BY CHIP DAVIS | PHOTO BY LISA WORTHY
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Rowing has done well by the NCAA, and the NCAA has benefited greatly from the sweep-rowing half of our sport, so why not double down and make sculling an NCAA sport?
Think about it: double the scholarships, double the championships, double the number of NCAA student-athletes who actually graduate (and don’t get arrested), all done with the boathouses and bodies of water already on hand.
“I would love to see a sculling season,” said Hilary Gehman, a two-time Olympian and former head coach of women’s rowing at Cornell.
“It’s an intriguing idea. There’s no question about it,” said Chris Clark, who has been Wisconsin’s men’s head coach since 1996, co-founded the Intercollegiate Rowing Coaches Association, and was recently named Director of Rowing, essentially becoming the Badgers’ general manager. “The ‘fixed costs’ are already there. You’re essentially paying the rent year-round anyway.”
Naysayers will point out that the NCAA has a prescribed process for sports to go from “emerging” to “championship” and that sculling has a long way to go. But the same NCAA also has a demonstrated record of adapting quickly to changing realities, especially when there’s a lot of money at stake and the NCAA’s very existence is on the line. Look how quickly things changed with name, image, and likeness (NIL) rules and how the College Football Playoff National Championship schedule and structure adapts to meet the interests–and fill the coffers–of participating universities.
Since the NCAA’s Emerging Sports for Women Program began in 1994, five women’s sports have been added, bringing more than 13,000 female student-athletes to the Title IX numbers game. Women’s sweep rowing, added first in 1996, can be thanked for the majority of those numbers, with more than 6,800 oarswomen, according to NCAA data.
To be eligible for consideration for an NCAA championship, a sport must be sponsored at the varsity level by at least 40 schools, meet other NCAA minimum competition and participation requirements, and undergo a process that can take two years and longer to work through such logistics as budget and site selection. In other words, it could get done before the 2028 Los Angeles Games. It’s also worth noting that most current Olympic events (eight of 14) are sculling events.
With 74 university clubs racing at the 2023 championship regatta, the American Collegiate Rowing Association could meet the NCAA standard practically itself by having 40 of its women’s clubs elevated to varsity status for fall sculling.
With conference realignments driving the college football world into a musical-chairs frenzy, rowing coaches at the affected schools are “scared and in the dark about their non-revenue sport’s future,” one administrator told me. Rowing has been valuable to athletic departments driven by football revenue as a Title IX balancing tool (women) and an alumni-funded championship machine (men) that produces Olympians (men and women, lightweights and open/heavyweights).
A fall sculling championship season offers more of the same, with only marginal costs. The lakes and rivers are the same. The boathouses are open, insured, and maintained year-round. Everyone in varsity collegiate rowing trains year-round, but the fall has yet to prove valuable to athletic administrations that don’t understand rowing generally but are always looking for greater balancing numbers, conference and national championships, Olympians, and increased alumni support.
USRowing’s Olympic boss, Josy Verdonkschot, has been open and frank about his wishes for more sculling development out of U.S. colleges.
“What happens is when we get to a camp for selection, undergrads can come in and they’re very limited in where you would want to use them because they’ve been sweeping all year and they have only been rowing that one specific boat, the eight.
“Covid taught people that focusing on small boats and focusing on sculling can be very beneficial for rowing,” said Verdonkschot. “It’s a good way to improve your technique and also a good way to improve your all-around body development.”
Currently, it’s not the job of college coaches to develop scullers since there are few conference or national championships for sculling (the ACRA club nationals and IRA lightweight-women’s double are successful exceptions).
Verdonkschot also knows that eight of the 14 Olympic events are sculling events and that the U.S. is hosting the Olympic Games in five years, “Obviously I totally support any ideas in that direction.”
A fall season of sculling championships, including conference (think “Big 12 Sculling Championships”) and national (“The Intercollegiate Sculling Association National Championships”) title-awarding regattas would add meaning to fall training that our sport’s current autumnal events lack and at a lower cost.
Taking four eights to a mega event like the Head of the Charles costs significantly more than taking four eights to a conference championship like the Eastern Sprints, said longtime college coach and current administrator Gary Caldwell, who called taking a large collegiate contingent to a major head race “a royal pain in the ass.”
“The five years we [Tufts University] didn’t go were the best five years of fall coaching in my life.”
Fall head races offer the community wonderful festivals of rowing, enjoyed especially by club, masters, and alumni rowers. Bringing a team of student-athletes to a fall head race can be as counterproductive as taking a varsity track team to a 5K fun run.
“They’ve been taken over by masters and high-school kids,” noted Clark.
“The Head of the Charles is sweet for a lot of reasons but competitively it’s not the thing. It’s more of a rowing festival, and for once rowers feel like they’re a big deal and they have fun talking with their friends. That part I love about it.”
But selecting and training a crew for a head race takes away from 2,000-meter racing preparations. Head races are the championships of nothing, which is part of their appeal and popularity among athletes eager to race just for fun. A three-mile time trial down a twisting river is a different physiological challenge from 2,000 meter side-by-side racing. Training for and racing in fall sculling championships would provide the same kind of training and experience required for current spring rowing championships, while training and selecting crews for head racing takes away from preparations for the real rowing season.
If coaches and athletes don’t want two real racing seasons, nothing would require them to race in both, but at least they—especially newcomers to either sweep rowing or sculling—would have a choice.
Sculling championships also would offer different opportunities for different kinds of athletes and different kinds of rowing programs. Bigger and heavier athletes have the advantage sweep-rowing in big boats, where large forces on the bigger levers of sweep oars are extra valuable in hauling coxswains down the course, and the run-checking forces of heavy athletes on the recovery do less harm to boat speed. Coxless sculling boats are more sensitive to momentum on the slide, and the shorter double levers of sculling give smaller athletes an opportunity to compete against larger peers.
The NCAA’s spring sweep-rowing national championship is a team championship, almost always won by the same small handful of programs. A fall sculling championship could award 36 individual-event national championships: women’s and men’s; lightweight and openweight; single, double, and quad; across Divisions I, II, and III. Any school with just a couple of great athletes would have a shot at an NCAA national championship, spreading both opportunity and awareness–key ingredients to growth–beyond the current college rowing hegemony.
There’s been talk among NCAA women’s rowing coaches about the potentially greater value of quads instead of coxed fours as the boat type backing up the eight. The Division I championship is based on points scored in the first eight, second eight, and coxed four; the Division II championship is determined by combined points from the eight and coxed four (Division III is first and second eights).
But the coxed four and eight are of such different speeds and loads on each oarswoman’s oar that athletes moving between the two boats as lineups change throughout the season (and year)experience significant difficulties, and even injuries, when at a minimum two athletes (one up to the eight sends another down to the four) are switched.
Quads, on the other hand, are almost as fast as eights—the world-best times are 5:52.99 for the eight and 6:05.13 for the quad, but 6:43.86 for the coxed four—the race times athletes are training for, and the loads on the athletes’ bodies, are very similar. With eight blades in the water, quads are also more stable than coxed fours, which is especially helpful for the less-experienced and lower-skill athletes who typically end up in the bottom boat.
Adding sculling as the autumn championship complement to spring championship rowing could realize the same advantages over the entire year—and entire sport.
Arguments against adding sculling as rowing’s fall equal because of supposed additional equipment expense were disproven largely by the experience of Covid. Many programs switched to sculling to adapt to the challenges of Covid protocols. The increased stock of sculling shells did not disappear when the virus subsided. Shells and sculls are durable equipment. Using it half as much per year will result generally in rowing equipment lasting twice as long. After some initial fit-up costs (already met partially by the response to Covid), the long-term costs could be a wash essentially.
Unfortunately, U.S. collegiate rowing is allergic to change.
“Men’s rowing is the least evolved sport in college as far as keeping up with trends and trying to be out in front of college athletics,” said Clark. “We’re just trying to get up to the 20th century, and that’s not a mistake. I purposely didn’t mean the 21st.”
Clark has been involved in efforts to explore making men’s rowing an NCAA sport, like women’s rowing. It’s mostly been a non-starter, although there was some momentum before Covid brought college sports to a standstill in 2020. Clark is not especially enamored with the NCAA but sees value in rowing’s fitting better in the university sports environment so it can reap the support and benefits other sports enjoy.
“All I want is men’s rowing to be part of whatever the lingua franca of collegiate sports is. That’s why I pushed it. I don’t like to be the oddball, and men’s rowing has always been the oddball. It’s not good when we have to explain ourselves all the time.”
Fall sculling as an NCAA championship sport could give men’s rowing entree to the NCAA through sculling. Adding spring sweep rowing on the men’s side would dilute the numbers that women’s rowing provides, but if male and female scullers participated in equal numbers, the men wouldn’t be taking away from the Title IX balancing act that women’s sweep-rowing performs.
Previous efforts to scull in the fall have been successful. From 2013 to 2019, Princeton National Rowing Association hosted the College Small Boat Challenge on New Jersey’s Mercer Lake, drawing over 100 entries from 14 universities. Weather forced the cancellation of the follow-up event, and then scheduling conflicts with popular fall regattas and a split among participating schools over whether it should be an early-season development event or an end-of-season culminating event weakened participation. Covid drove a stake into its heart.
“I would love to see a sculling season,” said Hilary Gehman, one of the regatta’s organizers and a two-time Olympian. “It would be amazing for the country; it would develop well-rounded athletes.” Gehman, who was the women’s head coach at Cornell from 2006 to 2013—including two Big Red trips to the NCAA championships—is not alone in recognizing how sculling develops rowers.
“There’s six scullers in there,” said Princeton coach Marty Crotty after his lightweight varsity won the IRA national championship in June. “They’re rowing 38 and a half, and it looked like 34.”
Young athletes in Great Britain have been banned from sweep rowing—and its asymmetrical loads and potential damage to developing bodies—and must start out sculling. The GB national team also has been the most successful Olympic squad over the past few Games. Funding and the relatively high status of the sport might have more to do with their Olympic success but it certainly doesn’t hurt to start out sculling. Italian youth start young in training singles, sculling with Macon blades, and can’t sweep-row until they are 14 or older. Italy and Great Britain tied atop the medals table at the recent 2023 World Rowing Under 19 Championships, the test event for the 2024 Paris Olympic Games.
“It’s skill that makes you better,” said Clark. “There are so many internationals who are so good in American collegiate rowing because they scull.”
Ithaca College lists 23 athletes as scullers and their coaches as “Women’s Crew & Sculling Coach” on its official website, which presents sculling as a distinct sport. Wichita State’s program utilizes sculling for the scheduling flexibility it offers students in some of the non-traditional academic programs and schedules at the school. If our sport is serious about Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiatives, shouldn’t the additional flexibility and opportunities university-level championship sculling would offer be part of those efforts?
Another sound reason to add sculling to every rowing program is to teach valuable lifelong skills to undergraduates—which is the whole purpose of spending four (or more) years and hundreds of thousands of dollars going to college.
Kevin Stevenson rowed for four years in college and later went to work at Concept2 as an engineer. He’s one of the founding board members of the Rowing Industry Trade Association and thinks about rowing like it’s his job (it is).
“We want people to experience rowing for the incredible lifelong pursuit that it is. Personally, I’m a product of the U.S. university sweep-rowing system and I left after four years of rowing in college unable to scull. I find that to be really, really unfortunate. That system taught me to love rowing but left me unable to do it in any reasonable capacity after college, and that’s unacceptable.
“If we as a sport in the U.S. and elsewhere want people to enjoy its benefits and continue to love it, then we are obligated to teach kids how to scull.”