Riley Ford ’11 rowed with the Yale lightweight crew team last fall, but he was not with the team Monday when Yale’s crews practiced for the first time this spring at the Gilder Boathouse in Derby, Conn.
“I finished out the fall season and loved it, but there were a lot of other things that I wanted to try out while I was here,” Ford said.
But he did not know how badly he would miss the sport when he quit last semester, Ford said. Now, he and former heavyweight coxswain Austin Baik ’11 want to be on the water again — only this time, not in a varsity boat.
The two are in the preliminary stages of creating a club crew team that would allow students to row without having to make the 25-hour-a-week commitment the varsity team requires, but they may have to battle some rough wake in the process. In addition to finding a practice location and obtaining expensive equipment, the club team would need to sign up former rowers to actually field a boat.
But reaction from current and former varsity team members — part of the pool of talent the club team would draw on — has been mixed, with some oarsmen concerned that a club team would drain the varsity program of experienced athletes.
After experiencing life without rowing this semester, Ford said he wanted some way to pick the sport up again. A dinner discussion with former rowers who shared his desire to row without a varsity-level time commitment spawned the idea for a club team.
“Within the group that we have right now, there are about three or four other guys,” Ford said. “These are really just people who really enjoy rowing but didn’t have time for it or wanted to do other things.”
Ford said athletes, particularly walk-ons, find it difficult to commit to the rigorous schedule varsity crew demands. Rowers on Yale’s varsity crew teams rise for lifts each morning at five in the morning and spend three hours in the afternoon practicing at the boathouse in Derby, a 20-minute drive from campus.
That intense schedule limits the opportunity to participate in other activities, Ford said. But Jennifer Hansen ’08, women’s varsity crew captain, said team members can — and do — balance crew with other activities. Afternoon team practices can limit the choice of activities, she admitted, but varsity rowers can still find time outside their sport if they plan carefully.
“I think that it’s not hard to do in the end once you get used to juggling it and really managing your time,” she said. “We have 50 people on my team right now, and those are 50 girls that are able to do it.”
Hansen said her concern is that club crew would give athletes who know they want to row and may have otherwise persevered through the intense varsity schedule a chance to continue rowing in a more relaxed environment.
“If you give them an option that’s easier, they might choose that over the varsity squad,” she said.
But Ford said he does not want to interfere with the varsity team’s pool of potential athletes. Participants on the club team would have to meet certain specific requirements before they are eligible to row.
Anyone wishing to participate on the club team would have to have experience rowing in high school or rowing on the varsity level. If rowers quit the varsity team, they would have to abstain from rowing on the club team for a full year. Ford said these restrictions are meant to ensure that students with no prior rowing experience try the varsity squad before joining the club team.
“All of us who aren’t rowing with the varsity anymore, we all really enjoyed our time there and really respect those guys,” Ford said. “From day one, we’ve said that they are the priority, and if we even start to infringe on them a little bit, I’m going to pull the plug on the whole operation.”
Some, though not all, varsity rowers interviewed said they are skeptical of the proposed club team, which they think could harm both their numbers and the varsity program’s reputation. Last year, the women’s team won the NCAA National Championship, the men’s heavyweight team won the Yale-Harvard Regatta, and the men’s lightweight team finished fifth in the nation in the IRA Regatta.
“We have this long-standing tradition of varsity crew and a really great reputation that we worked a long time to build up,” Hansen said. “I don’t want to say [varsity athletes] don’t want to associate with the club team, but I think there is kind of a standard of excellence that we have within our teams that we’d like to uphold.”
Despite Ford’s proposed guidelines to ensure the varsity teams are unaffected, some rowers eligible under those guidelines said they think a club team could still hurt the varsity program.
Bob Casey ’10, who quit the lightweight team this year after walking on in the fall of 2006, said he thinks a club team would decrease the number of walk-ons available to the varsity teams each year. Walk-ons generally make up a significant portion of Yale’s varsity crew teams; the women’s team had almost as many walk-ons as recruits this year.
“I believe that the best place for rowing at Yale — and really the only place — is with the varsity team,” Casey wrote in an e-mail.
Still, another former walk-on, David Washer ’11, who has since quit the team, said he would enjoy participating on a club team without the major commitment to varsity.
“I really enjoyed it,” Washer said of his varsity experience. “The coaches are great, the guys are great, the team is great, but it is a huge time commitment. It got to the point where crew was going to be a full-time job, and that’s not why I came to Yale.”
Former Philips Andover Academy rower David Curtis ’11 said he refrained from walking on to the crew team when he came to Yale because he thought it would be difficult to stand out on the team. Instead, he opted to play club rugby; he said he would consider rowing on a club crew team if one existed.
Ford said he has at least four former rowers behind him, but even if support for the club team is there, launching it may not be so simple. Finding boats, other equipment and a place to practice are just some of the obstacles Ford faces.
“I don’t think they would be able to use the facilities here,” men’s heavyweight captain Jack Vogelsang ’08 said in an interview at the varsity practice and competition center at Gilder Boathouse. “I think it’s a matter of this boathouse being reserved for the varsity only.”
If the club team becomes reality, Ford said he thinks it would start with an eight-person boat that integrated men and women, heavyweight and lightweight. He also said he spoke to the chairman of the New Haven Rowing Club last week about procuring a boat and oars, but he has received no definitive answer from the Club yet.
Tom Migdalski, director of club sports, outdoor education and recreational activities, said it is too early to comment on the possible formation of a club crew team.
“It’s way too premature in the application process,” he wrote in an e-mail. “I haven’t heard back yet from the varsity crew coach. As far as our records show, club crew has not even filed the proper applications with our office.”
Women’s crew team head coach Will Porter declined to comment, and Andy Card and John Pescatore, men’s lightweight and heavyweight crew head coaches, respectively, could not be reached for comment.
Whatever the outcome of his club crew idea, Ford said he has one main concern — he just wants to row.
“If we can’t get an eight on the water, I know a few of us are probably going to get membership with the Rowing Club anyway and just row as singles this spring,” he said.
But he remains optimistic about his chances to create a club crew team for Yale.
“I think it has a lot of potential,” Ford said. “We have the numbers. The main problem is going to be money and whether or not we can cut a deal with the Rowing Club and get an eight to work with. If not, I’m not really sure where we’ll go from there, so that’s really our biggest obstacle at this point.”
That optimism remains, in spite of a lack of official support from the varsity teams.
“I think that I would probably stick to my own team and let them kind of figure it out,” Hansen said.
There are currently 45 club teams at the University. After a one-year probationary period, club teams are eligible for financial support from the Athletics Department.