So You Want to Row in College

Heat of the Remenham Challege Cup, Princeton University, on Friday, 01/07/2016 at the Henley Royal Regatta. Photo by Peter Spurrier.

High school athletes in many sports do not stand a chance of making a college team. It’s a tough reality to grasp, but not everyone can play basketball for Duke or football at Ohio State.

But collegiate rowing coaches almost universally say that everyone can row in college—or rather, everyone has the opportunity to do so. Athletes may not earn a coveted recruit spot at a university like Princeton, but if they are admitted to the school, they are often welcome to walk on to the team.

It may be difficult initially to reconcile one’s own abilities and accomplishments as a high school rower with the desires of the nation’s elite collegiate crews. The recruiting pool has gotten deeper with each passing generation, making selection to a high-caliber program even more challenging.

“There are opportunities for everybody,” says Princeton assistant lightweight coach Bill Manning. “Every kid can row in college who wants to row in college, but they just might not be formally recruited to row in college.”

The high school rower best positioned to row in college is the one who is aware of the opportunities that are out there. Yes, there are the longstanding powerhouses of the Ivy League and the Pacific Northwest. But the collection of collegiate rowing programs in the United States is so much richer.

Just look at Hobart College. The Division III liberal arts school in Geneva, New York, has emerged as a Top 20 IRA program that even sends crews to English Henley.

The University of Virginia boasts one of the nation’s best club programs—alongside powerhouses like the University of Michigan, Grand Valley State University, and the University of Delaware. The slogan “club in name only” rings ever more true when these crews hit the water.

Even on the women’s side, the University of Texas at Austin is blossoming as a premier rowing destination since former Cal coach Dave O’Neill took the reigns, and Ohio State University has quickly become a crew powerhouse. That’s to go along with 142 other NCAA-sanctioned women’s rowing programs across three divisions.

So collegiate rowing is available to every interested and willing high school rower out there. Rowers of all stripes can set themselves up for success wherever they choose to row by understanding the rowing landscape, getting into the system, and avoiding the mistakes that can hamper their chances.

It’s really like a first job interview, and with that in mind, it must be taken seriously.

Step 1:

Students applying to colleges ask important questions as they seek out admission. Are the majors I’m interested in available? Do I fit into the campus and student body? Do my resume and test scores make me a viable candidate for admission? Can I afford it?

These questions all remain applicable for the high school rower. After all, the diploma at the end of college is often the more practical takeaway in the eventual job search than a collection of medals. That said, a serious recruit understands that collegiate rowing is often as demanding as the pursuit of an academic degree.

“It’s a big time commitment. It’s not an extracurricular activity,” O’Neill says. “You are a student-athlete and what you learn on our team for rowing is just as important as what you’re learning in the classroom. What you learn on the rowing team and in the classroom, you combine the two for a terrific college experience.”

So answering those questions is important in first identifying schools where rowing could be a possibility. Concurrently, rowers should consider what kind of collegiate rowing experience they desire. And with the line increasingly blurred between what differentiates club and varsity teams, that calculus is becoming more difficult. One difference that persists is the national championship race for a given team.

On the men’s side, Ivy League crews, as well as larger varsity programs—from Washington to Wisconsin—race at the IRA. But so do programs like the DIII Hobart, which annually strives to take its entire team to the IRA, and a handful of varsity teams at other schools that will send a crew or two each year.

“The school wants us to compete at the highest level possible and so we don’t have any limitations,” says Hobart head coach Paul Bugenhagen. “We have no ceiling. We have the ability to really have an aggressive vision. We want guys looking for a top-20 rowing experience.”

Then there are schools for whom the Dad Vail Regatta or ACRAs serves as the cap to the racing season. These include smaller varsity programs, as well as club teams, which are not permitted to race at IRAs. Don’t mistake these regattas as second-rate, though—the racing is fast and the competition is deep.

“Dad Vails is a great event, and ACRAs is one of the best-run regattas in the country to be honest,” says Virginia men’s head coach Frank Biller. “The experience is great. The camaraderie is awesome. You develop and then, after that, who knows what happens?”

By that, Biller means that even club rowers can go on to compete for the U.S. national team and race in the Olympics. Matt Miller, a 2011 Virginia grad, rowed in the men’s four in the Rio Olympics in 2016.

For the many women’s varsity programs across the country, racing for an NCAA championship is the dream. Yet it’s not the only way to a title. Lightweight women’s events are held at the IRA, not NCAAs. And many club programs contend for championships at the Dad Vail or ACRAs as well.

These differences in championship races do not suggest that crews of a certain category train less hard or desire success any less than crews of another. Instead, they are probably better indicators of how challenging it can be on a team to earn a seat in the first boats. The more highly sought-after IRA and NCAA Division I programs often boast the biggest depth charts. That makes earning a varsity eight spot much harder.

And yet, at so many other competitive programs, those spots may be easier to reach.

Biller says, “I think there’s more value for someone to race in Virginia’s first eight at Dad Vail, ACRA, and Henley than in the third varsity eight of the petite final of IRA.”

“Sometimes it’s better off having a great experience at the minors than to play in the majors,” he adds.

For many high school rowers, getting admitted to an elite institution—let alone being recruited—will be their biggest challenge. Finding alternative terrific options, however, should not be.

Step 2:

After rowers have an idea of which schools they are interested in, the application and the visit are two big next steps. Both of these have a corresponding rowing component, as well as follow-up communication with a coach.

Virtually every team has a recruiting questionnaire on their website, and that is often how a rower enters a team’s pool of candidates. Erg scores, boat assignments, and racing achievements are all part of this application. Success matters. Athletes whose boats win, especially in big races, are attractive to coaches. Standards keep rising, too. The 2k score that might have garnered a look from coaches five years ago may now fall a bit short.

On the women’s side, O’Neill says that breaking the seven-minute barrier used to be “amazing.” As more have achieved the feat, “that’s not so amazing anymore.” However, he adds, “I think the cornerstone of our program will continue to be kids developing,” so the erg is not the be-all and end-all for recruiting.

Biller says that hundreds of students send their numbers and results to college programs, but that there’s too much resume pampering. “A lot of high school rowers, some don’t realize that they have potential,” he says. “But the larger group doesn’t realize how much smaller a fish they are in a much bigger pond.”

Once a rower is in a team’s system, the conversation begins. However, the NCAA dictates some restrictions. Before their senior year, high school athletes can only meet a coach on campus; however, coaches can respond to emails and phone calls from juniors. An unofficial on-campus visit provides a good introduction to the program, and even can help rowers learn more about the culture of the team.

Across the board, coaches say the pairing of a rower and program comes down to fit.

“We spend a lot of time trying to get to know the guys, talking with families and understanding their ambitions, their vision for their self,” Bugenhagen says. “Does that match with what were trying to do as a program? If they can enhance what we’re trying to do…away we go.”

That’s an important distinction to make between someone who is a recruit, versus just an interested athlete. Coaches will actively recruit students who fit with their program and will help make it better.

To that end, rowers should provide updates to coaches of their progress: a new PR, a victory at a significant race, a selection for an under-19 boat. Generally speaking, programs try to respond to these emails, but coaches will sometimes focus their time on the athletes they’re most interested in. At first that sounds discouraging, but it doesn’t mean that rowers can’t be on the team at the schools they are admitted to.

“Recruits are absolutely the minority,” Manning says. “Two-thirds of our team is not recruits. For two-thirds, the admissions office was unaware that they rowed in high school. They either rowed and walked on or were a true walk-on.”

For club programs, usually there’s little sway that the team can have on an admissions decision, especially at selective schools like Michigan or Virginia. Biller says sometimes he will have candidates for whom he might send a letter of recommendation, but he is limited in how he might help an applicant’s chances.

Lightweight rowers have an interesting place in the recruiting pool. If they are too small, programs will likely pass. If they’re too big, they may get a look from the heavyweight team, but lightweight coaches probably won’t sign a rower who would enroll already above the weight limit.

“If you’re rowing as a lightweight in high school, you’re on the small side for college,” Manning says. “I think that’s something that a lot of kids don’t realize. We want the small kids making the heavyweight boats go fast in high school.”

On top of the email or phone call updates, rowers might also help make their case to a school by sending videos of themselves rowing—port, starboard, and sculling. If they have enough skill, it could work in their favor. But again it is just one variable in the equation.

“Your body of work is more impressive and important than a singular bright performance, and so we want to know what your process yields week-in and week-out over the course of our relationship,” Bugenhagen says. “That, to me, is the sign of an athlete who has his sights set in the right direction.”

Ultimately, rowers have to present their best case to the team. While many teams may desire their erg scores or race performances, it’s the coaches who make decisions, and so it’s the coaches who must be convinced of the fit within the entirety of their program.

Step 3:

It’s surprising to ask coaches about the biggest mistakes potential recruits make. Each one has a story.

“Sometimes I think the biggest pitfalls that they run into are the conversations that they have with our current team,” O’Neill says. “In the discussion with the coaches they might be saying all the right things, but then you can get a sense of what they’re going to be like as a team member with the current kids on the team.”

“We certainly ask the kids on our team, ‘Will she be a good teammate?’ and that’s important. That goes a long way,” he says of rowers who visit the team.

College coaches will contact the junior rower’s coach and ask about how a recruit is as a teammate. A talented rower who is toxic on a team may struggle to hold a college coach’s attention.

Manning says, “The classic mistakes are the kid that comes on a visit and drinks and behaves poorly. Probably every other year we have a kid who comes on a visit and does something that makes us immediately drop him. It happens way more than it should.”

Even with social media, high school rowers can hurt their chances with posts that show them behaving negatively or that contain derogatory comments. Being recruited, therefore, is an interview that lasts beyond the on-campus visit, and coaches take behavior very seriously.

Athletes who fall silent will see their stock fall, as well.

“If someone kind of loses their ability to communicate what’s going on, other people are going to be filling that void,” Bugenhagen says. “All of us have deep, deep lists [of kids who] have the school as one of their top five. If kids end up going radio silent, there’s other kids that are going to take those spots due to a lack of communication.”

The scholarship conversation, of course, will come into play at universities where athletic offers are an option. However, it’s part of the larger conversation about whether the rower, team, and school are a good match.

“Offers do not get made right away,” O’Neill says. “It is certainly a process of getting to know them.”

He says scholarship talk usually comes up naturally, when both parties can be honest about their interests and understandings of what is expected. “We’re going to do the right thing for the program,” he says. “And for the family, as well. Typically it works out pretty well.”

Although rowing scholarship opportunities are more numerous for women than men, O’Neill cautions that misinformation has skewed the perception of how easy they are to obtain. It’s still very challenging.

“Yes, there are plenty of opportunities for high school rowers to get a scholarship for a Division I rowing program,” he says, “But the more competitive the program, the more competitive it is to get one.”

The final step:

Eventually the day arrives when admissions committees mail out decisions, and rowers are left to consider the two years’ worth of information and experience that the college search process yields.

Finances, majors, campus life, and future job placement will be a huge part of that discussion. Rowing coaches hope that college racing is, too.

“Learn about the school. Figure out whether you like the school. You don’t have to be recruited to go to a school,” says Manning, whose background conveniently includes time as a college counselor. “All those different variables that make a good college experience are there for you. There’s very few places that will say, ‘No, you can’t row here.’”

“The thing I tell every single kid is the number one decision-making factor is the school. That’s it,” Biller says “You have to assume you’re not rowing after a semester and you still have to want to go to school there. If you’re really drawn to a program or coach but you’re on the fence about the school, then you should think really hard if you want to do that or not.”

“You can do it. You can row at a really good program like ours,” O’Neill says. “It’s a lot of work, but you can do it. The other thing is it’s a lot of fun. The more you put into something the more you get out of it.”

The search for the right collegiate rowing team can run for about two years. College racing itself will only go twice as long as that. But make a good, informed decision, and the benefits of that experience will last a lifetime.