PULLMAN – This spring’s weather has been tough on the Washington State women’s rowing team. Snow and wind kept the Cougars off the Snake River while their competitors rowed through smooth water under blue skies. But the varsity 8, WSU’s top eight-person boat, is still ranked No. 4 in the nation.
“We don’t really try and think about the polls,” said senior Kelly O’Brien, the boat’s coxswain. “Really, it comes down to Pac-10s and what we do there, and then hopefully nationals and what we do there.”
The Cougars will travel to Sacramento, Calif., for the Pac-10 championships next Sunday to try to reclaim their success of two years ago, when they placed second in the conference and finished fourth in the nation. This year at Pac-10s, WSU’s competitors will include No. 1 California, No. 10 Stanford, No. 12 USC, No. 14 Oregon State, No. 15 Washington and No. 20 UCLA.
Yes, the Pac-10 is quite a powerhouse in women’s rowing.
“It’s looking like in the Pac-10 there’s a lot of parity,” WSU head coach Jane LaRiviere said. “And so if we can just prepare as well as possible and be ready to race on the weekend, hopefully things will go in our favor.
“But I think we can definitely expect a close race.”
The WSU women practice six days a week out of a cinder-block boathouse at Wawawai Landing, 20 miles southwest of Pullman on the Snake River. The river, widened by a nearby dam, meanders through a deep canyon that often acts as a wind tunnel.
On a good day, the water is like glass. But that rarely happens. Most days, the women row through choppy water that sometimes comes with small whitecaps that can make a 60-foot-long, 2-foot-wide, carbon-fiber rowing shell wobbly.
Since the Cougars work daily to steady their boats in rough water, they should be well prepared to race next Sunday on Sacramento’s Lake Natoma, chosen for its notoriously smooth waters.
“It’s almost like our home course,” LaRiviere said, “because we go there for winter training and we actually spend probably more time in Sacramento than we do anywhere else besides the Snake River.”
Lake Natoma also is where this year’s NCAA rowing championships will be held May 30 through June 1. The WSU varsity 8’s fourth-place finish there two years ago was the best in school history.
Last year, the Cougars placed seventh in the Pac-10 and didn’t qualify for NCAAs. So this season, the athletes are hungry and are excited their varsity 8 has come together as a national contender again.
“I think we’ve been doing really well. It’s been really fun,” said senior Karin Brevick, a member of the varsity 8. “We’ve all just really molded together and we get along really well. … I feel like we all just trust each other a lot.
“And we just work so hard for each other because we all obviously want it.”
Though there are nine women in the varsity 8 – eight rowers plus a coxswain, who steers and motivates the boat – the WSU rowing team has 44 athletes on its roster, including just seven seniors. Some of the rowers come from as far away as the Czech Republic, Norway, Australia and New Zealand. Some come from Spokane, Seattle and Victoria, British Columbia.
The Cougars also field a second-varsity 8, a varsity 4 (a four-person boat), a second-varsity 4, a novice 8, a second-novice 8 and a novice 4.
“We’ve been really fortunate the last few years to have a bunch of highly motivated people who want to achieve things beyond what they maybe initially thought was possible,” said LaRiviere, who is in her fifth year at WSU. “They’re kind of an inspiring bunch to work with.”
The Cougars have improved as the spring racing season has progressed. On April 6, the varsity 8 finished third at the San Diego Crew Classic, beating Stanford, UCLA and Wisconsin but losing to Washington and USC in the grand final.
WSU answered back a week later in Seattle, defeating the then-No. 5 Huskies by a healthy margin of nearly 5 seconds over the 2,000-meter course. The Cougars jumped from eighth to fifth in the Collegiate Rowing Coaches Association poll.
They moved to No. 4 after beating Central Florida and Stanford on the Cardinal’s home course, and hit a No. 3 ranking the next week, a bye. Last weekend, the Cougars edged by nearly 4 seconds a red-hot Oregon State team, which was coming off an upset of Washington the prior week.
Because of racing on the East Coast, WSU dropped back to No. 4 nationally this week. The Cougars will have their first chance this coming weekend to face top-ranked Cal in the Pac-10 championships.
“I can’t wait to see Cal and USC and all those teams that we haven’t seen in a couple weeks, so we’ll see how it goes,” Brevick said. “I don’t know. I’m excited.”
“(We’ve) gotta put it together, have our best performances when it matters most.” LaRiviere said. “Then just let the cards fall.”
Meanwhile, the Cougars will continue to practice on the Snake before they fly to Sacramento on Wednesday. The student-athletes have no more classes to distract them from their rowing.
At this point in the season, LaRiviere is helping the women tweak the technical side of rowing: rolling their seats smoothly as they row, quickly catching the water with their oar blades, pulling through the stroke with strong legs and arms.
Making sure her rowers stay relaxed and focused as they race is another focus.
After 2,000 meters and a little more than 6 minutes, the top Pac-10 crews this weekend could be decided by as little as a few tenths of a second. Two years ago, Cal beat WSU by 0.9 seconds for the Pac-10 crown.
“It’s one of those really sort of bizarre sports where it’s not a sprint, but it’s not long distance. You’re in this sort of in-between phase,” said senior Tiana Rodriquez, another member of the varsity 8. “And to be able to push yourself when your legs are burning and you’re already in intense pain, you’ve gotta be able to hold onto it and go to the finish.
“You really have to be able to push yourself to that next level.”