The intense resolve of the University of Washington’s women’s rowing team was expressed by sophomore Elise Beuke, when she and her varsity eight teammates crossed the finish line first the past weekend to complete a Huskies sweep on New Jersey’s Mercer Lake of all three races in the national rowing championships, a first in NCAA history.
“OK,” she recalled thinking Wednesday, “What’s next?”
Whoa. Slow down, girl. Washington just wiped out the 150-some schools in Division I with the most dominant day the sport has seen, one everyone saw coming and you did it anyway, and you’re already looking uplake for more conquests?
The indomitable nature of youth races to such thoughts. But that was not the first thought of everyone among the U-Dubs.
Junior Sophia Baker was doing a lot of looking back Saturday.
Her varsity four triumped in the day’s first race to begin the purple wave. But as each UW boat won, her mind went back to the arduous fall of 2015, when the program was teetering.
Coach Bob Ernst, whose name belongs in the same paragraph with program paragons such as Hiram Conibear, George Pocock, Al Ulbrickson, Dick Erickson and Michael Callahan, was locked in a fierce confrontation with some of the team’s leadership over his style.
After 42 years with the program, one of his slogans, “This isn’t a democracy, it’s a dictatorship,” had worn thin. Gruff and obsessive, Ernst’s verbal abusiveness wasn’t playing well. Four days after an explosive team meeting in which he stormed out threatening to resign, he was fired Nov. 24 by athletics director Scott Woodward.
In the termination letter, a result of a two-month department investigation, Woodward wrote to Ernst, whose crews won national titles in 1997, 1998 and 2001, that “multiple student-athletes on the women’s rowing team have communicated to the athletic department that they are not having a positive experience. As such, it is not in their best interests to continue to be coached by you.’’
The months-long tension that wracked the program was over, but the strain remained palpable.
“Mentally, it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever been through, especially after the incident,” said Baker, a native of Washington, D.C., referring to the meeting with Ernst, 69. “The insecurity of losing your coach was probably the scariest. I was 3,000 miles away from home. I have an incredible support system here, but this was something you gotta call home for.
“That mental challenge made me who I am today.”
Beginning the first day of school that fall, when junior coxswain Marlow Mizer departed after an argument with Ernst in his office over his style, the program was in turmoil. The theme of strength-through-adversity was a noteworthy factor in the drive that produced history in 2017.
“For a few weeks after that, we didn’t know who the coaching staff would be,” Baker said. “But every single girl on this team came down (to Conibear Shellhouse) and worked on her own initiative. No slippage, none at all.”
Resolution took almost six months. Jen Cohen, who took over for Woodward as AD when he left Jan. 8, 2016, for the same job at Texas A&M, hired Yasmin Farooq, the highly successful coach at Stanford and a former U.S. Olympic coxswain.
Over the weekend, Farooq became the first coach to lead two schools to a national title, and was also the first to win a championship in her first year. But the rowing was almost secondary to the pursuit of trust for a shaken team.
Farooq talked about developments Wednesday when she, Adams, Beuke and senior captain Maggie Phillips of Stanwood, who rowed in the varsity second eight, met the media at the shellhouse after the sweep at nationals.
“To have seniors embrace a brand-new program with one year left, I figured that would be the biggest challenge,” she said. “The fact that Maggie was such an outstanding captain, I think she did a great job of bridging the gap between coach and team.
“Our strategy that I and all our coaches employed was clear communication on how selection would take place, what they’re being evaluated on and why, and giving them a constant gauge as to progress.
“Then we boated them based on results. It was extremely transparent, so they always knew where they stood. They could come in and talk about it, good or bad.”
The rowers responded well to the approach after the darkness, winning the school’s fourth national women’s championship.
“As a group, we were trying to maintain mental health standards,” Baker said. “It was a group effort to maintain the health of the program.”
Farooq, a member of the U.S. national team from 1989 to 1996, finishing sixth in the 1992 Olympics and fourth in the 1996 Games, was the Cardinal coach from 2006 to 2016, winning the national title in 2009. Yet over time she had to make changes in her coaching style that paid off in Montlake.
“The way I coach now is entirely different,” she told rowingnews.com. “It’s a different generation and you’ve got to communicate to the generation you’re coaching. In my generation, we followed a little more blindly.
“First off, most of us walked onto the teams we rowed on in college. There was no recruiting and there weren’t any scholarships back then. Now, as college students, they’re focused on development for the under-23 team, then there’s development for the senior team. It’s just different.”
Farooq credited Erin O’Connell, a former UW coxswain and assistant coach, now a senior associate athletics director, for helping set her up for quick success.
“Erin had innate knowledge of the program, and perspective as an administrator about what was good and bad about the program,” she said. “She had incredible insight. She said straight up, ‘This is what this program needs. You check all the boxes. You should know that you will have what you need to be successful.'”
Boxes checked. Title won. Past is past. What’s next?