Four years of rowing for Wisconsin conditioned me to hate Ohio State Rowing. The only real reasoning I had was that they were better than us, but that was plenty of fuel to keep my hate fire burning. I never wanted to beat a team more than I wanted to beat Ohio State.
I became friends with two Ohio State rowers at U23 camp last summer and realized that my hatred was irrational. It’s not like row-bots (lol) were sitting in OSU boats. They were college kids just like us. I became zen about the rivalry and grew to respect them. But then I started to wonder: if they’re not superhuman, why were they ACTUALLY better than us?
In the past I had chalked up all of their 3 year streak of national titles (2014-2016) to having a full roster of international recruits and football money.
Wisconsin had one or two internationals and very few domestic recruits in our top boats in my time. In 2017, the Wisco varsity 8 at NCAAs had: 7 walk-ons (one recruit from Madison, Wi) and 7 Wisconsinites (one Illinoian). According to my Instagram research, 6 out of 8 rowers from the OSU 1V at NCAAs were international.
Easy. There’s your smoking gun. Bam.
Ok. Not that simple. If you reason that American women dominate sweep events at international junior, u23 and senior levels (gross over generalization, but just roll with me here for argument’s sake), crews with predominantly American rowers should have an advantage. Furthermore, if internationals are the answer, why aren’t crews like USC or Oregon State that have a ton of international recruits not winning National Championships?
What about football? The Ohio State football team has a gross amount of National Championships and is a constant powerhouse. Because of Title IX women’s rowing teams benefit from having a solid football program. A huge money-making football team could contribute to OSU’s success. However, if you compare rowing program with a similarly winning football team, like Alabama or Clemson, it’s apparent that a championship level football team doesn’t always correlate to a championship level rowing team.
So what is it?
I had the opportunity to visit and row my single at Ohio State last weekend with one of my friends on the national team who is an OSU alum. I will intentionally gloss over the details here, because giving away all the secrets of OSU rowing would be unsportsmanlike, but here’s my general overview of why they’re so good.
At the surface level, they have very nice facilities and water to row on at the Griggs Reservoir. The boathouse was beautiful. Their athletic staff was very kind and welcoming. They are well equipped at Ohio, but honestly in comparison to Wisco and the other college boathouses I’ve seen, it was pretty par-for-the-course. It’s not their resources.
The biggest difference that I saw at OSU is their team just works harder. Plain and simple. I thought I was working pretty hard during my time at Wisco because I had no frame of reference. When you compare our training to OSU’s training it’s obvious. OSU was doing some crazy sh*t when I was there.
Another element that sets them apart is their lifestyle. I’ve heard people say things along the lines of “I don’t want to be one of those teams where the only thing they do is row” or “Summer/Fall is the off season, so it’s fine to prioritize other things (ie partying) over training then.” These same athletes then wonder why they’re not winning in the spring. OSU is putting all of their eggs in the rowing basket and they’re doing it as a unit. They are committing as a team.
At the same time, having a team where everyone is really dedicated, talented and hard-working means there’s not much room at the top. From what I extrapolated, it’s a constant battle for a seat in the boat. For my purposes, I will assume that although the team is crazy fast, constantly having so much tension between individuals can detract from group performance. At the same time, it keeps the top end of the team on their toes. The fastest athletes are constantly grinding to keep their seat, which makes for a fast V8.
Lastly, I really do believe that the OSU coaching staff does a considerable amount to set the program apart. Andy Teitelbaum has been the coach at OSU since the program began 1995 (more on him here). I haven’t delved into the complete history of their program, but until the mid-2010s, they were just pretty good. It takes a mindset-shift for the athletes, but it also takes a receptive coach to adapt, try new training plans and hone their coaching methods to make a great program. Many members of the coaching staff have left OSU and gone on to cultivate other programs to reach a similar level.
It was crazy to get an inside look at what it’s like to be an Ohio State Rower. College athletes are so stuck in their little bubble of experience. Rivalries run deep. It’s easy to demonize a group of people for their allegiances. If I learned anything from my time in Colombus, it’s that there isn’t a silver bullet that makes team A faster than boat B. Focused, hard work makes fast boats. Period.