Nathan Wilson | Reporter
Each year, collegiate and high school rowing teams travel to Cane River Lake to practice during their spring break.
With schools like University of Central Oklahoma and Jesuit Dallas High School in attendance, the teams represent a breadth and depth of talent coveted by the United States Rowing Association (USRowing) as it seeks to cast a broader net in the search for elite competitors.
USRowing recruits for the Olympic and Paralympic rowing teams, but faced a range of issues in 2021’s Tokyo games. While the US Olympic team’s lack of medals was the most obvious underperformance, the men’s rowing team failed to qualify in any sculling events, instead only competing in single oared sweep competitions.
In response to criticism of the sport’s ailing fortunes, USRowing committed to far-reaching changes. Their plan includes steps to better identify high-performing athletes and fund their progress individually rather than as participants in a handful of elite classes.
JB Hendrix, Assistant Varsity Coach at University of Texas, Austin, (UTA) described the historical role of the elite rowing classes while visiting Natchitoches. “There are a few high performance clubs dotted around the country,” he said. “You could go to one of those clubs, train with a group of athletes who have the same goal in mind which is qualifying boats for international races and ultimately the Olympics. Otherwise it’s something that you have to really fund and pursue on your own.”
The path to becoming an elite rower isn’t always straightforward. UTA rower Philip Tan offered suggestions of where to look. He thinks having the opportunity to row in high school is a major advantage. “A lot of rowers just started their rowing careers in college,” he said. “But it’s getting harder to do that since it’s so selective.” He also pointed to one of the universities practicing nearby. “Central Oklahoma, they’re a division two team, but they won the national championship last year,” he said. “Maybe you’ll find a future Olympian there too.”
Troy Howell trained elite rowers for years and now coaches at Jesuit Dallas High School. “My last job was a place called the Craftsberry Outdoor Center in Vermont and we sponsored post-collegiate athletes who are trying to make the jump to the Olympics.” He couldn’t point to anyone on his team with Olympic aspirations. “It’s not something that I’m aware of, but a lot of times you don’t know that until you get close, and somebody says, ‘yeah you’re right there’,” he said. “That kind of decision usually gets made when you’re a sophomore or junior in college.”
Howell thinks the lack of medals earned at the Tokyo Olympics shouldn’t be a cause for concern. “There’s been way too much made over ‘Oh this is unprecedented’” he began. “Every time that the national team underperforms, there’s always gnashing of teeth.” From his experience, the US performed well in the Olympics. “There are a lot of very hardworking endurance athletes in a lot of countries working for those medals, so fourth and fifth, that’s still a pretty good result,” he said.
Howell acknowledged the financial challenges awaiting elite rowers. “It’s a tough road if you don’t have financial backing. There’s no one giving you a signing bonus to keep rowing,” he said. “Amateur athletes, they’re usually not very well funded. They sometimes live out of their cars and borrow from their affluent parents.” He knows people who have trained for years. “It’s a hard sport to stay in for five, 10 years after college because you’re putting your life on hold.”
Even for students, participating in a rowing team is expensive. Howell conceded the rowers’ families absorb much of the cost. “The simple answer is most of this program’s funding comes from the parents of the athletes themselves.” He outlined the expenses his team bears. “In our case, dues are $750 a semester to be on the crew, and beyond that when we travel out of state, we bill the families for the expense of the trip”. “We don’t want anybody to not be able to be on the team because they can’t afford to do it. The athletic department will give some financial aid to the people who don’t have the disposable income.”
Much of the funding for the collegiate rowing clubs practicing on Cane River Lake also comes from the athletes, and the cost of travel, equipment and sculling boats is substantial. “Each shell can cost about the same as a car,” Northwestern State University rower Hunter Bell explained. To fund their activities, students pay dues and organize fundraisers throughout the year.
A common fundraiser involves rowers seeking sponsorship as they practice on rowing machines called ergometers or ergs. NSU rower Tori Dettinger described the activity. “Our biggest fundraiser is the Ergothon, so we set up the ergs outside by the library and we row the distance from here to Nashville,” she said. “People can pledge us money to do that, so we collect money beforehand and we also collect money during the event from people driving by.”
University of Central Oklahoma (UCO) won the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) division two rowing championship for the past three seasons. As an NCAA team, UCO rowers are funded by the school, which their coach Brian Ebke suggests is a recruiting tool for the university. “There are definitely people who come to UCO to row, and it’s definitely a draw that you can be a student athlete and be supported by the athletic department,” he said. “It’s not student run like a club team and people don’t pay to be on the team.” The option to compete in NCAA is limited to a fraction of women’s teams; many women’s and all men’s teams are organized under different associations.
Several years ago, a UCO graduate attempted to qualify for the Women’s Olympic rowing team. “We had an athlete from Central Oklahoma who was at the camp trying to make the sweep boats,” Ebke said. “She was cut from the team the week the boats were named, so she was really close.” This was Ebke’s first time visiting Natchitoches for practice, and he was uncertain if any of his rowers had their sights on the Olympics. “It’s a very unique person that’s good enough to even be able to compete for a spot on an Olympic team, to make a team, let alone medal,” he said. “Maybe there will be more as they cast a wider net.”
Caleb Poor, a rower from NSU, suggests one of his classmates as being a potential Olympian. “Her name is Tori (Dettinger) and she’s rowed since high school,” he said. “She would like to (try out). I’ve heard our coach talk many a time, if she got fast enough, he would call the national team to see if she couldn’t get a chance to try out.” He revealed what set her apart. “She’s trying to get faster and faster,” he said. “She’s extremely competitive.”
Dettinger arrived as an exchange student from University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point before deciding to transfer to NSU. “I wanted to take culinary classes, but my school up there didn’t offer them,” she said. “My school in Wisconsin also didn’t have a rowing team, and so I was looking for someplace where I could come back to rowing because I really missed it.”
The warmer weather also appealed to Dettinger, and it affects how she practices. “In Minnesota, where I’m originally from, we didn’t really have an off-season,” she said. “But the winter season was just erging, which is the rowing machines, so it was a lot more conditioning.” Since Cane River Lake doesn’t freeze, her team at NSU practices through the winter. “(At NSU) the summer is kind of our off season and everyone goes home,” she says. “Our coach will give us individualized workouts to do to keep us in shape.”
Dettinger described some qualities of champion rowers. “Individually a rower has to be strong and have endurance to last them throughout the race, but to be good as a boat you have to be able to row with the other people.” She gave insight into how rowing teams work together. “You have to match their speed and match their style of rowing.” While she’s working to become faster, she also identified wanting to improve her competitive mindset. “I focus so much on the numbers, and if I’m not hitting the splits I need to be hitting, I get really discouraged.” To improve, she’s focusing on her long-term goal. “Even if it’s something I can’t hit or I’m not hitting, I still need to keep going and give it my best,” she says. “It’s not the individual workouts that matter, it’s what you do every day.”
Nathan Wilson | Reporter