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Davis, California

Saturday, April 20, 2024

Inside UC Davis Crew


Rowing’s dedicated leaders explain one of campus’ most unique club sports

There are a wide variety of club sports programs offered at UC Davis. With nearly 40 student-run organizations affiliated with the university, there’s a club sport that fits practically every type of recreational and athletic preference. While each organization is unique in its own way, the men’s and women’s club crew teams are particularly fascinating.

For starters, the vast majority of crew athletes have no experience with rowing prior to coming to UC Davis. This is common among both the members of the women’s and men’s teams. Rather than acting as a barrier to success, the team enjoys a roster that possesses a diverse array of athletic skill-sets. According to fourth-year chemistry major and president of the women’s rowing team Kelly Gullett, this is what makes rowing so special.

“The novice squad is all people who have never rowed before and so you get to learn a brand new sport together, everybody is on the same pace,” Gullett said. “We have people of very different athletic abilities who will come in with either playing soccer or volleyball or basketball in high school and then try a new sport, or people who have never played a sport before coming out and learning to row.”

Third-year cognitive science major and men’s rowing vice president Aidan Sandhoefner agreed, and mentioned that only one member of the men’s team this year has experience with rowing before college.

“This leads to an interesting dynamic,” Sandhoefner said. “Since there are generally no superstars who have been rowing for years to outshine their less-experienced teammates –– everyone starts with a blank slate and learns the sport together. I joined the team after talking to some current rowers at the ‘How Do U Rec’ event at orientation, and they really sold the sport and made me realize that I’d rather try something new and unique instead of playing baseball like I did in high school.”

The concept of the sport of rowing is not all that complicated –– the athletes pack themselves into a very skinny boat and row in unison in a straight line toward the finish line. At the collegiate level, teams can race in a boat made up of eight, four or two athletes at a time. Races are typically 2,000 meter sprints, and a “good” finishing time is just under seven minutes. The eight-man and four-man boats are also led by a coxswain, an athlete who sits at the end of the boat and leads the rowers as they race.

While the concept of rowing is not hard to understand, the real difficulty comes in perfecting the rowing technique and balance required to be competitive. Regardless of athletic background, each new member is not only charged with the task of learning the sport, but also getting used to a remarkably grueling practice schedule — which sets sets it apart from most other recreational clubs. Athletes must consistently wake up well before sunrise and travel 25 minutes to the Sacramento River, forgoing sleep for an intense workout in the cold, wet early morning darkness, until the sun finally peeks over the horizon.

It might be difficult for non-rowers to imagine voluntarily doing such a thing even once, but the members of both the women’s and the men’s team follow this exhausting routine nearly every morning during the spring season. For Sandhoefner, this is his one of his favorite aspects about the sport.

“It feels fantastic to know that I get my workout in before most people are even awake — it’s the ultimate feeling of productivity,” Sandhoefner said.

Having such an early practice time enables members to have the entire rest of the day to focus on academics, as opposed to following the normal pattern of other student-athletes who must switch in and out of the “athlete” mode when practices are scheduled in the middle of the school day. Sandhoefner also explained that most people “don’t realize how quickly our bodies adjust to changes in our sleep schedule.”

For others, particularly newer members, the process of getting themselves acclimated to the intense schedule is more of a struggle. As a new member of the women’s novice squad, first-year food science major Rita Huang admitted that adjusting to the rowing schedule and waking up at 4:30 a.m. was difficult in the beginning. Just when she felt used to her new schedule, the intensity of the practices picked up.

“At first rowing was not that physically challenging for me since the track practice in high school was more harsh than that,” Huang wrote. “But as the season went through, practices became harder and harder, and I have to say it reshaped me physically and mentally.”

Huang admitted that there were “a lot of moments” when she felt like giving up on rowing, but was able to persevere thanks to the help of the friendships she forged.  

In disciplining themselves to committing to such a harsh practice regimen, the men’s and women’s crew teams have become quite good at what they do. UC Davis rowing is in its 40th year of existence, and for the majority of those years each team has been completely student-run. Both teams have also consistently competed in Georgia as national finalists in recent seasons, including a host of top-10 finishes and a first place finish by the women’s novice squad in 2016.

When not on the national stage, both teams compete in local and regional races throughout the year, with things really picking up during the months of spring. Around the same week as spring break each year, the team ventures south to compete in the San Diego Crew Classic, an event full of team bonding and fierce competition as nearly 700 teams consistently enter. Later in April, the Western Intercollegiate Rowing Association holds its regional race just across the causeway in Sacramento. According to Gullett, this is the women’s team’s most competitive race because “every member of the team has a race at WIRA.”

This high level of success has been sustained over the years due to the teams’ understanding of the importance of perfecting their craft as well as a passion for racing and developing strong bonds of friendship.

“One of my favorite things about rowing is that it is the ultimate team-building sport,” Sandhoefner said. “When you have eight rowers in a boat, it is essential that everyone is doing the exact same thing, at the exact same time, in the exact same way.”

Not only does each rower have to remain in sync with the others in the boat, but also utilize a technique that adequately balances finesse with raw strength. The members of the men’s team are considered smaller in terms of physical size than most programs, but the team has been able to remain competitive thanks to its adherence to rowing with proper form. Sandhoefner added that, in his opinion, “one of the best feelings in the world” is beating a team of larger athletes because it means that he and his teammates rowed better than their opponents.

This drive to compete as one unit and to out-row other teams naturally results in the formation of incredibly strong friendships.

“The trust in our teammates transfers off the water into our personal [and] academic lives as well,” Sandhoefner said. “We spend a lot of time with each other on campus because we’re like a big family, and in the past when I’ve been stressed out due to school or personal problems, my teammates are the first ones I turn to for support.”

Even outside of racing, Gullett believes that the student-run “club” aspect of the rowing program is what makes her participation in it so much more rewarding.

“Being a student-run organization is so amazing, you learn so many life skills,” Gullet said. “It’s being responsible for something that’s bigger than you and making sure you’re leaving your legacy. It made the campus smaller for me. So I really like having that core community and the people and the fact that we’re doing this for ourselves and no one else.”

The men’s and women’s teams are separate organizations. They have separate practice schedules, coaches and executive team members, but the program as a whole shares many aspects. The teams share a boat house where they both practice and they share certain equipment and travel costs.

The men’s and women’s teams also share something intangible as well, and that’s passionate, dedicated leadership. An excellent illustration of the type of selflessness and devotion comes from the men’s team president, third-year economics and philosophy double major Stevie Benko.

“The part of my role that really makes me feel like I’m making a difference […] is being able to set some sort of example to the team,” Benko said. He explained that last year he sustained an injury that kept him out of rowing for nearly 10 months.

“Every second of being on land while my friends were out on the water was awful,” Benko said. “But I did my physical therapy, I waited for my injury to heal, and I showed up at the boathouse for practices I knew I could not participate in. I truly loved the sport enough to where just sitting there watching everyone else row could make my day; a vicarious experience. I hoped that people saw my determination to get better, that people saw my love for the sport – and I hope that it helped some of my teammates see just how worth it the whole thing was.”

Gullet, a graduating senior who plans on pursuing a Ph.D. in organic chemistry at the University of Illinois, reflected on her past four years, explaining what her experience with the team has taught her.

“Mental strength and confidence.” Gullett said. “Confidence in my leadership skills, confidence in who I am as a person. I feel like I have learned so much about myself through this because when you’re out on the water and it’s cold and you’re tired and your coach is yelling at you because you don’t have good technique, you’re out there with all of these other strong women and you’re just like, ‘I can do this, I can do anything.’”

Led by exemplary student-athletes, UC Davis men’s and women’s club rowing is a shining example of how sacrifice and love for a craft leads to true success and lifelong friendship.  



Written by: Dominic Faria — sports@theaggie.org


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