As the boats curve around a bend of the Genesee River, the Rochester women’s rowing team comes into sight from the launching docks in Genesee Valley Park.
It’s now about 8 a.m. on a gorgeously sunny April morning, and the Yellowjackets have been out on the water for about two hours. But with the onset of midterm exams, the day’s practice is coming to an early end.
As the women come home for the morning, they are quiet. The oars make barely a ripple, noiselessly propelling the boat through the sun-glinted water. The only audible hints of activity are the occasional, pithy directions of the crew’s coxswain.
Inconspicuous and silent, steady and workmanlike, the Yellowjackets finished their day’s practice as they have so many others.
But there was a slightly different purpose to this spring’s rowing season: It was the last in which the women represented Rochester as a student-run club sport.
This fall, the women’s rowing team begins its first season as an NCAA Division III intercollegiate varsity sport.
“It’s really exciting for us,” says team captain Nicole Telleri ’10, a biomedical engineering major from Clark, N.J. “We train as hard as any varsity team. It’s nice to finally get recognized for it.”
Adds 2008–09 team member Megan Miller ’09, a biomedical engineering major from Gettysburg, Pa., who graduated in the spring: “A big part of [the move to varsity status] is recognition from the school. We get up early every morning and practice hard. We’re all really dedicated. It will be nice when people see we’re out here working hard, too.”
The work of the teams—as well as their supporters, and the largely alumni volunteer network that kept them afloat for more than 20 years—received formal recognition in 2008, when the College announced that women’s rowing would become Rochester’s 23rd varsity sport beginning with the 2009–10 season. At the same time, the men’s team moved to a new status that, unlike the College’s other student-run club sports, would allow the team to receive administrative support from the Department of Athletics and Recreation.
The distinction between the teams is partly due to NCAA regulations. The governing body for collegiate athletics recognizes women’s rowing as a varsity sport and sanctions a national championship for women rowers. Men’s rowing, on the other hand, is not recognized as a varsity sport by the NCAA. (The NCAA also refers to the sport as “rowing” rather than as “crew.”)
Peter Lennie, the Robert L. and Mary L. Sproull Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Sciences, and Engineering, says moving women’s rowing to varsity status is an outgrowth of the University’s initiatives to attract and cultivate well-rounded students.
“We view all our varsity programs as a significant investment in our students,” he says. “It’s important that we invest in sports and student life like our athletic programs. Crew was an especially opportune place for us to invest because it has a tradition of success. It seemed natural to go from club to varsity status.”
The move from club sport to varsity has been a long one. While interest in organizing Rochester rowing teams surfaced among students almost from the University’s founding and several clubs formed during Rochester’s history, it wasn’t until the early 1980s that ongoing, student-based club teams took hold.
Those teams and the alumni who were part of them have become a tight-knit family. For many years the rowers raised nearly three quarters of their funding themselves, and as they traveled to regattas and other competitions, team members frequently bunked down in the homes of alumni, sometimes 20 to a residence.
But those difficult beginnings also brought everyone—alumni, coaches, and current members, both women and men—together.
“Because of the nature of our funding sources, we were forced to rely a lot on each other,” says Will Greene ’88, a crew alumnus and the current coach of the school’s program. “We really developed a close-knit team.”
The financial situation also created intrasquad competition for the limited boat seats the Yellowjackets could afford, a dynamic that led to some of the best club-level rowing teams in the country. Both the men’s and women’s clubs soon began to rival other schools’ varsity programs.
In 2002 a group of alumni, family, and friends formed the Friends of UR Crew, an organization dedicated to the cultivation and growth of the Rochester rowing program.
The group’s founders called on other alumni to donate their time and money to the effort, and they lobbied the University administration for as much support as possible. It didn’t take long for the group to develop one of their top priorities.
“One of our dreams was achieving varsity status (for the women),” says Edward Fox ’91, ’95M (MD), a rowing alumnus and the president of the Friends of UR Crew.
Fox says the members of the group remained confident that crew would eventually become a varsity sport. They just didn’t know how long it would take.
“We weren’t sure whether it would be five years or 10 years or more,” says Fox.
In 1999, shortly after his appointment as director of athletics and recreation, George VanderZwaag launched an effort to enhance the sports opportunities and facilities and to emphasize the role of athletics in the College’s educational experience.
VanderZwaag says he early on saw the potential of the women’s team. But, he says, a decade ago, the University and the athletics department lacked the resources—in finances and student population—to make a move to varsity possible.
As the University expanded the size of its student body and its fiscal resources, the opportunity to grow the crew program developed as well, especially given the proximity to a key natural resource like the Genesee River.
“It was more of a natural evolution in terms of program development,” VanderZwaag says. “Ten years ago, things weren’t ready to grow. But now we’re ready to think about growth.”
With Title IX leading to an expansion of women’s athletic programs across the country and the growing number of athletically and academically talented female students, the College was on the lookout for new opportunities.
“It just made sense for us,” VanderZwaag says. “We were creating more opportunities for women, and broadening the scope of the program would represent where we are as an institution.”
Fox also credits President Joel Seligman with encouraging the growth of extracurricular activities.
“They were open to new ideas,” Fox says of the administration. “They saw the importance of fostering the growth of the student-athlete.”
In addition to boosting the status and profile of the women’s team, the men’s club also benefits from the decision to enhance the rowing program. Moving to the shelter and support of the athletics department brings the team steadier funding and administrative support as well as increased exposure in the rowing world.
“One of the challenges is making sure the men don’t feel left behind,” says Greene, who serves as the head coach of both crew programs. “Coming into the athletics department, the men will have the influence of a positive attitude and all types of support from across the University. We want students to have the same experience in rowing whether they’re men or women.”
The coaching staff, led by Greene, oversees both the women’s and the men’s programs, and the two teams remain joined at the hip in terms of fundraising and support from the University as well as the Friends of UR Crew.
The hope is that eventually the NCAA will install men’s crew as a full championship sport. If that happens, Rochester will be prepared to undertake the work needed to boost the men’s team to varsity status as well.
The now varsity women, meanwhile, are eager to prove their excellence on the next stage, and those involved in the program believe they’re ready.
“I think we’re in a pretty healthy place,” VanderZwaag says. “We’ve always been very competitive in club competitions, so I think we’re at a pretty good starting point. It’s not like we’re starting from scratch.”
In addition to fielding a current roster of ready-for-prime-time rowers, Greene has been busy recruiting top future student-athletes for the varsity team. He says the development and cultivation of a rich array of athletic offerings to current and potential students is helping to attract top-quality student-athletes who want to take advantage of those opportunities.
That phenomenon in turn strengthens the pool of talent from which crew can draw. The result is a team filled with students who succeed in athletic and academic environments.
Says Greene with a wide grin, “I expect to hit the ground running.”
Among other goals for the 2009–10 intercollegiate season, the Yellowjackets want to dominate several of their regular competitions—such as the Head of the Genesee Regatta, which was founded by the University 20 years ago and will be held Oct. 11—and earn gold at the state championships. At the end of the road is there a berth in the NCAA championships?
All those goals, of course, require hard work. Lots of it. Including hitting the water every day at 6 a.m.
“No one has conflicts at six in the morning,” says Greene.
Not that it has been easy. “I’m not a morning person,” says political science and history major Jackie Monaghan ’10 with a laugh. “I became one, but I wasn’t one when I started.”
And Monaghan—like Telleri, Miller, and many other members of the team—didn’t begin rowing until she arrived at Rochester, which means the climb to success has been, at times, brutal but swift. But, the Yellowjackets say, they survive and thrive as a team.
“I really like how it’s so teamwork-driven,” says Miller. “Everyone needs to work together. You need boat unity.”
That unity of purpose has forged a thriving tradition of success for the women’s program.
“We’re a strong team,” says Telleri. “We can definitely hold our own against other teams with a varsity label.”
And that unanimity will make their first varsity season so much sweeter. The countless, unseen hours of sweat and toil have all arrived—quietly and inconspicuously—at this point.
“We’ve been around (as a club team) since 1981,” says Monaghan, a La Plata, Md., native. “There’s been a women’s program since early on. After all those years, this is the culmination of that history. We’re finally able to go out and have the opportunity to represent our university as a varsity team.”
Ryan Whirty regularly writes about sports for Rochester Review.