The University of Washington is now the winningest collegiate crew team in American history after a standout finish at the Intercollegiate Rowing Association nationals in West Windsor, New Jersey. They earned a record fifth straight championship trophy; something that’s never been done before.
They’ve dominated the sport so thoroughly they’ve haven’t just become a nearly unbeatable squad, they’ve developed a dynasty.
Coach Michael Callahan says the sport has enjoyed a much higher profile after the best-selling book, “The Boys in the Boat.” It’s the epic tale of the University of Washington crew team that took gold in the 1936 Olympics. The book — soon be a movie — has helped crew explode in popularity, especially here in the Northwest, where the rowing isn’t like anywhere else in the world.
“Our rowing is on campus, you know, our campus is surrounded by water,” Callahan said. “It’s a community that enjoys what we do, appreciates what we do. On the airplane, there’s just so many Husky fans. I mean the plane was like all cheering for us when we landed. You just don’t get that a lot of places.”
And because of how easy it is to get to the water, what’s considered a sport for the elite in many other places is locally accessible to just about anyone.
Still, the University of Washington team members aren’t just anyone. They endure hours and hours of training every day — starting with a timed race from the south end of Lake Union, all the way out to the 520 bridge on Lake Washington. And that’s just in the morning. In the afternoon, the Husky men are out on the lake again before they hit the weight room.
“You have really dark moments,” said Eric Ledbetter, who mans the bow seat in the men’s varsity top 8 boat. “I remember when, freshman year, getting up and it’s pitch black and you’re going to run the stadium, and there’s ice on the steps and you don’t want to be there.”
Ledbetter grew up in Seattle and says he always looked up to the crew team, but never thought he could be a part of it. He says he was never an athlete until he started rowing at Lakeside High School and found a kind of mad joy in pushing himself to the limit.
Team captain Edward Nainby-Luxmoore says there are days he’s so exhausted as he heads to the shellhouse — where the boats are stored — he can barely get up the stairs after practice. But, he thinks about how far he’s come, brought over from England by the Huskies’ worldwide reputation for excellence.
“We beat each other up in practice every day. Whatever it takes, I mean, in the weight room, on the rowing machines, on the water. Everything can be tested, everything can be proved. We’re racing each other every day, racing against the best,” Nainby-Luxmoore said.
Between a tough 20 hour-a-week training schedule, classes, and travel, it’s a massive udnertaking for these student athletes. But Ledbetter says it’s the community that pulls them through.
“A lot of teams say ‘we have the best fans.’ We actually have the best fans in rowing because we’re the only city that has a whole city that cares and reads about it in the newspaper and talks. And we’re visible, we’re on the water, and people would honk on their morning commute at us and wave, and so you really feel that.”
And he says that no matter how cold or gray it is, when he sees the sun peeking over the Cascades, or an eagle soaring over the Arboretum, he remembers why he’s here and he pulls that much harder for his team.
Watch the IRA championship