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Monday, June 6, 2011

"Go Big or Go Home" Passion Keeps UCI Crew Going Despite University Cuts

By: Amanda Kim

“There’s a feeling that I’ve only ever experienced in rowing. When you’re at the absolute limit of physical effort, absorbing pain severe enough that if it came on all at once you would cry out, and yet the fluid connection between water, oars, and teammates is so perfect that you don’t want it to end”

- Jeff Moag 1994 U.S national team

Beep, beep, beep, beep, be—! Emily Shibata instinctively slams a hand on her alarm clock set for 4:50am and slowly rises in the pitch dark as she does every weekday morning for her 5:30am rowing practice. She quickly changes into a visor, jacket, and shorts leaving her apartment without eating

breakfast. “If I did eat, I’d probably just throw it up because practice can get pretty intense.” Shibata starts up her Toyota Yaris and picks up her Varsity Women teammates, fourth-year Elizabeth Nguyen and second-years Casey Fanning and Christine Walden. They break the tranquil morning scene of chirping birds with their energetic voices and Britney Spear’s latest “Femme Fatale” album blasting in the background. The four continue to talk boisterously about their living situations for next year and arrive 10 minutes later at the UCI boathouse on Shellmaker Island in Newport Bay.

Although it is roughly 42 degrees outside, the rowers casually walk around in sandals and shorts, immune to the coldness due to their routine practices. Shibata walks into the boathouse joining the women’s varsity team of 10 members along with the men’s varsity team of 16, men’s novice of 12 and the women’s novice of 15 who are already at the boathouse, discussing who can help load the trailers for their next competition. After a quick meeting, the women crew members proceed to take down the boats

from their holders around 5:30am to begin practice. Some days the women’s varsity will practice alone while on others (including today, April 14, 2011) they practice along with the women’s novice team.Walden yells out: “Hands on! Shoulders…ready, up and over head!Shoulders, split…ready, down!” as Shibata along with six other girls help to carefully transfer the $50,000, 45 ft, 175 lb. boat towards the dock.

Because a rower’s feet are meant to be stationary while rowing, the boats already have built-in shoes so as the girls kick their sandals off, women’s varsity Coach, Mike Long, shouts through his hands “You guys know that practices are already draining as it is, so let’s get going!” Shibata, along with Fanning, Crystal Chen, Jamila Moucharragie, and Heather Van Der Vis simultaneously ease themselves

into their four-boat, collectively pushing away from the dock with their left legs. On a heavier day the team will row 12 miles but today the four girls warm up to a six mile practice with steady strokes as Coach Long follows alongside in a medium-sized motor boat, megaphone in hand. With his exuberant energy and genuine concern for the girls, it is incredible to say the least, that Coach Long works full time as a fireman paramedic and coaches on the side as a choice, unpaid. While lowering his motor boat’s speed, he chuckled, “It’s still a mystery to me as of why I’m doing this and I’m 50!” Shibata’s boat also slows down and just as they begin to catch their breath Long quickly commands “high 20 for four minutes girls!” This technique is used to practice for competitions where the first 20 strokes are executed at a high intensity and strength in order to get further ahead at the beginning of a race.

The three boats gradually align with one another as the rowers sit still adjusting their positions to balance their boats and prepare for their next 20 strokes. The now-risen sun lights up the dark skies and everyone remains silent on the water as the coxswains wait to give an ‘okay’ signal to Long by raising their hand. Carefully watching for the raised hands on the side, Long yells out, “A hand is up! One hand is up!” The girls brace themselves, re-gripping their oars and waiting for the starting mark. As soon as Long yells out, “ready…set…row!” With a speed of 2000km/8 minutes, the boats blast off with immense power as the coxswains’ voices drop to an unexpected powerful deep tone, screaming at their rowers to

pull harder in unison. Coach Long quickly raises the megaphone to his face yelling at the girls, “Get pissed! Come on, I want to see you guys angry! Pull, pull!” The faces of Shibata and her teammates begin to turn bright red, as they exhale heavily with slanted brows and piercing eyes pulling their individual oars in an uncanny unison. After what felt like 15 minutes, the girls slowed their rowing as their boats decreased to a steadying pace. “Nice! Just work a little on your swing and the angle you put your oar in.” Coach Long continues to give constructive criticism to the girls as they laugh and wipe away the sweat around their foreheads and necks. The girls continue practicing short periods of high-powered rowing until 7:30am when they loop around back towards the boathouse.

The women’s team usually practices with three “four-boats” but in total the UCI team owns eight “eights”, eight “fours”, two “pairs”, two “doubles”, and three to four “singles”. Although both a double and a pair involve two rowers, pair boats use a technique called “sweeping” which is where each rower has only one oar to themselves while doubles use “sculling” where each rower has two oars to themselves. The boat is divided between the bow and stern so in an eight person boat the four front people are called the stern and the back are called the bow. The terms are opposite from those of a regular boat because in rowing the rowers are facing backwards and therefore the bow and stern are also reversed. The naming of the boats go by the number of rowers that are on board excluding the “coxswain” who is responsible for encouraging the team, controlling the pace, and guiding the direction of the boat. Because weight is a determining factor of speed in rowing, often times the coxswain will be a female preferably of petite proportions. If a coxswains yells out “wane off” it signals the rowers to stop the boat and if the rowers need to amp up the power they will say “power 10” and the rowers will take faster strokes and apply as much power as they can to those 10 strokes.

Rowing itself remains one of the oldest and traditional collegiate sports in the nation and was one of the seven founding sports of UCI. Crew officially began at UCI in 1965 with current men’s varsity Coach Duvall Hecht, coaching the men’s intercollegiate Rowing and Coach Long coaching for women’s rowing founded in 1990-91. Both Hecht and Long left UCI for several years as Hecht coached the UCLA team from 1973-1979 before returning in 1992 and Long leaving for family reasons until returning

recently. UCI rowing alumni possess an incredible Olympian record with Coach Hecht defeating the three-time champion, Soviet Union team in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. In addition, Bob Ernst who is also a UCI alumni (class of 1976) coached the winning teams of the 1976 Montreal Olympics, 1980 Moscow Olympics, 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, and 1988 Seoul Olympics.

As the years continued, rowing became less prominent at UCI and due to a lack of funding, the tea
m was cut as an official NCAA sport during the summer of 2009 along with other water sports including men’s and women’s swimming, diving, and sailing. Men’s varsity captain Ben Hise explained, “I woke up one morning and my phone was overloaded with voicemails and text messages saying ‘did you hear the program was cut?’ We had no idea it was coming and even our coach was surprised.” That summer, Hise did everything he could to restore rowing as an official sport including constant communication with alumni and the UCI athletics department, rallies, a 27 hour “urgathon” (urges are machines that stimulate rowing) held in Balboa and Laguna, and even going on FOX news for all the efforts made. “I guess in the end, rowing is really expensive and when it came down to it, nothing could be done.” But thankfully dedicated supporters like the Collins family who donates $10,000 annually and volunteer coaches like Hecht and Long allow rowing to continue at UCI as a club sport.

Despite the cut, the rowers and coaches still continue to practice and strive as if it were still an official sport. The team competes in large annual rowing competitions like Crew Classics and the Western Intercollegiate Rowing Association (WIRA) where the number of competing schools can range from 20 to hundreds. The average entry fee for a competition costs the entire UCI team

around $1500 depending on the number of boats entered. They compete against local schools Long Beach State University, San Diego State University, Orange County College, and Loyola-Marymount University in addition to larger universities including UCLA, UC San Diego, UC Santa Barbara, UC Davis, UC Berkeley, USC, University of Washington, Oregon State University, and more. Shibata considers UCSB, UCSD, and OCC as their rivals saying, “They’re a lot bigger than our team and we work hard to beat those schools that have funding from the NCAA and student athletes with scholarships and nice equipment.”
Although the 2010-2011 has not been the team’s best season they have definitely had moments of triumph. This year’s men’s varsity team qualified for finals in the Crew Classics defeating renowned universities like USC and UCLA and also won 4th at the American Collegiate Rowing Association (ACRA) in Georgia out of 20 nationally qualified crews. A pair boat also won first at San Diego’s “Row for the Cure” along with a third place win for a pair boat and a single boat at the 2011 Pacific Coast Rowing Championships (PCRP) where the women’s varsity also proudly placed third. Despite these wins, Walden stated that her most memorable victory was when the women’s varsity four-boat came in 4th at the 2010 WIRA saying “we defeated 30 other schools and it was the closest we came to doing really well and beating division-one schools like OCC, Berkeley, and Santa Barbara. It sucked not getting a medal, but it really just made our whole year of work and efforts finally feel worth it.”

Beyond the daily morning practices that are enforced fall through spring, weekly weight training that continues into summer, an annual fee of $430 for all the equipment and competition fees, the actual weekend competitions and simply the physical demands, crew possesses a sense of team and unity that many members feel you cannot and will not experience

elsewhere. Hise played football in high school as Shibata played multiple sports including tennis but both agreed that rowing is unlike any other sport. Shibata clarified, “It’s the ultimate team sport. You’re only has strong as your weakest rower and if everyone is not up to par you won’t have a good boat. It’s ultimate precision, rhythm, strength, and everyone contributes equally. We can’t have a Kobe that can run the show for us; it’s everyone.” Sacrificing time that could be spent on academics, family, or a social life people outside rowing probably find it puzzling as to why the team members continue to strive for the sport. Trying to form words of expression Shibata concluded “people often ask me why I do it but it’s not something I can really explain. All I can say is that it’s my passion and sacrificing isn’t as horrible when it’s for something you really love.” The sense of closeness that the team members possess is also seen outside of practice. In between the grueling workout routines and morning practices the rowers spend time with each other like every other college student. The girls on the women’s varsity team go on late-night food runs, shopping trips and even occasionally dress up for a night of clubbing while the men’s varsity team lets loose during their annual Las Vegas trip.

Regardless of all the hardships the team has experienced after the sport was cut, Hise believes that the sense of family and amazing adrenaline rush rewarded from dedication is the true source for the team’s passion and success. “Honestly, being cut is the best thing that could have happened to us. The toughest road makes you stronger and nothing is ever handed to us. Being in this adversity, we were forced to come out and be independent and strong. We’re all here because we want to be here. We aren’t getting free food or clothes, and aren’t even being recognized by our own school. But none of that matters because we’re doing it for ourselves and for the love of the sport.” Walden characterized rowing with a love-hate relationship saying “I hate it so much that it grows on me—I miss it if I don’t do it as weird as that sounds.” Whether the UCI team members row strictly for the sport, the incredible sense of unity, or the adrenaline rush, there is no question that rowing is something they will simultaneously continue to love, hate and endure with everything they have.

Reporting Notes:
- Attending morning practices
- Observing "hangouts" of the crew team
- Research about information using internet links (http://www.nswrowers.com/boats.html,http://www.newuniversity.org/2011/02/sports/uci-crew-18-months-later/,http://ucirowing.org/)
- 3 Sit down interviews with Emily Shibata
- Sit down interview with Ben Hise
- Brief interview with Coach Long
- Brief interview with Elizabeth Nguyen
- Brief interview with Casey Flanning
- Brief interview with Christine Walden
- Youtube videos, facebook pictures


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