The Dayton Boat Club may be the least conspicuous host of a University sports team. Rolling up to the establishment, the only clues of its significance are the unusual number of cars lining the measly gravel shoulder of East River Road, which itself diverts from prominence as it winds its way along the banks of the Miami in the rather beige town of Moraine, Ohio.
On Friday afternoon, like many afternoons (and early mornings) during the year, the club welcomed Dayton’s rowing team to its docks for a routine workout.
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Twelve rowers, two coaches and one dog mill about in the finally-budding April sun, which may be the only entity shining light on the likewise inconspicuous UD women’s rowing team.
“It’s not looking good right now,” head coach Mike Wenker announced, personally unfazed by the blustery day and optimistic that the crew will get on the water anyway. “They’ll cancel races for wind above 20 miles an hour.”
It was gusting around 24.
The team is at the mercy of the elements. In spring, when the Ohio weather is as unpredictably fickle as a superficial teenager shopping for weekend attire, cold mornings can ruin a mood before the sun even rises. And wind can batter willpower worse than end-of-semester deadlines. But the team rowed on.
They took advantage of the long-awaited warm weather in preparing for their final two regattas: one from April 21 to 22 in Tennessee and the Atlantic 10 Championship in New Jersey on May 5.
So after a round of dynamic stretching and the arrival of assistant coach Katie Coons, whose tardiness prompted the team to collectively wall-sit to guilt her into thinking she was responsible for group discipline, Wenker decided the conditions were favorable enough for a river day.
The 12 rowers in attendance were split into two squads: the Varsity Eight (V8) and the Varsity Four (V4). A second V8 squad was on campus working out separately.
In a regatta, teams are scored based on the finishes of their three boats (two V8s and one V4) to determine a final placing. At each boat’s stern sits the coxswain, a hands-off point guard if you will, who is the only member of the team facing the direction of travel and thus communicates necessary strategic moves to the trusting rowers.
In all, 23 players make up the varsity team. None of which, however, at the University of Dayton, are scholarship athletes. In fact, only a select few came to UD having rowed a day in their lives.
“This is the one sport you can start when you’re 18 or 19 and win an olympic gold medal,” Wenker claimed, citing as an example Bernadette Martin, who rowed at UD two decades ago.
“She rowed at UD, went to Michigan made the national team and rode as a world champion,” he said. “Walk-on. She started rowing at 18.”
A rapidly-growing sport, rowing could be concealing another world champion in our midst. Dayton rowing’s bread-and-butter are dedicated athletes just like Martin, who stumble upon an athletic opportunity amidst their academic ventures.
“I swam all throughout high school, and I’ve always heard that swimmers do well as rowers,” said sophomore Casey Becker. Becker was up for a challenge when she attended a “learn to row” session shortly into her first semester.
“The only reason I attended the session was because I called my mom the night before, and she said, ‘Well Casey, if anything, just learn how to row properly.’ And it turned out that I liked it.”
Since then, the only “looking back” Becker has done has been of the literal kind — from her stern-facing seat in the boat.
The early mornings don’t bother Becker, who was used to waking at 4:15 a.m. for high school swim practices. Now, on the varsity rowing team, she can “sleep in” until 5:30 a.m.
It’s not as easy for others, though.
“In the mornings, when I’m laying in my warm, cozy bed and don’t want to get up,” said Tricia Santoni, the V8’s coxswain.
“I think ‘If I choose to sleep in this morning, that’s a whole boat of girls that don’t get to go out on the water and have practice today.’ It’s really a team sport in that aspect, which is one of my favorite parts about it.”
“I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t getting something out of it,” Santoni confirmed. “All of the girls on the team are my best friends here, that’s who I spend my free time with. It really drew me in that it was a super team sport.”
For purely the thrill of sport and the camaraderie of the team, that resolve is admirable. It’s even more so considering the vast majority of rowers dove in the same way Martin, Becker and Santoni did. Blind.
“Everybody walked on, but the only people that had rowing experience are one, three and five,” Wenker explained, identifying athletes by their seat position from the bow back, as the V8 picked up steam in the wind-chopped waters of the Miami.
Wenker followed the team in a motored launch boat. Lola, his fluffy black canine “who will bite you if you touch her butt,” according to senior Jaclyn Franz, stood placidly between the benches, enjoying the wind whipping her long fur and the intermittent spray of river water gracing her visage.
Lola, though, has much more leverage when it comes to attendance than do the committed players.
“When it’s warm I’ll bring her,” Wenker said, eyeing his V8 boat all the while across the choppy water. “When it’s cold she gets real crabby so I leave her at home.”
Wenker may appear lazy to the unacquainted onlooker, trailing his team with a motor and a dog while the athletes work every fiber in their beings. But he’s mentally entrenched, coaching all the while. Plus, it’s the only way he can keep up with a team of eight rowers.
“This is what it’s gonna be like when we race,” he encouraged his team, which stoically maintains its pace despite the rough current. “Better to practice in it than not!”
Especially on days like today, the water makes for a tough workout. As Becker said, swimmers make good rowers. That’s true not just because of the aquatic nature of the two sports, but because they utilize the same muscle groups. As in, all the muscle groups
“They’re both full-body workouts,” Becker said as she got comfortable in the back of the launch boat. She’s nursing a minor injury, so Wenker substituted her out mid-practice.
Ideally, of course, a swimmer-turned-rower should never be required to use her former sport’s skills in the water. A varsity team knows how to keep a boat afloat. Beginners, on the other hand, can be a different story.
“The only time that I’ve seen us flip was the novices this year,” Becker explained. “And that was when we were on the dock. And you’re supposed to run your blades before you get in the boat, and they didn’t do that. So you have all the blades on one side and nothing is setting the boat on the other side. They tried to get in and the boat just flipped over.”
“We were all very upset that we did not get a video of that.”
“They did it right in front of me,” Wenker chimed in, intentionally revealing his lack of empathy for the unfortunate, but completely benign situation. “It was hilarious.”
So Becker herself, like most whose first rowing experience was at the collegiate level, has not undergone an unplanned baptism by … well … water.
It’s true, then, that like for swimmers, water evolves with experience from an imposing antagonist to a harmonic enabler. It ebbs with the rhythm of each calculated stroke, and flows under the athleticism of those daring enough to use it as a canvas for their sport.
And like a sprinting swimmer whose submerged eyes and ears are unaware of the spectators’ anxious onlook, a rowing team finds solitude in the water during the most heated stretches of a race.
“It’s not really a spectator sport,” Franz said. “In fact the hardest part of a race is often the part that no one really sees.”
And like swimming, there’s little left to question when the race is done.
“What I like about it is there’s no referees,” said Wenker, referring to the objectivity of the event. “There’s no judging.”
It’s pure, like water itself. It’s just the girls and the boat, undulating rhythmically with the current beneath, propelling themselves to the hope of victory where the satisfaction of competition still awaits even if the former is not won.
And if all else fails, as Santoni alluded, there’s joy in the team, in being one vital oar to a boat that can’t row without it, in dying to yourself for the good of the team. It makes the cold wind, the hot sun, the choppy water and the early mornings all worth it.
It might not be the adrenaline of a sold-out UD Arena or the glamor of a nationally-televised match, but even rowing, heck, especially rowing, benefits from the student-athlete experience.
And so the Dayton Boat Club sits, not in the regalia of traditional sporting cathedrals, but in quiet solitude with the athletes it hosts — athletes, who from their perches on the Miami, do get one more benefit.
“That’s the one thing about getting up in the morning,” Wenker said. “It’s a drag, but you get to see a lot of sunrises.”
“It’s so pretty,” Santoni reminisced. “I love the sunrises.”
Photos by Lucy Bratton and Katie Coons