Spokane’s Madison Kerr and her top-ranked teammates will soon be headed to New Jersey with hopes of winning an eighth national championship for their university.
No office pools are being circulated. No side bets are being collected. And you won’t find any grocery store checkers geeked out in team-related regalia.
All that “hoo-rah!” might come with March Madness, but no such passion exists for women’s collegiate rowing.
Kerr, who turns 20 Tuesday, is a junior at Western Washington University in Bellingham. The daughter of Gary and Rhonda (with younger sister Caitrin) is also a proud member of the school’s NCAA Division II rowing program, which is ranked No. 1 in the nation.
The national championships will be decided this Friday through Sunday on Lake Mercer in West Windsor, New Jersey.
For such an unheralded sport, the rewards are mostly internal. Just the way it goes. There’s nothing democratic about what will or will not tweak the public fancy.
Still, you don’t have to keep up on the rowing standings to appreciate the human story of how a Spokane kid entered such a grueling sport as a walk-on and then evolved into an elite varsity athlete.
“No, I’d never even heard of (rowing),” said Kerr, who played volleyball at Lewis and Clark High School.
Chalk it up to boredom. Active by nature, Kerr said she found herself at Western with too much time on her hands.
She mentioned this dilemma to Ben Wapels, a friend from high school. A rower himself, he suggested that his former classmate might want to give crew a whirl.
That certainly cured the free-time problem.
It’s a rare thing for a varsity college sport to hold open tryouts, said Kerr, who in the fall of her freshman year decided to give it a go.
The auditions did not involve oars or aqua. This was obviously a gut-check to gauge what the wannabes were made of.
A mile run started the fun. Then 100 meters of lunges followed by 100 meters of crawling as fast as you can on all fours.
Then came the whipped cream atop the ol’ milkshake: Yet another mile run.
“It was extremely difficult. I didn’t enjoy it. It was miserable,” recalled Kerr, adding that, “if they made us do the tryout again I probably wouldn’t do it.”
Despite the torture, she came in third out of about 30 who tried out.
The coaches were duly impressed with this young woman’s level of fitness as well as the effort she put out.
Being 5-foot-7 and 125 pounds?
That was a bit, um, problematic to such a power-based sport.
They “told me to put on 10-12 pounds of muscle and they’d re-evaluate me in the spring,” she said. “I thought, ‘who would want to do that?’ ”
Kerr is apparently one of those people who don’t respond well to rejection. After stewing on it a few days, she realized, “I wasn’t OK with being told no.”
Kerr started training hard – with male rowers. She fine-tuned her diet. She hit the weights. Ditto the rowing machines.
Not willing to wait for spring, Kerr tracked down Courtney Moeller during winter quarter. She told the assistant coach that she deserved another look.
Impressed by Kerr’s grit and much-improved fitness, Moeller invited her to come watch the team run a practice.
After it was over, John Fuchs, legendary 19-year coach of this highly successful program, asked Kerr if what she’d seen was something she might like to do.
“See you Monday,” he told her.
You know, there’s a lot of truth to that old saying: “Be careful what you wish for.” And there were many times in the drizzling days ahead when young Madison Kerr paused to wonder, “Holy smokes. What did I do?”
Let’s take a moment to ponder what it takes to be a competitive rower for the Western Washington University Vikings.
Wake up at 4:25 a.m. Rain or shine, be at the boathouse on Lake Sammish by 5 a.m.
Run and exercise to warm up.
Then get in the sleek, low-slung boats called “shells” and start laboring on the technique and gradual improvements that come ever so slowly.
“You have to be a little crazy,” chuckled coach Moeller, who rowed for Fuchs when she attended Western.
Moeller called me from somewhere in Minnesota, while hauling eight boats to the national championships.
She wanted to take a moment to tell me how proud she is of what Kerr has accomplished.
“She didn’t have a lot of that raw power, but she picked up the rowing stroke right quick and fit right in with the team dynamic.
“She really has a kind of special role.”
Plus she paid her dues.
This past winter, for example. “It was, like, awful,” noted Kerr. “Wet. Cold. It’s raining and it’s dark and you don’t get dry until you get home.”
Classes follow morning workouts. Western is a place of higher learning, after all.
Kerr is majoring in kinesiology with the idea of one day getting into occupational therapy.
So there’s plenty of coursework and studying as long as you don’t forget the required daily afternoon weight room and aerobic workouts.
Seriously, boot camp with the Marines would be a cakewalk next to this rowing regimen.
Like any other sport, this one carries with it all the subtleties that separate the chumps from the champs.
Every spot in an eight-seat or four-seat shell is a specialty to be learned and then mastered.
Kerr, being smaller, has found her niche rowing from the bow in a four-seat craft. “Where every single move you make affects the boat.”
Bigger, more-powerful women occupy the middle seats, where they act as “the engine.”
And when everything is in synch, when everyone is working as one, the boats glide like arrows over the water, a vision of art and beauty to behold.
This 2017 season, the WWU rowers won 21 of 28 races.
“It looks so graceful,” said Kerr. “But it’s the most mentally draining and physical sport.”
Without a doubt, “I’m in the best shape I’ll probably ever be in my life.”
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