We’re gonna need a bigger boat: Crew team swells in popularity

Crew squad increases membership, tradition, and success

By Derek Tsang

Most days, the University’s crew club is up before the sun. By the time the student body has roused itself for 9 a.m. class, they’ve trekked eight miles north to Bridgeport and back, subjecting themselves to grueling workouts on the Chicago River that they’ll feel for at least the rest of the day.

Not only did the 57 students on the roster sign up for this, but they’re paying handsomely for the privilege.

“A common gripe against crew is that it undermines the ideal college experience with its insanely early practices, weekend regattas, and so on,” said the team’s president, third-year Hans Glick. “I’d argue the opposite. I’m a better, more focused student because of crew. In rowing, as in life, rowers know how to push themselves to meet goals and get better, period. And on top of that, I get to row through the heart of Chicago at sunrise on a weekly basis…it’s therapeutic like nobody’s business.”

The past few years have seen the club grow its tradition, as more and more students find themselves agreeing with Glick’s convictions. The crew team has become one of the most visible clubs on campus, from the ergometers they plant outside Ratner each O-Week to the simple fact that most students know somebody who is or has been on the team.

This season in particular has seen an abundance of new members stay on the team. Not everybody decides to stick with the club through their off-water winter workouts in Henry Crown, but this year, 32 of the club’s members are in their first year of college crew, including 24 first-years.

“This is something that I consider to be one of our biggest successes this year; we’ve kept so many people with the team,” said Trish Brubaker, who joined the team this year as head coach after eight medal-filled years coaching at Lafayette College.

Brubaker has the club, despite its lack of varsity status with the University, as competitive as it’s ever been. Founded in 1976, UChicago crew has recently made a habit of success, medaling at the Head of the Charles for the first time in 2003 and winning several other medals since. The squad, in 2011, made their first ever trip abroad to compete at the La 25ème Traversée de Paris.

The team organizes and funds almost everything itself. “The amount of preparation that goes into arranging a week of practice or attending a single regatta, much less putting together an entire season, is pretty staggering,” Glick said. “But at the end of the day, knowing that your work off the water has helped you and your teammates succeed on the water is an awesome feeling.”

Last year, the club reached a new high, winning its first varsity gold medal through its Men’s Lightweight 4+ at the Dad Vail Regatta, a national meet that features over 100 crews.

“We want to win. We want to be competitive at the national level,” said Brubaker, who’s cultivated the team’s culture with those goals in mind. “Being competitive at that level starts with training at that level and taking yourself seriously as athletes…we are serious about our training. I believe good team environments are trusting and respectful environments.”

She’s careful to respect, though, that this is the University of Chicago. “We always know that the athlete is a student here first and an athlete second. And we’d have it no other way.”

Her student-athletes are quick to cite the team as one of the biggest reasons that they’re willing to put in the time and the work; a quick glance at their Website’s photo gallery (which, frankly, is adorable) reveals an affectionate, tight-knit squad.

“What’s great about UChicago crew is that we’re technically two squads, men’s and women’s, but we function as one big team,” Glick said. “We practice together, travel together, and celebrate together. Our situation makes for an incredibly supportive team culture, which is something I’ve loved about UChicago crew since day one.”

That sort of culture is a huge part of what makes rowing unique, according to Brubaker. “It’s a sport of paradoxes. It’s the ultimate team sport, and yet it requires so much internal motivation. The physicality of the sport belies the technical demand. Yeah, you can really crank on an oar, but first you have to have the patience to learn the technique and develop the neuromuscular wiring to do all these little movements in fractions of seconds. It’s not something you jump into or do casually.”

After a very successful year that’s seen the women’s varsity, in particular, bag some big wins against teams like Northwestern and the University of Illinois, the South Siders have two major regattas left this season, the Dad Vail and the American Collegiate Rowing Association championships. Brubaker is hoping that the team will sustain its strong form. “We’ve progressed so much faster than I anticipated,” she said. “Consistency is our next big focus, but overall, this is a team that is maximizing its success.”

The weekend after next, the team will take five boats with them to the Dad Vail, including Glick in UChicago’s first sculling entry at the regatta. “The atmosphere there is borderline Olympic,” Glick said. “We’re excited to make more history for our program.”