olympics.’ That was kind of how that generation operated.

“Now, as college students, they’re focused on development for the under-23 team, then there’s development for the senior team. It’s just different.” She reaches back for a story to illustrate what she’s explaining. “When I was a sophomore in college, I went to a national team camp. Even though I was ‘development,’ I was working with people who had just won the Olympics.”

Farooq has been incredibly successful as a Division I coach, not only in creating crews that win but in the development of her athletes. In her 10 seasons as the Stanford head coach, 14 of her athletes went on to the under-23 team; two became Olympians. Farooq replays her memory from the 2008 Olympics when Elle Logan, a former Cardinal rower, was in the U.S. women’s eight.

“NBC rules are that you can’t be a cheerleader when you’re calling a race. But after Elle’s race [the U.S. won], they played the national anthem and the emotion caught up with me.” I’m not surprised by this but Farooq explains the significance of it. “At the world championships [in 1995], they didn’t play the national anthems of the winners. So at the 2008 Olympics, in Beijing, when the national anthem started playing, I felt it. To be a part of Elle’s journey—to see her succeed—all the lessons I learned along the way let me contribute, to be a part of her success.” She stops, surprising me.

“In my career as an athlete, winning the world championship was a peak for me. Finishing fourth at the Olympics [in 1996] after all that hard work with that group of women… you could walk away and be crushed or recognize that you’d been on an incredible journey. The people I’ve had the opportunity to race with are amazing. I’ve had my glory.”

There’s a pause, like when the wind carries sound across the lake you’re rowing on, almost caressing your boat as it glides through a still morning. “I love teaching,” Farooq says, breaking the silence. “I love coaching. Teaching athletes how to be great teammates, especially when the championship is built on points from multiple boats.” Farooq segues into her feelings about the NCAA points system, awarding the team title to the squad that wins the most races, and places highest on the podium across all of the boats.

“It makes for such a fun team dynamic—top to bottom, everybody playing their part. I love that: bringing a team together. When they think there’s something impossible, if they chip away at it, a little at a time, when they achieve it together it makes it so much more special.”

In the 20 years that rowing has had an NCAA championship (1997 to 2016), only seven schools have won the Division I team title: Washington, Brown, Harvard, California, Stanford, Virginia, and Ohio State. I ask Farooq for her thoughts on this statistic, and why breaking into the top tier is so difficult. “All I ever think about is the team I’m coaching,” she says. “What do we have to do to be in the hunt? It’s really important to have depth to win the NCAAs. You’ve got to medal in the V8 to get there. You definitely have to get [the first and second varsity eights] into the grand final. I feel like I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve been exposed to a lot of fantastic coaches and had the opportunity to work with highly-motivated athletes.”

I ask Farooq about moving from one Division I rowing powerhouse, Stanford, to another, the University of Washington. “I’m so grateful to everybody at Stanford who helped me develop as a coach. When I went to Stanford my husband asked me, ‘Is this it?’ We had landed in Oregon for 10 years [both were working in television] and loved it. The only other place I would consider was Washington.”

Farooq leads me through what she found when she interviewed with the Huskies. “The support and love of the sport, I saw it at Wisconsin. The team we always had to get through was UW. The history, the legacy, not just “The Boys in the Boat,” but the women, too. They were always first.” I assume Farooq is talking about the results the UW crews created, but I’m wrong.

“UW was the first to give out scholarships. Washington loves rowing more than anything. The program is embraced equally by the university and the city. Jen Cohen, our athletic director, made it very clear that rowing is important to the university, to the school’s identity.”

I ask her if she’s coxed her Husky crews since arriving in Seattle last summer. “I haven’t gotten in the boat with the Dawgs yet, but the day is coming.” She explains, “It really does help me. As a coach you have to develop your eye. I spend a lot of time following the boat from behind, because that was always my angle as a coxswain. Sometimes it just helps me to be in that seat. I can feel what needs to be fixed.”

Farooq still coxes the occasional race, and recommends that any coxswain looking to improve their skills not only cox their high school or college team, but spend some time coxing masters rowers. “I coxed masters for 10 years. I recommend it. Coxing at a masters regatta—when you’re in such demand—makes you learn how to operate on the fly.”

I ask her if she’s coxed crews from her national team days since her departure from the eight. “At the Olympic level you’re flying the fastest jet. You’re a fighter pilot at the highest level. You’re Top Gun. That said, when I get back into a boat with my teammates, we fall right back into it. Not for all the strokes,” she chuckles, “but we can still find that rhythm.”

“Would you jump into the women’s eight if you could?” I ask. “I love coxing,” she answers, “but I have immense respect for the sacrifice it takes to compete at the elite level. It’s the 10,000-hour rule. All of the finesse things that you’ve developed. I look back and say that was the peak of my career. You remember what it felt like to go fast. I’m really grateful I got to do it.” There’s a pause, and I nudge the question toward her again, “Would you get in the eight?”

Farooq’s laughter rises, and I can hear the deep, resonant tone that many coxswains develop in their voice. “I would never ask it. Every practice they have is so valuable. It would be amazing, but I don’t want to waste their time and they don’t want to be hauling this old lady around in their boat!”

Asking Farooq to think about her time with the national team brings us to her time developing rowers. She tells me that when an athlete comes to her saying she wants to try to make it to the next level of rowing after college, she encourages them. “I’m always overjoyed when an athlete wants to make a commitment beyond college. If you make it or you don’t, if you take your shot to see how far you can go, that’s the commitment. The road is rough more often than it’s smooth and fast, but I know they’re going to have lessons for the rest of their lives.”

I ask her if it’s the same with athletes who express an interest in coaching. “I think it’s awesome. Thanks to Title IX and the increasing number of women in the sport, you can actually have a career at a university and work with incredible women and men. I get to work with Jen Cohen, our amazing athletic director, Erin O’Connell, the former USRowing president and UW coxswain—and now my sport administrator—and with Michael Callahan [the UW men’s head coach], who is one of the most creative coaches I’ve met and a brilliant guy.”

In every interview, there’s always the last question. I always use the same one. “Is there something I should have asked you that I didn’t?” Usually after I pose this question there’s a pause, a bit of silence, a moment when the person I’m interviewing reflects on their life, their experiences, their approach to the topic we’re discussing. For Yaz Farooq, however, there was no silence. Instead, she laughed out loud. “You’re funny,” she says. “I would always ask that same question.” Farooq harkens back to her days in radio and television. “Sometimes you uncover some really interesting stuff. There are the things you know about a person, and then there are the things you don’t know.”