A New Tradition
April 23, 2007
Women's rowing may be the youngest sport on the Big Ten block, but that does not mean it lacks tradition.
The women's crew at Wisconsin has been going strong since the 1890's and has been successful at a national level since before the program became modernized in 1972.
In those 35 years, the program has produced 14 Olympians, 21 national team members and 14 national title-winning boats.
However, when the Big Ten and NCAA first began sponsoring championships in the sport in 2000, the Badgers finished fourth in the conference and were not among the three conference teams to receive national bids.
Wisconsin climbed back into the national ranks in 2004, finishing second at the conference championships and earning the program's first-ever NCAA selection.
But after that season, the Badgers made a change and brought in then-Michigan State head coach Bebe Bryans to take the reigns, challenging her with the task of keeping the team among the nation's elite.
"It's funny because the first meeting that we had with the team when I was the head coach was in the summer, so it was pretty informal," Bryans said. "The first question they asked us was, `How long will it take to get back to the national championship?" And I said, `Nine months.' The goal was to take all the good things they already had going for them and build on them."
And Bryans did build on them as she led the Badgers back to the NCAAs in both years she has been at Wisconsin.
Maintaining that high level of success has not been an easy task as the sport continues to mature and the level of competition within the conference has grown greatly.
"It's such a great conference," Bryans said. "If you can be competitive in the Big Ten, you know you can be competitive nationally, and that's the reality of our conference now. It's a big change from a couple of years ago where we'd only get one or two bids, and now we're getting three to four. We're really deserving of all we get, and even more."
When Wisconsin hosts the Big Ten Rowing Championships on April 28, Bryans will be able to get a first-hand look at just how much the conference as a whole has improved.
The head coach at Michigan State when the first conference championships were held in Madison in 2000, Bryans feels that Wisconsin playing host again this year signifies the turning of a new tide in Big Ten women's rowing.
"Wisconsin hosted the first championships, so it has come full-circle now," Bryans said. "I was here as a visiting coach for the first one, and just to see how far the conference has come, with all the teams in our league, how much stronger we are now, and how much parity there is - it's the beginning of a whole new era. It's like we're starting all over again; starting in on the next cycle. To be the host, I'm really proud."
For Bryans, one of the main reasons the conference has been able to improve is because even though many things have changed, the coaching staffs, for the most part, have not.
"We've had a very stable coaching group," Bryans said. "We've had two teams added in Indiana and Minnesota, and those coaches are pretty stable. I'm really the only other one that left, and I just moved over and my assistant moved up."
Bryans also feels that because the Big Ten has had such success in its many other sports, it is only logical that rowing would be no different.
"We've got great universities, great campuses and great sports legacies. It only makes sense that the rowing teams would be good, too," Bryans said.
Included on that long list of legacies is the Wisconsin women's rowing program - both the one that was there before Bryans and the one that she is working to build.
A large part of the rowing tradition at Wisconsin is the Midwest Rowing Championships, an event that once was similar to a conference championship before the Big Ten sponsored the sport.
"Before the Big Ten Championships started, [the Midwest Rowing Championship] was the biggest championship event in the Midwest," Bryans said. "A lot of colleges came to the Midwest Championships to race. It was a big event - a big regatta - but, when the Big Ten Championships started, all the Big Ten schools pulled out because of the timing."
The Midwest Rowing Championships still live on as a major tradition at Wisconsin, but now feature more club teams, small colleges and high schools in addition to the Badger men's and women's programs.
The tradition of Wisconsin women's rowing will be more evident than ever at this year's Big Ten Championships when the program will welcome back more than 200 alumni from as far away as Hawaii for a celebration commemorating 35 years of Wisconsin women's rowing.
"It's huge," Bryans says of the importance of the reunion. "So much has changed, and yet the spirit of what the program is remains the same.
"Wisconsin women's rowing goes so far back. We use that as a point of pride and a point of strength for the current team. To have the alumni come back and see the new traditions we've created is a great way to link the past and the present."
Just as the Badgers have a robust history to look back on, they also have an awful lot to look forward to.
Looking to win their first-ever Big Ten Championship and make their fourth-consecutive trip to the NCAAs, Wisconsin's roster includes a strong core of veteran leadership mixed in with a crop of talented underclassmen - including last year's Big Ten Freshman of the Year, Sarah Wrenshall.
The program's first individual conference award winner, Wrenshall didn't dwell on the honor as a personal achievement but used it as an inspirational tool to encourage her team to continue performing at a high level.
"She took it totally in stride," Bryans said. "She's very proud of it, but she didn't rest on it, and it made her have a fire to excel this year as well.
"We don't look at (individual awards) all that much. We're proud when we get them, but our goal is to be as fast as we can be across the board. We have 150 women rowing, and we're really proud of that. Our No. 1 goal as a program is, from the second novice eight to the first varsity eight, to take care of everybody and have high expectations of each person involved."
In order to help her boats achieve their maximum potential, Bryans focuses her efforts on helping each individual athlete perform to the best of her own ability - not just as a rower, but as a complete person.
"I just want to help people be as good as they can possibly be as a student, person and athlete," Bryans said. "I want to help them take off limits, get rid of pre-conceived notions and see what they can do. My philosophy as a coach is to help them do it.
"When I'm long gone, hopefully my legacy will be that my crews performed better than anyone thought they would - including themselves."
Bryans also sees importance of helping her current teams carve out their own places in Wisconsin rowing history.
"I want for them to take ownership of their part in the program," Bryans said. "While we talk about the past and we honor it, we really stay in the present. We have a lot of things that our team does together. Some of those traditions have been around longer while a lot of them have changed."
So, come April 28, when the Wisconsin women's rowing alumni step onto the shores of Lake Wingra to cheer on the Badgers at the Big Ten Championships, they are sure to see several things that have changed since they donned the Cardinal and White. But, through the traditions that the program carries, they will always remain part of the team.