Pocock Rowing Center
Pocock Rowing Center

Explosive growth of women's rowing programs leveling the collegiate playing field

SEATTLE -- My lesson in rowing a single shell for the first time began with instructions on what could go wrong.

Keep both oars flat on the water to prevent the boat from tipping over. If you do tip, do not leave the boat. Kick it in to shore. Know how to turn around before you leave the dock. Point the bow into an oncoming wake. Don’t let go of the oars.

I had a vastly overqualified coach teaching me the basics in advance of the 14th annual National Learn to Row Day, which took place June 6 in waterways all around the country. Ginny Gilder is a Yale grad, 1984 Olympic silver medalist and two-time Olympian in the sport, as well as co-owner of the WNBA Seattle Storm and author of the new memoir “Course Correction,” with rowing as her life’s touchstone.

With Gilder coaching from the dock of Seattle’s famed Pocock Rowing Center, I had a moment, on the far side of the channel, when it clicked. I found myself in a slow, careful rhythm. It lasted for three or four strokes, and it was great. Then it was gone.

But I could appreciate the pull for perfection that must have attracted Gilder, and other women of her era, to row in the collegiate sport’s early days. Gilder, in fact, made history as part of Yale’s 1976 famed “strip-in” when she and teammates pulled off their shirts to protest the school’s lack of shower and locker room facilities for the women’s squad.

Today, the irony is inescapable. Rowing is booming for women in college, with 49 schools adding teams since 1997, when the NCAA started hosting national championships.

Currently, about 7,500 athletes row on 147 NCAA teams (88 in Division I; 18 in Division II; 41 in Division III).

Scholarship opportunities for female rowers exist like never before. In data compiled from a survey by the National Federation of State High School Associations, 4,242 girls rowed on high school teams in 2013-14 (not including club athletes). That year, 2,080 athletic scholarships

were available to those who wanted to row at NCAA or NAIA schools, a remarkable 2:1 ratio of athlete to scholarship. That compared to 40:1 for soccer, 43:1 for basketball and 64:1 for track & field.

“It’s the most booming thing in intercollegiate athletics,” said Bob Ernst, University of Washington women’s coach and unofficial historian of Washington’s storied program. “It is growing on all levels. Youth rowing for women is crazy; intercollegiate rowing for women is three-to-one, four-to-one, five-to-one bigger than men’s rowing now.”

Budget cuts and the fallout from Title IX, the 1972 landmark legislation prohibiting federally funded schools from discriminating on the basis of sex, has decimated men’s programs, and the few that remain compete as self-funded clubs outside the NCAA.

All that resulted in a seismic shift in the sport’s royalty. Ivy League schools, like Gilder’s Yale, which practically gave birth to the sport in the U.S., no longer rule the sport.

At last weekend’s NCAA championships, Ohio State won its third-straight team title. Two Ivy teams, Brown (in 2011 the last Ivy to win a title) and Yale, finished in the top 10.

But for coaches like Harvard-Radcliffe coach Liz O’Leary, the writing is on the wall: Big-time football schools mean more money, and establishing new rowing teams help schools comply with Title IX.

“That’s the direction Division I women’s rowing is headed,” O’Leary said. “On one hand it’s exciting. On the other hand, it creates a different world when you have such support” like Ohio State does.

Also hurting traditional powerhouses like Ivy League teams: While heavily endowed for the general student population, they do not offer athletic or merit scholarships, relying on a needs-based model to award money. The NCAA’s recently allowed stipends for scholarship-athletes presents another advantage to the Ivy’s rowing rivals.

O’Leary, a two-time Olympian who coached seven world championship teams, emphasizes Harvard’s deep endowment and the school’s academic prowess, along with its rowing history, while recruiting.

While rowing’s power structure has gone topsy-turvy, some things about rowing remain the same. It has what many other sports don’t – a place for late bloomers, and the pull of a lifetime sport.

Kids who haven’t found a place to play in their middle- or high schools can jump (carefully) into a boat, said O’Leary, and learn to row. Rowing isn’t an easy sport to get into, but it’s getting easier with chances like Saturday’s Learn to Row Day and community youth programs sprouting.

While O’Leary sees the number of walk-ons (non-recruited athletes) declining, there is still room for rowers who aren’t experts as freshmen. Unlike soccer, you don’t need to have rowed since age five or six to have a shot to become a DI athlete, or even (eventually) make an Olympic team.

“Rowing becomes an opportunity for girls to pick up and not feel as if they’re behind the game,” O’Leary said.

At the other end of the age-group spectrum, if your knees or hips are aching from decades of other sports, you can start as a novice and still become a master.

“If you can’t run marathons any more, rowing becomes a fun alternative and a real lifetime kind of sport, which is always a draw for men and women,” O’Leary said. “You’re out on a lake or a river…It’s a beautiful sport.”

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