Photo: Rachel Ward
On the quaintly still Des Moines River under a sunny sky, assistant rowing coach Jane Detwiler barked commands through a megaphone at two boats full of 16 try-hard women’s cross country runners — most of whom had never picked up an oar in their lives.
“Bend your knees! Lean back!” Detwiler yelled. “Follow the person in front of you—do exactly what she does!”
In an effort to promote more unity within Drake athletics, women’s cross country coach Dan Hostager brought his runners out on the water for a race against the novice freshmen rowers, who evenly matched the runners in the experience realm: slim to none.
“It’s something we talked about for a couple of years now,” Hostager said. “It’s a good team building exercise, and we certainly gained more appreciation for their sport.”
The event was also in full pursuit of embodying the Bulldog Way, a relatively new program that promotes school pride and encourages athletes to support each other.
“A big part of being a Bulldog is not only supporting teammates but other athletes as well,” said rowing captain Andrea Piekarczyk. “We’re hoping that when our girls see the cross country runners on campus, they’ll know more about each other.”
So as the cross country runners were welcomed into the new world of rowing, they came with open minds and positive attitudes — ready to learn.
When sophomore runner Melissa Parks climbed out of the eight-rower boat and onto the dock at the conclusion of the training, she shot a thumbs-up at her friend, former University of Kansas rower, Karlie Brown, who then high-fived Parks for “not catching a crab”— a mistake new rowers often make by plunging the oar too deep. Parks had previously underestimated how difficult this new sport was.
“It was harder than I expected, just to have everyone go at the same time,” Parks said. “It takes a lot of coordination.”
As for the novice rowers, before Sunday, they had they had learned the basic rowing technique on the ergs on Thursday and had only pushed off the docks in the boats once on Friday.
“We just kind of threw them into it today, and they handled it like champs,” Piekarczyk said. “Next week they’ll be learning more technical stuff, but they’ve been doing a good job. It’s not easy.”
In the end, the cross country runners won both races. Regardless, though, the race was a constructive experience for the new novice freshmen.
“I think it was beneficial in that it gave them a sense of what it’s like to race and how to go fast,” Detwiler said after the race as a group of rowers cannon-balled off the dock into the river behind her. “It also gave the two teams a chance to get together and mingle, which I think was the biggest benefit.”
For freshman Katie Serbin, another success of the day was learning to row using her legs instead of just arms and back. Though the freshmen have not had much training in technique, today’s trip on the water provided an extra stab at progress.
“It definitely helped me prepare better for getting the timing down,” Serbin said. “The most difficult thing is the timing and getting everyone to row at once.”
In addition to the race, 16 rowers also volunteered at the Hy-Vee Triathlon as safety guards in kayaks that same afternoon.
“Hy-Vee is a great supporter of Drake athletics, so we were very happy to give that support back,” said head rowing coach Charlie DiSilvestro .
If any of the swimmers who were participating in the race were struggling, they could hold onto a volunteer’s kayak until they were ready to continue. Though most of the rowers had never kayaked before, according to senior captain Kristina Vann, they all learned the kayaking technique without trouble. Vann described her experience as “absolutely awesome.”
“It was inspirational because you have the elite athletes, then you have some people who would swim from kayak to kayak, and you could tell they were struggling, but they just kept going. That’s kind of like what rowing is,” Vann said.
Vann hopes the entire team can volunteer at the triathlon next year. Like the battle of the beginners in the rowing race, the crew’s involvement as volunteers is also demonstrative of the Bulldog Way, and it’s something all athletic departments hope to continue.
“The Bulldog Way is something that the department is trying to emphasize a little more,” DiSilvestro said. “We’re all a part of the Drake community. We want (the athletes) to feel like they’re part of a bigger thing, not just their team.”