No Experience Required: The Vital Role of Walks-Ons to Marist Rowing

At 4:15 a.m., when senior coxswain Emma Spiro’s first alarm goes off, her day starts well over an hour before the sun rises over Poughkeepsie. As she walks through campus in the dark, down to the Martin Boathouse on the shore of the Hudson River, she naturally questions why she’s there.

But for the members of the Marist rowing teams and all other collegiate crew programs across the country, early hours are the norm.

“It’s very difficult,” said Spiro. “You wake up, and even though I love waking up in the morning, every day you’re like, ‘Dude, I chose to do this.’”

Spiro is one of many athletes currently on the Marist rowing team who walked on with no prior rowing experience.

Unlike most other Division I programs, rowing teams across the country rely on walk-ons, many of whom have never rowed once before joining the team.

“There aren’t enough good Division I high school rowers to go around to the 89 programs,” said Tom Sanford, women’s rowing head coach and director of rowing at Marist. “So we’re not getting 15 to 20 recruits a year. ”

Crew is one of Marist’s longest-running athletic programs and has helped spread the college’s name throughout the Northeast. Yet, this esteemed group is obligated every year to see who will walk through the door to the boathouse wanting to try crew.

Recruiting constitutes a valuable part of the roster Sanford has to construct every year. The starting point is aiming to replace the number of outgoing seniors. “If we can get six to 10 experienced high school kids, that’s what we shoot for,” said Sanford. Then, roughly 25 to 30 kids will make their way to the boathouse, looking to walk on.

Going out and enticing people is part of a rowing coach’s job. Starting the year, knowing you have spots to fill means you have to work quickly to identify future talent.

“We put the boat out on campus for move-in day, and we go to the activity fair,” said Sanford, explaining some of the tactics to get the crew team’s name out. “We help people move in and just talk to them.”

Sanford and his staff are always keeping an eye out for students who look like they could make an impact on the team. Height provides an advantage, being that rowing is a leverage sport, but not a necessity.

For sophomore Shelby McDougall, seeing the racing shell out on campus got her attention, and knowing Marist had an established rowing program, she decided to give it a shot.

“I saw [the big shell] and then mentioned it to a few people I met and said you should come to the walk-on meeting with me,” said McDougall.

Having only briefly played soccer in high school, rowing was a brand new experience for McDougall.

For Spiro, who joined at the beginning of her sophomore year, rowing allowed her to get more involved on campus after the pandemic-related restrictions during the 2020-21 school year. It also provided a desired return to sports since Spiro spent her freshman year on crutches due to a stress fracture in her foot after a high school career playing soccer and running.

No specific athletic background is required to become a rower. Sandford says history with sports like swimming or track and field helps acclimate to the intense and monotonous nature of crew training. However, many soccer, volleyball, and other team sport athletes have joined the team and become successful.

Once walk-ons have decided to join the team, their training begins. First, on land, learning the little things that will eventually become routine, like how to carry the boats, how to step into, sit in the boat, and make sure it doesn’t wobble terrifyingly.

Then, the novices learn the rowing stroke. The stroke is technical, and movements must be precise to maximize efficiency and speed.

“It [goes] legs, pivot, back, arms, and when you pull in at the finish, that’s when you have to have the most power; at the end of your stroke because that’s what propels the boat forward,” said McDougall.

After learning the movement and other basics of being on the crew team, Sanford and his staff are looking for improvements in fitness. Rowing requires a deep endurance level to maintain the pace and power to perform during races that span from 2,000 to 6,000 meters.

“We goof around that if we put a football player on the rowing machine, they would crush it for 500 meters,” said Sanford. “But the race is 2,000 meters, and in the fall, it’s 5,000 meters long. [So] if you ask them to go more than 500 meters, they’re going to say, ‘You row further than that?”

One of the moments where McDougall had to ask herself if she made the right decision walking onto the rowing team was after the first 6,000-meter test. “I was like, ‘Oh, is this really for me?’”

At the beginning of their rowing careers, walk-ons consistently set new personal records and see visible improvements in their abilities since everything is so new.

“After we do the evaluations, [we ask] who PRed, and all the new people raise their hand,” said Sanford. “[Only] half of the old people will raise their hand because as you get faster and faster, it’s harder to knock off time every single attempt.”

A bit over a month into the fall semester, the novices begin fully integrating into the team. Those who’ve discovered rowing isn’t really for them weed themselves out, and those who have been hooked start racing and making an impact on the team.

A near-perfect example of what kind of influence a walk-on can have on the rowing team is Marguerite McGahay, assistant coach for women’s rowing. After being a team captain for soccer, basketball, and lacrosse in high school, McGahay attended a club sports night at the University of Delaware, figuring she’d play one of the sports familiar to her.

But McGahay’s 5-foot-10-inch frame quickly caught the attention of the Division I rowing team, which she would spend four years on and eventually become a captain. “It’s the epitome of a team sport, in my opinion,” said McGahay.

Walks-on quickly become an indispensable part of the team, adapting to the routine and intensity of the sport. To start the fall 2023 season for women’s rowing, Spiro was the coxswain for the leading boat at the Poughkeepsie Regatta, and McDougall rowed in two boats.

The rigor of rowing naturally leads to injuries, and having a full roster is a must to remain competitive throughout the year. 

“You need people who are ready and willing to row; you can’t have an empty seat on the water like you could run a soccer practice with [only a couple of players],” said Spiro.

Edited by Danny Destler and Jimmy Tsiantoulas

Graphic Credit: Cara Lacey

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