Kylie Andersen froze. A tall man was speed-walking in her direction, staring right at her. The then-University of Minnesota freshman nervously glanced around the campus activities fair, wondering who else this rapidly approaching figure might be after.
“Oh no,” she remembered thinking, seeing no one else. “What’s happening?”
What was happening? Andersen, on her first day at her new school, was being recruited to be a college athlete.
Two and a half years later, Andersen is an accomplished Gophers varsity rower, competing in a sport she knew next to nothing about when Peter Morgan, an assistant coach, approached her that afternoon, pressed a brochure into her hand and swiftly redirected her life’s course.
As bizarre as that story might sound to the traditional sports fan, it’s a fairly typical one in the world of Gophers rowing. While Minnesota does recruit some high schoolers, the majority of the roster is assembled by plucking tall, athletic women from around campus, sending them through a crash course in training and shoving them into boats they quickly learn are called shells. When the Gophers compete in the Big Ten Championships this weekend in Indianapolis, all but nine of the 51 athletes in the seven racing shells will be women who originally walked on to the program.
“We’re looking for misplaced athletes,” said coach Wendy Davis, a Southern California native who previously coached at UCLA and Stanford and trained U.S. National team members. “This is a real athletic campus. And being the only gig in town as far as major universities, we get a ton of men and women who are talented athletes, they just didn’t get the right kind of scholarship. So they come here and they’re looking for something to do.”
In the 15 years since Davis started the Gophers program from scratch, she and her staff have transformed a patchwork roster full of diverse backgrounds and skill sets — the coaches love former swimmers and Nordic skiers for their work ethics and training — into a passionate and motivated team willing to row through rain, snow and fatigue.
“I just wanted to stay fit and active,” said Lisa Weeks, a junior who showed up in the fall of her freshman year after seeing the tryout details scribbled in chalk on the sidewalk. “I never envisioned it would take me this way.”
On a pristine April day on the Mississippi, two shells churned beneath the Franklin Avenue bridge, the coxswains’ crooning of the stroke count echoing off the concrete. The 16 rowers moved as one, trying to perfect the motion they were taught when they first arrived. Feet strapped in, they put their oars in the water and slid forward in their seats, as if bending over in a chair. Then, pulling the shafts toward their cores, they straightened their legs — “standing up,” Davis called it.
“The trick,” she said, “is to do it in exact unison.”
Davis, driving a small white motorboat behind the shells, paused and put a blue megaphone to her mouth. “Smooth, now,” she trumpeted to the boats. “Smooth three-quarter pressure, smooth acceleration. That’s better. Think of how you’re going to do it before you do it.”
Every few strokes, one or more of the blades would pull out of the water, change direction and cut back into the river. To the casual observer, it’s a tiny difference, almost impossible to notice. In rowing, the details are everything. Such a mistake could cause a rower to start her stroke slow by 3/100ths of a second, Davis said.
“I know that doesn’t sound like a lot,” she said, “but over six and a half minutes, it’s a major amount of time. That is why we don’t keep up with the blue bloods.”
No program has an overflow of recruits, which is why rowing has novice squads at every school, even the “blue blood” Ivy League and Pac-12 schools. But Minnesota faces additional roster challenges because of the program’s relative newness and its climate.
The Gophers’ novice team has massive turnover, mostly because many of their athletes don’t know what they are getting into. Weeks, for example, had to overcome a fear of water. Another now-promising rower — a high school volleyball player who had blown out her knee — wasn’t sure she even liked the sport. Others drop out as the temperatures fall.
When Davis interviewed at Minnesota, she was enchanted by all the tall, Norwegian women she saw at the airport — “I thought, ‘If you have progeny, we can do something here,’ ” she said — and a campus nestled next to the Mississippi River and its five beautiful miles of water access.
But more often than not, the team is forced off the river because of flooding or ice. This Minnesota spring has been one of the loveliest in recent team memory. But last spring, the Gophers had only about 20 days on the water, said Morgan, coach of the program’s novice rowers.
“It was really bad,” he said. “The worst I’d ever seen. … You’re racing teams that are on the water every day, and it makes a big difference.”
When the water isn’t an option, the team will row on the top floor of the team’s boathouse, the athletes pushing their limits on machines as they look out the floor-to-ceiling windows at the frozen river beyond.
“It kind of takes a mental toll,” Weeks said. “Day after day, coming to practice, getting on the erg [rowing machine] and doing your workout, trying to stay motivated and hopeful that we’ll get on the water. … And then when we get on the water, our technique isn’t up to par with other crews. So that can be a little frustrating, but we handle it.”
Still, Minnesota has managed some big moments. The Gophers first reached the NCAA championships in 2005-06, and finished sixth nationally the following season. The team hasn’t been back to the national tournament, but it has ranked in the top 20 in all but one season since, including No. 19 this April.
Months before a postseason push, the Gophers begin the season in the fall with over 100 novice rowers. That number eventually shrinks to about 20 who can handle the snow and rain and backbreaking workouts, competing alongside the 30-some on varsity. Varsity rowers are eligible for a full share or piece of the program’s 20 scholarships.
“This is the most physiologically demanding of the racing sports,” Davis said as she sped up the coach’s boat at practice, her words nearly swept away in the wind. “And you’ve got to be craaazy.”
Running after tall women
Every fall, as soon as the next wave of potential rowers land on campus, Morgan sends a brochure to each freshman. Then, he fires off e-mails.
“I tend to send a number of e-mails to the point of where some people say, ‘Cut it out,’ ” he said.
The coaches scout out the dorms. They write invitations on the sidewalk with chalk. Morgan hunts through the annual activities fair — his “modus operandi” for finding new recruits. This year, the staff hauled a racing shell in front of Coffman Memorial Union and filled it with kittens to attract attention.
“Then, once they get close enough, we entangle them in our web of rowing,” Morgan joked.
Minnesota’s methods aren’t especially unusual: when Davis was the novice coach at Stanford, she said she would pull her car over on the side of the road and run after tall women.
Tall women such as Andersen. Morgan approached the 5-11 former prep runner and skier at the fair and blurted, “I really, really think you should try this. I think you might be good at it.”
“The joke is that [Morgan] found a spot on the wall,” Andersen said with a chuckle, “and anyone taller than that, he went after.”