The Walk-On Process: How Hilary Anderson Went From Novice to Captain

Marist College is home to one of the finest women’s rowing programs in the Northeast, boasting back-to-back MAAC Championship wins in 2019 and 2021. 

It is one of the sports that the college strategically uses to try and attain prospective students. Clips of the rowing team can be found on Marist’s homepage, as they pull their oars through the river’s currents. The Hudson River is a main selling point for the college as it is beautiful for a few months out of the year, but the subconscious placement of them on the website allows the team to draw in numerous walk-ons to the sport who have never sat in a boat a day in their lives. 

Hilary Anderson was one of those walk-ons her freshman year. Now, the novice-turned-captain has had time to reflect on her time on the crew team and her position of leadership during her last regatta-filled senior campaign. 

“When I first got here, my parents told me that Marist had a really big crew program,” Anderson recalled from her first week on campus. “They told me I should look into it and try to walk on and I thought ‘I’ll meet some new people here,’ and I did kind of miss being on a sports team.”

Anderson was an athlete in high school, participating in a little bit of everything that her school had to offer, in addition to dancing and doing theater. She walked on with several girls that have now dwindled down to four, including herself. 

The walk-on process is intimidating and intensive, but it separates the serious novices from the casual. “I don’t even know how I got through it,” Anderson said of her first week of practice. 

Learning how to row on an erg machine, spending time in large water tanks to simulate being out on a boat in the river, learning the proper form of “arms, back, legs, legs, back arms”.

“The erg is where you kind of learn the initial technique of how your body should go with the flow of your body,” Anderson said. “You want to go with your arms over and then you want to get your back in, and then you want to go up the slide [of the erg] with your legs, and then in reverse. That is exactly how you would do it in a boat.”

Anderson noted that a boat is still different, as rowers have an oar in their hands. Learning how to feather the oar with the inboard and not the outboard. Form is crucial, and there are many intricate details that can quickly become overwhelming. 

Still, Anderson and her fellow walk-on teammates stuck with it, and have since walked away with conference championships and some of the best times in their races this season. 

“The thing about their group [Anderson and the other walk-ons in the class of 2022] is that they are so close and they are so goofy,” head coach Tom Sanford said. 

Anderson agreed, noting she lives with fellow seniors Victoria Hamilton, Francesca D’Ugo, and Sophia Ledda, their closeness is a byproduct of going through the walk-on process together. 

Some may wonder how the team atmosphere changes as the crew team is essentially split between prospective athletes who have never rowed before and some who have rowed in high school. Sanford says they welcome everybody, but as a coach, it’s his ultimate responsibility to keep the team united through the growing period at the beginning of the season where the novices learn the ins and outs of rowing. 

“We tell the recruits on day one, ‘you are going to have a batch of kids who have never rowed and they don’t know how to carry a boat and you are going to want to coddle them,’” Sanford says. “‘You want to make them feel wanted and you want to make them feel loved because they are going to make your career better.’”

But sometimes, it just doesn’t work out. Crew is not a sport for everyone. If you don’t like waking up at 5 a.m. every day, or you don’t like how intensive the proper technique is in both learning and doing. Maybe Marist gets an experienced rower to walk on to its team, but it’s not the same as it was when they were in high school. That is okay by Sanford’s standards. The willing novice though, they find a way to stay. 

As Anderson reflects on her time on the crew team, and on her time at Marist, there are tons of positives. Winning MAAC championships are at the top of the list, but being a captain with an emphasis on “being a big sister” to underclassmen, novice or not.

“The first thing I really wanted was to be that big sister role,” Anderson said, in addition to being a leader and being respected. “Where all my teammates could come to me for anything and I would be a friend almost before a teammate. I am looking out for them. I want the girls to be open and comfortable with everyone.”

Edited by Andrew Hard and Jonathan Kinane

Photo from Hilary Anderson

Leave a Reply