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Washington awash with talent

By John Powers
Globe Staff / October 16, 2009

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Washington picked its men’s eight for the Head of the Charles the way it always does - by letting the oarsmen do it themselves. Everyone took the water in pairs at daybreak Tuesday at Montlake Cut for a 6,000-meter race, with the top four getting tickets to Boston.

“We’re leaving some very talented guys at home,’’ says coach Michael Callahan, whose varsity-of-the-moment will be bidding to become the first college crew to win consecutive championships here since Navy earned its fourth straight in 1983.

That’s how the Husky meritocracy works - mobility through hard work - and it’s how Washington won here last year then went on to sweep the varsity, JV, and freshman races at the Intercollegiate Rowing Association national championships in June. Depth and daily competition produce quality.

“It’s always been a source of pride that the 4th V guy pushes the 3d V guy, all the way up the ladder,’’ Callahan says.

Even the coxswains go at it. “Everyone pushes each other to be on their ‘A’ game every day,’’ says Michelle Darby, a junior from North Andover who’ll be at the tiller on Sunday afternoon when the Huskies take on the German world champions, the French national boat, a US entry, and several British eights, as well as many of the country’s top college crews.

There are no guarantees around Conibear Shellhouse but Darby, who coxed last season’s JV boat, is in line to inherit a seat that has produced Olympic and world champions. Mary Whipple, a 2002 graduate, coxed the US women to Olympic gold and silver medals at the last two Games. And Katelin Snyder, who coxed last year’s Husky varsity, steered the Americans to their third straight title at the August world championships in Poland.

Since she’s been on campus, Darby, who coxed Phillips Andover to victory at Henley, has boned up on the school’s rich history afloat - the 1936 varsity that stormed out of fifth place to win the Olympic gold medal in Berlin and the 13 IRA crowns, two of them in the last three years.

Long before there were Mariners and Seahawks and before the football team won a Rose Bowl, Washington crew set a gold standard in Seattle. Last Saturday, the four IRA champion boats were honored at halftime of the home game with Arizona, bringing their oars onto the gridiron as 60,000 people watched a HuskyTron video of the boat’s massive late push that nipped favored California.

“Sometimes crew operates in the background,’’ says Callahan, “but people enjoy watching rowing here and they value it.’’

Both the school’s scenic setting and the program’s longstanding prominence lure oarsmen from around the planet to Washington. “The Internet is a wonderful thing,’’ says Callahan, whose roster includes folks from New Zealand, Germany, Australia, Croatia, and Serbia, as well as homegrowns from places such as Kirkland, Vashon, and Redmond, plus a bunch of Canadians.

“We’re close to home for them,’’ says Callahan, who had five men from north of the nearby border on last year’s varsity. “When they come here, they know it’s a different country, but it doesn’t feel that much different from Vancouver or Victoria.’’

Even in a day when most of the country’s top programs recruit talent from international junior teams, Washington’s assemblage is markedly diverse. “I don’t think of them as foreigners,’’ says Max Weaver, who comes from nearby Snohomish. “I just think of them as teammates. What really matters is that we’re all Huskies.’’

Once they step into a shell, their résumés don’t matter. The program may be stocked with guys who’ve won medals at world regattas and are Olympics-bound, but there are no reserved seats. “It comes down to who makes the boat go fast,’’ says Callahan.

The way the Huskies find out is to have everyone pair up and race and see who wins. “If you want to be in the top two boats, you’d better be in the top 10 pairs,’’ the coach says. “It teaches self-reliance and responsibility for themselves.’’

Since the Head of the Charles comes fewer than three weeks after classes start, the competition starts immediately. “The Head gives people a sense of urgency right away,’’ says Callahan, who says that the trip east “is the biggest reward we can put out there. It jump-starts the effort and the excitement for the year.’’

It also gives oarsmen an incentive to work diligently during the summer to get an edge on their competitor-colleagues. That’s why Weaver, who rowed on the third boat last season, rowed with Ty Otto from the JV at a pairs camp. They returned to campus in top form and finished fourth in the Tuesday race to grab the last two seats for Boston.

“There’s a lot of pressure from the bottom,’’ says Weaver, who earned himself a place in the varsity four that finished second at the IRAs. “There’s always someone reaching for your seat.’’

Even though Washington last year was the only collegiate crew other than Princeton to win the Head in a quarter-century, half of the members didn’t make the varsity last spring. They received a warm homecoming (“It was really inspiring,’’ says Darby. “They were an amazing group of guys.’’), but they immediately broke down into pairs again and began working toward April.

Their victory here didn’t mean anything after UW finished third behind Cal and Stanford in the Pac-10 championships and went to the IRAs as a decided underdog. But the varsity pulled off a stunning triumph, walking through both of their old rivals in the final couple of dozen strokes to win by less than a second. “There’s nothing to describe that,’’ says Callahan. “The guys showed a lot of heart. They kept believing in themselves. They just kept on the task.’’

The victory capped a wondrous weekend for the Huskies, who produced the first three-boat sweep at the regatta since they did it in 1997 and also won the open four. Five races, five medals. That was Washington rowing, the tradition of depth producing quality. There have been 14 sweeps in IRA annals. The Huskies have half of them.

Now comes a more daunting task, returning as defending Head champions with the No. 1 bow position and the chance to do what Navy did in a decidedly less competitive era.

“It would be unbelievable,’’ says Callahan, who has only two men back from last year’s lineup and three sophomores in the stern four.

The Germans, French, Brits, and their fellow Americans are loaded with global experience, but the Huskies are eager to see who can handle 3 miles along a twisting course on one October afternoon.

“We’re just excited to step forward and take the challenge,’’ says Weaver. “It’s amazing to be able to race against such great athletes and we’re just thankful for the opportunity.’’

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.