The Agony of Victory
The sky holds no hint of sunrise, but inside ARC Gym No.1, 17 rowing machines hum and whir like the rhythmic breathing of a sleeping giant. Sweating and red from exertion, the men pull steadily; when the set is over, one of them gets up and walks, weaving on rubbery legs to the wall, where he leans, gasping to recover.
Welcome to Illinois Rowing, the club team that resembles a varsity one. While the group previously was known as “a drinking team that occasionally rowed,” according to assistant coach Bill Grier, these days, the athletes—both men and women—train more than an hour every day, always at dawn, with extra workouts required several times a week on their own.
Despite the lack of a boathouse, compensated coaching staff or easy access to water, the University of Illinois team competes in regattas from coast to coast, vying against varsity teams—all of which have newer shells, paid coaches, a full-fledged boathouse and travel budget—as well as club teams from other schools. “Year by year we have stepped up our expectations,” says head coach and UI graduate student Erik Kroeker, MS ’09 ENG. “We went from being a team everyone knew they could beat to being the team others wanted to be like.”
That success means the Illini rowers need better equipment and facilities to keep at the top of their game. “We operate as much as a varsity program as possible,” says Grier, who, like Kroeker, is a UI graduate student. That means the club competes in eight or 10 regattas per year, including the San Diego Crew Classic and Head of the Charles, in Cambridge, Mass. In addition, the group hosts an annual regatta at nearby Clinton Lake; this year’s event is set for April 18.
Their hard work has paid off. Last year, the UI men took the state championship for club teams, with the women coming in second overall, and the women’s novice 4+ group was club team national champion two of the past three years. Despite their accomplishments, challenges remain. Through the generosity of alumni and family, the team has met one of its goals already—the purchase of two new eight-person shells (one for the women and one for the men) at a cost of $35,000 each, but all of the other equipment is used, including one shell older than many of the rowers. The group now is seeking funds for an actual boathouse to store equipment out of the weather.
As the team meets one goal after another, Kroeker has discovered a paradox: The harder he pushes the team, the more people want to join. With 55 current members, rowing is one of the largest club sports on campus. What engenders such devotion and commitment?
“You can’t row an eight-person shell yourself,” Kroeker is fond of saying. “You end up building a really strong connection. You put yourself through hell, at the limits. It’s a very rare feeling.”
All that pain and agony result in a powerful Illinois experience. And it’s worth it for memories like those held by team member Liz Diamond, a UI junior. She recalls her first regatta, where the boats started in a staggered pattern, racing against the clock.
“The one thing I distinctly remember,” she says, “was we caught Nebraska, and I heard their coxswain call for a power 10 [to gain on us]. Our coxswain looked me in the eye, and she said, ‘We don’t need a power 10.’”
And with that, the Illinois team swept past the Nebraska boat.