Kirsten O'Brien/The AS Review
Sam Oberholzer never saw herself as a rower. In fact, the petite senior always envisioned herself as a gymnast. But after suffering a badly broken ankle after 13 years of gymnastics, she needed a change. After some encouragement, she decided to take an introductory rowing class in high school. Her life hasn’t been the same since.
Oberholzer has been a coxswain, the person in charge of navigating and steering the boat, on the Western women’s varsity rowing team for the past four years. Like Oberholzer, many of the girls on the rowing team did not have much, if any, prior rowing experience. That hasn’t stopped the team from gaining national attention, and the women’s rowing team has won six consecutive NCAA II National Titles since 2005. They will be seeking a seventh this upcoming Memorial Day weekend at Lake Natoma in Sacramento, Calif.
“Basically, there’s only a very small number of girls who have rowed before, and this year we raced Gonzaga’s varsity boat and University of Washington’s [junior varsity] boat, and they’re both [NCAA] Division I and we were able to make it a good race,” said Oberholzer. “For a program to have six national titles with girls who have mostly no rowing experience, it really says a lot about the coaching and our team.”
John Fuchs, the head coach, has been coaching rowing at Western since 1998. While he was a student at Western, he began rowing for the university and hasn’t looked back since.
Fuchs said that a typical week of fall and winter training for the rowing team includes workouts at Lake Samish from 5 to 7 a.m. Monday through Thursday and on Saturday mornings. There are also afternoon cross-fit workouts Monday through Thursday, making training between 15 and 18 hours per week.
“It’s not every morning that I’m like, ‘Yeah, let’s do this!’ so what gets you through is everyone else’s optimism,” said Siri Carlson, a senior rower who has been on the varsity team since her sophomore year. “There’s always going to be one person at practice who is motivating you, and just the fact that these people are showing up and giving their time motivates you even more.”
This will be Oberholzer’s last season on the team before she graduates, and she said a motivation for her to train hard was a loss the team suffered last year to Mercyhurst College of Erie, Pa., during the NCAA Division II Championships in Sacramento. Although the team still had enough points to take the NCAA title, she said the loss was painful for the team.
“During that race, they were just a little bit faster, so now we have something to prove and this season that’s kind of been a driving force for us,” she said. “Anytime that I’m tired or not really feeling practice, or not engaged and focused, I think of how the other teams cheered for the team that beat us. And I don’t want to feel that ever again.”
Oberholzer said it takes an average of six minutes and 45 seconds for the team to row a standard 2000-meter course. She said that weather and water conditions can greatly affect the team’s speed in a race. As the coxswain, it is Oberholzer’s job to guide the team and tell them exactly what they need to do and how to row during certain parts of the course.
“[The race is] really intense. I listen to my recordings, and they just sound scary. I sound like I might be possessed or something because it’s just so intense,” she said. “But if you’re doing intense cardio for six or seven minutes, having someone speak calmly isn’t going to help you win.”
For Carlson, race day is also about serious concentration.
“During the race, I don’t really think; I’m just on. I’m not thinking about anything except for what Sam is telling me,” Carlson said. “It seems like it goes by really fast, but races that seem like they’re taking a long time, those will be bad races.”
Rowing may be a sport of intensity and dedication, but for Oberholzer, Carlson and Fuchs, that is part of its allure.
“Rowing is a beautiful sport and when it’s done well, it looks really amazing. The amount of dedication and commitment that any rower has to the sport is so incredible,” Oberholzer said. “You can’t be a part of the team and not give something.”