It is a glorious summer morning in Ann Arbor. The sun paints streaky shadows over the two-mile stretch of the Huron River formed by the local Argo dam. Everything feels as lazy and tranquil as a picnic. But suddenly a loud “pop!” pierces the air, and an attendant rush of water splashes in all directions. The student-athletes of the national champion University of Michigan rowing team have just dropped their eight- and four-man crew shells into the water. There are looks of determination as the young men climb aboard their boats and prepare for a workout that will redefine the level of pain their bodies can endure.
Moments earlier, the team stood inside the university boathouse some 200 feet from the river, surrounding their coach, Gregg Hartsuff.
Their sleek vessels—from smaller singles to 60-foot shells that seat eight—hang on giant mounting rack posts in the boathouse. Hartsuff discusses the grueling physical nature of the team’s exhaustive training regimen. This particular morning, the guys will go through 10 agonizing 300-meter sprints. “The goal is to be pushing your neurologic limits,” says Hartsuff. “There should be some [physical] failure on this one.”
These dominant Michigan Wolverines have won an unprecedented five American Collegiate Rowing Association (ACRA) championships in a row. When you enter the boathouse, you see the words “Those Who Stay Will Be Champions” painted on the wall in the school’s iconic maize and blue colors. And true to its legendary work ethic, this team is ready to do its part to back up that statement.
This is a special training session for these 12 rowing men and two female coxswains. For the first time, the team will participate in England’s famed Royal Henley Regatta—a historic international competition dating back to 1839 that includes only the best in the world.
This team’s success has been built on strength and teamwork. That ethic extends from the coaching staff and its 67 athletes to what is undeniably the strongest member of the squad—the muscular Ford F-250 that sits outside the boathouse. On regatta weekends, this truck will tow as many as twenty 60-foot shells to top-flight competitions as far south as Tampa and as far west as San Diego. It’s a load that can weigh up to 6,000 pounds and stretch nearly 75 feet from the truck’s Super Duty grille guard to the back end of the farthest shell.
“You’re logging almost 20,000 miles this year, driving a load that’s worth $250,000, and it can end our season if things go wrong,” says Hartsuff. “The main challenge is wind. I’ve seen a wind blow trailers over. But we can go 60 or 70 mph in 30- to 40-mph winds. It can be dangerous, but this truck has always performed.”
According to Hartsuff, the truck is the perfect complement to the workaholic men’s crew team and brings its own power and precision to the winning formula. “It’s got a 6.7-liter V-8 diesel engine,” he says. “It’s just strong as hell.”
You get the same impression watching Hartsuff’s driven athletes. When the “eight” and the “four” crews are in the water, you can see their muscles burning in the grueling workout. The athletes are spurred on by the coxswains who call precise rowing commands from up front, pushing the men to sprint through the river in a dynamically choreographed rush. Much like the slogan of the truck they rely on, this team owns work—and they like it.
DEFINED BY DEDICATION
In Michigan, they understand hard work. This is the home office of Big Ten football and the American auto industry. Still, the commitment of this rowing team stands out. This is a “club” squad, meaning there are no athletic scholarships. The kids are walk-ons who pay an annual fee of about $2,500 for the privilege of pulling an oar.
The advantage of being part of a pay-to-play, all-volunteer group is that it fosters the qualities you need in a team: reliability and dedication. These are not spoiled kids. They’re breaking their backs because they want to.
Hartsuff demands 600 minutes of rowing each week. Riley Hall, a four-year veteran who has been a part of this championship team throughout his collegiate career, estimates he rowed about 1 million meters on ergometer machines last winter alone. “Every stroke’s going to hurt just as much as the last one,” he says. “But you do it not only for the guys in your boat but for the ‘M’ on your back.”
Adds teammate Nate Bohn: “We love pushing ourselves every day. This is our fraternity. Instead of drinking five nights a week, we practice and we sweat…and sometimes bleed together. It’s just a different outlet.”
It’s also a smart response to the academic pressures of a demanding institution. More than 70% of the team consists of engineering students, and the team’s average GPA last year was an impressive 3.37.
“You use rowing to alleviate the stress of school and school to alleviate the stress of rowing,” says club student president Stephen Lanham. “The team attracts driven people.”
THE STRENGTH TO SUCCEED
In an eight, each member of the crew requires a unique individual skill and responsibility that must be integrated into the overall needs of the rest of the team.
The powerful middle rowers make up the “engine room,” and the stroke seat that faces the coxswain is saved for someone who is best able to translate the correct stroke movement to everyone else. The rowers in the rear are relied on to keep the craft on track. Everyone shares a common perspective and trust, which Hartsuff feels is rowing at its best. “In basketball, if a guy on your team gets injured, you plug somebody else in there,” he says. “In our situation it can be disastrous. You’re so directly accountable to everybody else.”
That accountability was tested early last season. “We lost a race to Grand Valley State, in a shocking manner—by six seconds,” recalls Hartsuff. “That was an eye-opening situation for the guys. Sometimes you get into this cycle of success; you start to just assume things will happen. As a coach you preach against these things, and to their credit, the guys turned it around. We learned by losing.”
That drive to succeed is also what drove Hall to hang a galling second-place medal on his erg machine last winter. He’d stare at it as he trained, “trying to knock [my time] down one more split second.” It’s also what keeps coxswain April Leversee so focused at the start of every race. “It’s the most intense time,” she says, “when you’re all lined up, and the announcer begins his countdown. Everything is silent, and I’m ready to focus the crew on what they need to win.”
This morning, focus is at a maximum. At one point, Hartsuff asks the team for only a medium effort. “Can we do it quicker?” one asks. After a sprint, another crew member pleads for “one more.” What he’s saying, in essence, is “bring it on.”
The workout lasts a grueling hour and a half, and the spent athletes return to shore, carrying their shells. Some are brought to the boathouse while the others are loaded onto the trailer behind the F-250 workhorse, which sits ready to pull the weight. The U of M crew is ready for their next competition—or they will be, once they get those last strokes in, working one for all, and all for one.
“The friendships here create trust you can’t gain anywhere else,” says Louis Schaljo, the lone junior on the eight-squad. “We have our priorities: School. Family. Friends. Rowing.”
This article originally appeared in My Ford Magazine. Story by: Robert Edelstein. Photography by: Bridget Barrett