April 26, 2010
By Spencer Drolette (WSU Sports Information)
Cougar rowing is all about progression, 20 years worth.
The men's and women's club rowing programs, advised by Cougar shellhouse namesake Ken Abbey, were well established in the 1970s as they competed throughout the region and raised their own funds to sustain the programs. Tammy Crawford, a four-year member of the club program from 1980-84, remembers what it was like.
"We took a lot of satisfaction in that we raised all our own money and paid our own way, and we kind of relished the idea that we were doing it for ourselves," Crawford said. "There was a ton of camaraderie, and the people I keep in touch with from college are from the team."
The men's and women's clubs were approached separately by the Washington State University athletic department several times in the 1980s about becoming officially sanctioned and funded collegiate programs. Each declined the opportunity because neither wanted to enter the athletic department without the other. That all changed in the final years of the decade.
"We had a gender equity lawsuit here and needed to add opportunities for women," said former WSU senior associate athletic director Marcia Saneholtz. "We looked at a lot of different sports, but the reason soccer (1989) and rowing (1990) were chosen is because they were long established, very popular club sports on campus. Rowing was very attractive because it provides opportunities for a large number of women and we already had some of the equipment in boats that had belonged to the club program."
Club members and alumni met to discuss the offer, and decided that moving the women's program into the athletic department would provide consistency and support it had not previously experienced.
"I think going varsity was a terrific thing," Crawford said. "I think the best thing that it did was give the club continuity. As a club athlete we had a different coach every year, some of them knew what they were doing and others didn't; some were more dedicated than others."
Ironically, then in her third year as novice coach at the University of Washington, Tammy Crawford's name surfaced as a candidate for the head coaching position to provide that continuity.
"Her name had come to us through the coaches of the club program," Saneholtz said. "So we went after her and it didn't take a lot of arm twisting to get her to come back here, and she was our coach for 12 years."
"I knew they were talking about going varsity, and I was just really interested in coming back," Crawford said. "My heart has always been Coug, and I knew there was a capacity to build a program here."
Now this former club team had a brand new head coach, a set of green varsity student-athletes, a couple of boats and a boathouse. And that's about it.
"Starting a program from scratch is not easy," Saneholtz said. "As far as attracting high-caliber athletes to our program, Tammy was starting at rock bottom really. She has really high ethical standards and academic standards and I think she kind of set the tone for the rowing program as far as the kind of student-athletes we were going to recruit."
Despite entering the college athletic department in part for the funding opportunities, Crawford admits that two of the most difficult challenges were budgets and equipment.
"They (the decision makers in the athletic department) thought `Let's start women's rowing and get the numbers and we'll eventually catch up with resources and equipment,' which we did," Crawford said. "That's where Marcia came in. I just felt like anytime I went to Marcia she was reasonable and tried to understand the program."
In one instance the team was traveling home from a race in a convoy of large vans, being driven by tired student-athletes. Crawford noticed the amount of swerving of the vans and thought it would be better and safer to charter a bus, despite the added costs. She took the issue to Saneholtz, who agreed to allow for the extra expense in order to move the program forward and make it better.
As the equipment and quality of student-athletes increased, so did the Cougars' success. In 1995 the WSU JV eight took first-place at nationals (NCAA Rowing Championships did not exist), earning the most notable Cougar rowing finish to date. The progression continued in Crawford's final season, 2002, as the varsity eight made the first NCAA Rowing Championship appearance in program history, finishing 13th in Indianapolis. After 12 seasons at the helm, Crawford retired in order to spend more time with her family.
The tandem of Saneholtz and Crawford are both well acknowledged for their roles in starting the program and for their dedication to Cougar rowing. Four-year (2000-03) Cougar rowing letterwinner and current WSU novice coach Corrie McGrath recognizes the influence of these two women.
"They obviously care about the program and give back as much as they can," McGrath said. "They were influential to me then, and are still a part of it now and I think that is a testament to their love for Cougar rowing and women's athletics. It's real; it's not fake. They don't have to be a part of it but they mean it and they really care."
In 2002 WSU hired Crawford's successor, Jane LaRiviere, to help the program continue to progress. LaRiviere, in her eighth season at WSU, knows the impact Crawford made on the program.
"I think about building a program and I think the most important things that Tammy did aren't measureable," LaRiviere said. "All of the things that are not the public aspect of the job set me up to be able to come in and say, how do we get faster? Not how do we get equipment, how do we get uniforms, how do we get any respect? In her last year she took the varsity eight to the NCAA Championships. So when I came here we didn't have to figure out how to get there, that had already been accomplished."
From a student-athlete standpoint, McGrath remembers the way the culture of WSU rowing evolved through her career.
"In my freshman and sophomore years we were trying to just get close to the top teams," McGrath said. "But in my junior and senior year we realized that they aren't such fast crews that we can't catch them, we realized that we really could beat them and move on."
And move on they did. The Cougars improved each year, reaching the NCAA Championships as a team in 2003 (12th) and 2004 (ninth), as well as 2006 when WSU earned a fourth-place finish, the best finish by a women's team in school history. To LaRiviere the 2006 season meant much more to Cougar rowing than just the results in the record book.
"It was affirmation that anything is possible here," LaRiviere said. "I think it genuinely surprised people that we were able to do what we did. I still think it's possible to win a national championship here, and by coming fourth it opened up a world of possibilities that never existed here before."
From there the Cougars made a fifth NCAA Championship appearance in 2008 (eighth), and currently rank 10th in the nation with one regatta remaining prior to the 2010 Pac-10 Championships.
Twenty years after women's rowing was admitted into the WSU athletic department, what does the program have to show for it? Two long-term, stable and successful head coaches. Improved equipment, including boats named the "Marcia Saneholtz," the "Tammy Crawford" and the "Jodi Jean Winchell" (11-year novice coach, 1990-2001). New facilities, including an erg room with 45 ergometers and a recently dedicated state-of-the-art moving water rowing tank. Five NCAA Championship appearances. All of this came step-by-step, putting together successful season after successful season, as the Cougars have progressed to become one of the elite programs in the country.
"It's an expectation that we're going to be successful, and no longer a goal," McGrath said.