by Ben O’Grady
There’s a wide range of rowing programs to pick from and if you’re a junior athlete looking to row in college, you might ask yourself, what type of program is right for you? For this article, I want to do a compare and contrast of the various program types and add in a little of my personal experience.
I rowed for three halcyon years for the club team at the University of Florida and remember it fondly. I have a Dad Vails medal that has a very special place on my mantle. I can definitely say I had an incredibly positive and valuable experience rowing for a club.
I’ll be the first to admit, I wasn’t cut out to row at any level other than club. I didn’t love training back then and I had no idea what I was doing in the gym. I was into the social aspects of attending a big state University and I balanced a lot of other extracurriculars with rowing. Club rowing was a good fit for me.
Clubs are student run and can be a excellent proving ground for someone who’s business minded. You can get into a leadership position and help organize and run the team, including at the level where you’re managing a budget. I was on our board for two years and developed a lot of practical skills that I use in my professional life. If you’re interested in management and business, rowing for a club can be like a multi-year internship with invaluable experience. I graduated 15 years ago and I can clearly trace my business skills to those early days helping to manage UF rowing.
There are definite cons to club rowing. A lot of clubs at the college level aren’t competitive, and by not competitive, I mean they lose races and the rowing quality isn’t very good. The coaches might be inexperienced or leave after just a year or two, which creates consistency problems. Some clubs have little to no facilities and boats might be old or poorly maintained.
There are some clubs throughout the country that are excellent, well funded, and run almost like a varsity program. On the men’s side, Michigan and Virginia come to mind. On the women’s side, Grand Valley State is a good example of a well run and competitive club. These upper tier rowing clubs also have varsity-like training programs and are just as competitive as their varsity brethren.
Rowing at a varsity level is a different beast, on both the men’s and women’s sides. Expect more training, with more intense and sophisticated practices. Expect to spend a lot of time in the gym and on the erg. Your erg volume might double or even triple from what you did in high school.
At the varsity level, I’d say it’s a requirement to love training and to love training on land. If you’re a serious gym rat, even better. Division I programs are allowed 20 hours per week of practice time in-season and you can bet they will use every second of that.
If you hate the erg, I mean really hate it (no ones loves it), you’re going to have a tough time at a varsity program. The erg is a fact of life. I remember assigning erg workouts that were between 1.5 to 2 hours long and I remember thinking to myself, “There’s no way I’d do this workout.”
Varsity coaches have distinct personalities and run their programs using a specific system. Every varsity program has a unique flavor. I can’t stress this enough: FIND OUT about the culture and the system the program uses. Find out what the flavor is before you commit to the team and enroll at the university. I’ve seen many a frosh rower join a team and realize after a year their personality doesn’t mesh with the persona of the team. The unfortunate part is a lot of athletes quit because they don’t realize what they got themselves into.
I’ve seen rowers walk away from athletic scholarships because they couldn’t handle the volume or the competition or any of a dozen other reasons. Varsity rowing is mega tough and you’ve got to be a good fit. You’ve got to love it and thrive in that environment.
Some other pros about varsity rowing is that most of the big programs have excellent sports training staff and a lot of resources for keeping athletes healthy. I’ve seen sports medicine facilities at some big DI schools that would make an NFL team envious. This is important because when you’re pushing your volume to the very edge, you have to have a lot of help to stay on the water.
Rowing at the Division II or III level are mostly women’s programs, with some men’s programs included. Florida Tech is a good example (I coached there for two years), where we followed Division II rules about playing seasons and practice time, while also competing in the SIRA and Dad Vail leagues.
At the Division II level there are athletic scholarships, but it’s less common to find a full athletic scholarship. Many coaches divvy up the their allotment of scholarships into smaller parcels and reward multiple athletes. The focus at the D2 level is a balance between academics and athletics.
At the Division III level there are no athletically related scholarships and the focus is squarely on academics.
It’s important to note at the DII/III levels, there are shorter seasons and thus less practice time than Division I. DII/III programs are every bit as competitive and rigorous in training as their Division I counterparts, so don’t fool yourself into thinking it’s an “easier” or less competitive situation. Also, DII/III schools are usually smaller and might not have the same level of facilities as a DI program. Be sure to ask about the training staff, the athletic facilities, and what resources are available.
Thinking about rowing in college? Make an honest assessment of your personality and goals and research thoroughly the programs you’re looking at.