This story is part of The Sun’s 2017 spring supplement. To view the rest of the supplement, click here.
Building toward races against the nation’s best at the 2017 IRA Grand Finals, the Cornell rowing program has shown that having highly disciplined workers and physically prepared boats regularly leads to success in its spring cup races.
With the Red heavyweights sweeping the Quakers and the lightweights capping off their undefeated cup season with a sweep of Dartmouth last weekend, both teams’ immense training investments have begun to pay race-day dividends. But as history has shown, simply maintaining a relentless training effort does not guarantee gold medal wins and eventual success at the annual Eastern Sprints and IRA events.
Keeping in mind that taller athletes have a direct mechanical advantage over shorter ones in the sport of rowing, recruiting technically-talented, fast and tall athletes during the team’s recruiting process is one of the most important and necessary steps in finding gold for either team. While bringing in talented recruiting classes is a challenge for almost every collegiate rowing coach, it is one critical aspect of the Red’s rowing program that coaches especially hope to continue to improve and bolster in the coming years.
In past years, the Red — like many programs throughout the country — has consistently relied on walk-on athletes to grow within the program and compete at the varsity level by their final year. The process of transforming walk-on students into successful collegiate rowers has become harder in regard to the ever-increasing technical
aspects and requirements of the sport. Requiring much more than four years of hard conditioning on an erg machine to compete with the fastest boats in the nation, recruits are now expected to have significant in-boat and race experience prior to arriving at Cornell.
“We no longer can rely on walk-on talent,” said program director and heavyweight head coach Todd Kennett ’91. “When I was a student, three quarters of the rowers were walk-ons. Today, the speed of the boats is getting so fast that the majority of walk-on athletes just do not have the time to learn the skill in order to compete with recruits who may have been rowing for years.”
Since Kennett himself was a walk-on to the Cornell heavyweight team during his college years, his comments surrounding the future of recruiting reveal that the recruiting process within the ancient sport is bound for change.
Additionally, when noting the ways in which the Red intends to further build and support better recruiting classes that overarch the entire rowing program, Kennett stressed the important role of alumni. The current boathouse costs around $10 million, much of which came from the program’s alumni and friends.
“Alumni relations are so vital to rowing because of the support they give our program,” he said. “The alumni realize how amazing an experience rowing is, and Cornell rowing today strives to continue to provide the opportunity for athletes to succeed and be the best they can — in and out of the classroom, on and off the water.”
Heavyweight captain Joel Cooper echoed his coach’s comments about the importance of recruiting, adding that he thinks the program will never sacrifice what he believes are the most critical aspects to a recruit’s eventual success compared simply to a recruits overall height.
“The most important aspect in building a successful program is the team culture and work ethic,” Cooper said. “If all members of the team are committed to driving themselves and those around them to the highest possible level each day, then the standard of the group will continually rise.”
“We of course look at athletic ability and height potential, but also how we see that person fitting in with and contributing to our team atmosphere,” he added. “That way we can ensure that our culture is fostered from year to year helping develop long term success.”
Cooper — an alumnus of the Abingdon School and multiple medal winner for Great Britain’s junior national team — is a prime example of the where many future, and perhaps more mechanically advantaged rowers, will also come from for the Red: overseas. Already recruiting athletes from locations like New Zealand, Turkey and Great Britain, the Red could very well follow in suit of programs like Harvard and Yale and recruit the majority of its classes from around the globe.
Cooper assured that regardless of recruiting class, the Red has every intention of continuing to put in the training necessary to survive the lactic pain of a 2k race and bring back some gold to Ithaca.
“One of major themes for the entire year that we have continued into the spring is making sure we are the fittest team out there.” Cooper said. “We have been pushing ourselves to get as many meters a week as possible in order to develop that extra level of fitness to go to in the last section of the race if need be.”
With practices on Cayuga Lake hours before most Cornell students reach for their snooze buttons, as well as erg sessions that make even former Rio Olympian and current assistant coach Alex Karwoski sweat profusely, the commitment and skill level required for both future recruits and current members of the heavyweight and lightweight crews at Cornell has never been higher.