Off and Rowing

A landlocked state known for its flat plains and high winds might be the last place some would expect to find a rowing team, but at UCO, a coach from Connecticut is training a team of 45 co-eds for just such an endeavor, one she says Oklahomans should expect to see much more of.

After starting in mid-October, the new varsity team had less than two months in the water before NCAA regulations made them dry off for the winter, but with the spring semester, the all-girl Bronchos will kick practices into high gear to prepare for Nationals.

“There are a lot of varsity players who haven’t yet figured out that they’re rowers,” Coach Alison Derrick said.

Rowing is a unique sport in that it doesn’t take a lifetime of experience for someone to play it at the collegiate level.  Most rowers start off as tennis players or some other type of athlete.  Even if they’ve never touched an oar in their life, it only takes a year to turn them into a varsity athlete.

“It’s definitely an interesting sport,” said Stephanie Rogers, 23, of Stillwater.  “I was just introduced this year and I think it’s great.  It’s fun to watch and it’s fun to be out on the water…I think everyone should give it a shot.”

A Division-2 school, UCO sports teams compete in the Lone Star Conference, which lacked rowing teams until the Bronchos became the first.  Since UCO is the only D-2 school with a rowing program in the state, and is one of less than 15 D-2 schools with rowing programs in the nation, the Bronchos will go to regional schools for competition.

The team will compete in the novice division, which doesn’t necessarily mean that they are inexperienced, just that they’ve never competed at the college level.

The decision to bring the unlikely sport to UCO came from a need for more athletic opportunities for women, and since the NCAA only sponsors women’s rowing, it became a prime candidate.  That, and the rising popularity of rowing in the region, made their choice easier.

“It’s like if you have a school near a soon-to-be premier ski slope, you start a ski team,” Derrick said.

But the presence of a rowing team, the thought of which may conjure images of muscular Oxford youths in Spandex, isn’t as foreign as one might expect.  Despite its current fixation on football, baseball and basketball, rowing was once the premier sport in the U.S.  

The August 3, 1852 race between Yale and Harvard was the first intercollegiate competition of any kind in North America, long before crimson or orange pennants started waving from the roofs of vehicles on game day.

The sport isn’t merely a cornerstone of American athleticism, but it’s been the subject of fierce competition throughout the globe since the time of Amenhotep II of Egypt, more than 3,000 years ago.

Today, rowing is split into two forms:  sculling, which is where each person uses two oars, and sweep rowing, where everyone has just one oar.

Sculling is common in Europe, but sweep rowing is the only form sponsored by the NCAA, thus it’s the form UCO participates in.

“Most of the people I talk to are pretty surprised when I say I’m part of a rowing team,” said team coxswain, Megan Wells, 20, of Sapulpa.  “It’s something they associate more with the east coast or the west coast, but it’s one of the best sports to get involved with because you don’t have to have any experience.  Though it’s physically demanding, the rewards are well worth it.”

A coxswain is an assistant coach who rides in the boat with the rowers.  They lead warm-ups, get the team ready, put them on the line and make adjustments to the strategy if necessary.  Their primary job is to keep the rowers and equipment safe.

Teams row in “fours,” “eights” or “pairs,” plus a coxswain, which is optional in pairs.  “Eights,” plus a coxswain, means there are nine people in the boat.  

UCO’s long-anticipated Arcadia Lake facility will be completed this summer and ready for the team to use in the fall, but for now, they meet at the Chesapeake boathouse in Bricktown.

“It’s going to be great to be close to the campus and for it to be all ours,” Derrick said of the Arcadia Lake facility.

Until then, Bricktown venue gives them the opportunity to practice in the water, and it is extremely well-protected from the wind.  Soon, special rowing machines will be ordered to test and train the team on campus.

Even the future Arcadia Lake facility is just a stepping stone.  Sometime between 2009 and 2011, the UCO rowing team will become part of the Regatta Park complex near the Chesapeake facility.  The complex will also accommodate rowers from OCU and OU, the latter of which will switch from club to varsity teams later this year.

“I think we’re going to do very well,” Derrick said. “I think that easily in the next three to five years, they could win a national competition.”

Wells agrees. “I think UCO shows tremendous potential,” she said.  “Just with the girls we have right now, everyone is very cooperative and very competitive, and they want to succeed as a team. That’s when all the 5:00 a.m. practices will pay off.”

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