By Jason Krump
Sixteen miles west of Pullman, Wash., on the shores of the Snake River, is Wawawai Landing, a site that serves as home to Washington State University rowing. About 300 miles to the west of Wawawai is Lake Union, a central hub of rowing in the state of Washington, including the University of Washington rowing team, in Seattle.
But amidst this Husky sea is a WSU island oasis: The Cougar Yacht Club. On its website, cougaryachtclub.org, the mission statement of the club is to promote Cougar spirit by connecting alumni and friends to Washington State University through their interest in boating and to raise the image and awareness of WSU in waterfront communities.
Begun two decades ago and now boasting a membership of over 500, the club has achieved a purpose of reconnecting Cougars, according to Tom Wilson, current member and past commodore of the club.
"It allows us to spread goodwill about Washington State along the waterfront and have a good time with Cougars who are boaters," Wilson said. "It is another way to connect Cougars back to the university they may not be currently active in. It has been very successful in that way."
For Tom and his wife Barbara, their passion for WSU rowing was made possible through their passion for boating.
The couple has traveled throughout the Northwest and the nation on their boat, the Toba. Highlighted in their travels is the Cougar Country cruise. In 2003, the Wilsons visited every Washington waterfront county during the cruise, and, at each stop, the Wilsons held events on the dock and signed up what they estimated to be a couple of hundred members to the club.
"It's not only connected Cougar Alums but also Cougar parents, many of whom are boaters and who are passionate about the university because their kids had such a good experience there." Barbara Wilson said.
It was during this cruise that the Wilsons were first introduced to the Cougar rowing program.
"It was off Wawawai Landing (pronounced "wuh-WY") on our boat that we saw the women's crew practicing," Tom Wilson said.
The next year, Tom and Barbara took the Toba out to Montlake Cut in Seattle in support of the Cougars during a competition. Part of their cheering involved hoisting a blowup of Butch on the front of their boat.
"It was really fun because they didn't know we were going to be there," Barbara Wilson said. "You'd watch them arrive at the end of the race, and they are all exhausted because the race is so demanding; then they'd look up and there would be these big grins."
Later that year, head coach Jane LaRiviere came and spoke to the yacht club. It was then the club's membership, including the Wilsons, gained a better understanding of the WSU rowing program.
"We came to admire what she was able to accomplish," Tom Wilson said. "That's how the connection came. The combination of our connections to the water made a natural connection between boating, the crew team, our general passion for WSU, and picking a place to make a difference."
Admitting they were not really rowing fans until becoming involved with the Cougar program, the Wilsons were learning many aspects about the sport, especially how WSU stacks up with the rest of the Pac-10 schools.
While the Cougars' performance on the water compares favorably with the rest of the schools, with five NCAA Championship appearances over the last seven years, the program's facilities have not been as favorable.
Though the 16 miles from the WSU campus to the Snake River Canyon may not seem that far of a distance to travel, it can seem like 100 miles during the winter months.
"We are the only Pac-10 institution that experiences a regular winter, and last year we probably were unable to get down to the water due to weather one or two times a week," LaRiviere said. "It was a challenge because our training was continuously disrupted."
"How can you go down and row?" Tom Wilson said of practicing at the Snake in the winter season. "As beautiful as it is in the summer, there must be ice cubes in the river during the winter."
A remedy to cope with the inclement winter conditions was literally in front of the rowing office in the Bohler Athletic Complex.
The Bohler Athletic Complex pool has stood vacant for several years, and for LaRiviere and the Wilsons, it served as a perfect spot for an indoor rowing tank. "Here's a facility that is just waiting to be built," Tom said. "The more we heard about it and the state-of-the-art part of it, we knew that the opportunity to have this at WSU was compelling."
With part of the funding already in place for the $1.2 million project, construction began in July 2008. As soon as that happened, LaRiviere sent an e-mail out to key supporters, informing them that, while still short of the financial goals for the project, construction has started, and she was appreciative of their support to help make that happen.
It wasn't long after sending the e-mail that LaRiviere soon received a call with an offer of more financial assistance.
"Within hours of sending the e-mail, I received a call from Tom, and he said, `How about $100,000?' and I said, `That sounds pretty good,'" LaRiviere remembers with a laugh.
"Once they throw their support behind something, they are tireless workers," LaRiviere added. "I've thoroughly enjoyed being around them. They're smart, funny people who both have many other charitable causes they are really into. I think the world is a better place because of people like Tom and Barbara."
Up to 16 people can row in the tank, which has the unique feature that allows LaRiviere to control the speed of the water, which can go as high a rate as 10 knots an hour.
"The fact that we can control the speed of the water; we can train rates and starts. It's a training tool as opposed to just a technique tool," LaRiviere said. It also allows the coaches to provide one-on-one instruction, rather than coaching at a distance from a boat.
"To have a facility where you can get right up next to the athletes and teach them techniques will be a huge advantage," Barbara said.
"An hour in the tank might solve something that could take several practices to fix," LaRiviere said.
Through their donation, the facility will be named after the Wilsons. For the couple, their donation is not a matter of having a facility named after them, but rather they view their support as a call to action to other supporters of not only Cougar Athletics, but Washington State University.
"Find something that you can get involved with and passionate about," Tom Wilson said. "That is how we feel about this project. The call to action is still there to finish this up. There is still the opportunity for people to name a seat or an oar. "Beyond that, there are all kinds of things around the university that people can get involved with and find a passion for and support."
Note: Indoor rowing tank naming opportunities are available for stroke, bow and power seats, as well as oars. For more information, please contact Jane LaRiviere at 509-335-0309 or firstname.lastname@example.org or the WSU Athletic Foundation at 509-335-0220.