Interim women’s rowing head coach Barney Williams’ crew has closed the gap on each of its Ivy League opponents this season. After a few down years, he said his program is beginning to reinvent itself as an elite squad.
“It’s just moved away from what I think at one point may have been a misguided [idea] that Cornell’s great because they have free chocolate milk,” he said.
‘Push, decide, respect’
Williams, a former Canadian men’s national team coach and 2004 Olympian, came to East Hill in the fall looking to grow personally. He became interim coach after Liz Dennison stepped into an associate director role.
In taking on a new challenge, Williams has also seen a team culture reimagined.
“I came here to become the best version of myself, to grow,” Williams said. “I almost described to people as coming here to reinvent myself having had a significant tenure at the national [level].”
Assistant coaches Paula Thoms, the team’s director of development, and Steph Chivers, the recruitment director, said the team is a place where athletes seek the “best version of themselves.”
When he arrived at Cornell on August 22 — the same day his athletes came to campus — Williams spent a week observing the team environment before jumping in and making any changes. He soon realized his philosophy aligned perfectly with his athletes’.
Prior to the season, the athletes developed a team charter designed to guide and develop a team identity. It boiled down to three words: push, decide, respect.
“I was, through the [first] week, preparing my opening remarks, and just thinking about my opportunity to share some of my perspectives and most importantly try to create a real sense of excitement … for this season,” Williams said. “And I went through my opening remarks after, and I realized how many times I used the words push, decide and respect. So it really almost felt like a match made in heaven.”
And Cornell women’s rowing has seen results — the Red has closed the time gaps on each of its Ivy League foes and benefitted from having its developmental period coincide with a time of change in the powerhouse conference. Dartmouth and Columbia also have new head coaches this season, and the Ivy League is as competitive as ever — there are five Ivy teams in the national top-20.
“We feel we had the most opportunity to grow of any program out there because there was this perception out there that maybe we weren’t competitive,” Williams said. “So I feel like half the battle was just getting that mindset of wanting to compete and wanting to push.”
Freshman Madeline Franck, a member of the V8+ crew, said the successful team dynamic has been built on trust — Williams trusts his athletes, allowing them to trust him.
“It’s just gaining confidence on the water and gaining confidence and trust in each of the boats and just really not being afraid to … red line the piece,” Franck said. “Just go all out and not hold anything back, put it out there and trust the training we’ve done.”
Thoms said the charter has shaped the team’s success.
“Those three words [from the] end of August, beginning of September have defined our team culture in everything they do and say in and out of the boathouse,” Thoms said. “And to have those core values all together have really transformed the culture.”
‘Crunchy granola feel’
The type of recruiting Cornell women’s rowing has done has changed in recent years as the squad looks to get back on the national radar. Williams said high school recruits help the current team.
“[Recruits have] been very high-quality people and actually quite talented,” he said. “So what it’s done is given the current squad a sense of excitement that things are moving in the right direction … that talented and very high-caliber student athletes want to be part of what they are building.”
Chivers said she seeks out gritty athletes passionate about Cornell and primed for an experience different than they’d find at other Ivy League schools.
“There’s definitely a crunchy granola feel here, more than other places,” she said of the vibe in Ithaca. “I was actually joking with some people who were visiting where there’s definitely more dreadlocks and piercings here than maybe Hanover.”
Williams has seen people come to Cornell for more than just the free chocolate milk. Athletes join Cornell’s men’s lightweight and heavyweight teams to win championships and contend for medals, a culture Williams said the women’s team has had in the past — and one it’s looking to recapture.
“People are not looking to come to Cornell because it’s plan B or a soft landing in terms of an Ivy experience,” he said. “This is going to be an elite experience academically and athletically.”
Franck said she felt right at home when she visited Cornell as a high school senior.
“The team was really welcoming from the beginning,” she said. “It was a hard transition also with the expectations of a different coach … I personally felt like I adjusted quickly to it.”
The blue-collar Ivy mindset has manifested itself for Williams and his staff, who seek out “gritty and resilient” rowers.
“It’s a unique experience to come to Cornell,” he said. “But it isn’t going to be the Harvard, Princeton, Yale exercise … we’re not looking for that same type of person.”
Behind much of the Red’s recruiting philosophy is Chivers, who has changed the type of student the team is looking for. She spent five years leading recruiting at George Washington University and has a master’s in sports psychology from Ithaca College.
“She’s got a much more nuanced approach to recruiting, which is we’re going to vet people, we’re going to find out what their character is like,” Williams said. “It’s not just going to be a case of their erg score or their physicality.”
“I think Cornell specifically attracts a different grittiness of people who just really like to work hard and like to challenge themselves versus maybe some other schools,” Chivers said. “It’s definitely a unique student that really finds that Cornell is the best opportunity for them.”
‘The blade moves the boat’
Williams has led the development of a “Cornell Stroke” that his team has employed this season. He said the new approach comes from taking advantage of his student athletes’ understanding of how rowing works.
“It’s just this idea that the blade moves the boat,” he said. “There was … the opportunity to educate and really help athletes understand how the blade interacts with the water, so we’ve just really gone after that, we’ve got an incredibly intelligent student athlete sitting in front of us every day, and they’re very capable of this type of dialogue around the mechanics [and] the physics.”
The new stroke isn’t exactly revolutionary — but by developing an understanding about how to move the boat, Williams is changing his squad’s mental approach.
“The touch that we’re putting on it is we’re going to be aggressive,” Williams said. “We’re going to have a very aggressive, dynamic, powerful rhythm and it’s going to be noticeable. People are going to look out and identify Cornell’s rowing as being a driven, aggressive … style and there’s a grit to it, there’s a toughness to it.”
The new approach has seen results this season, after a seventh-place Ivy finish last year. The Red has beaten Harvard, Penn and Columbia in different races this season.
The team culture has also become one of intense, focused strength, with conditioning efforts spearheaded by Thoms. She said she focuses on five “pillars”: strength and conditioning, nutrition, mental performance, wellness and freshman integration.
“We have a training plan that Barney and the whole coaching staff have come up with and I would say our training rhythm from week to week is very consistent, maybe more consistent than in past years, and there’s been an increase in volume as well,” Thoms said.
If physics lessons from their new coach weren’t enough, rowers have learned about stretching and cardiovascular health, too.
“The heart is the biggest muscle in the body, so we needed to train the heart,” Williams said. “The way we did that was just to push a significant increase in volume and intensity. It was a simple exercise with regards to more and better training with a bit more sense of purpose and understanding of why we’re doing what we’re doing.”
In addition to the physical changes, Williams has brought a newfound sense of energy to his team — the Red is primed to mount a return to national prominence after a few down years.
“In recent history it hasn’t really been that long since the team was at NCAAs and really successful, it’s only been three or four years,” Chivers said. “So there is a pretty close connection to that path … That connection is still very much alive, the standard of excellence.”
Behind the creation of a renowned sense of optimism about the crew is Williams, the former Olympic silver medalist.
“[Williams] is very energetic and he puts his heart and soul into everything he does, which can sometimes be exhausting,” Chivers joked. “His passion and enthusiasm [is] really contagious. We’re feeding off of it, the athletes are feeding off of it. He has relentless energy, I don’t know where it comes from. It’s been transformative for the team.”
All the team’s work will culminate next weekend at the Ivy Championships, which promises to showcase the Red’s newfound competitiveness.
“The top end continues to be very high, but the bottom of the Ivy League continues to close the gap,” Williams said. “It’s truly … shaping up hopefully to be the most competitive Ivy championships in recent history.”
In Camden, New Jersey, on May 13, the year of growth will be put to the test. But Williams said his team doesn’t need any validation — revenge isn’t the mindset heading into the races.
“Every single day of training has been designed to set the athletes up for success on May 13,” the coach said. “The beauty of that approach is whatever they’ve achieved up to this point is just an indication of what is possible … the best is yet to come.”