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Fueled by Friendship

Gut-wrenching workouts are easier when your best friends are in the same boat

By Mary Lane Gallagher | Window editor

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We did it: Team captain Metta Gilbert, right, hugs coxswain Kristy Theodorson after the championship. | Photo by Angie Rosillo
Winning gets better each time: "We want to see what we can do together," says Metta Gilbert, team captain, in the center of the top row, holding the NCAA Division II championship trophy behind her teammates. "We want to perfect it together." | Photo by Angie Rosillo

It was the gorgeousness of rowing that first appealed to Metta Gilbert.

She loves the peaceful, rhythmic sound of the oarlocks clinking with each stroke, the water sluicing past the shell during early morning practices at Lake Samish. The Exercise and Sport Science major, trained to appreciate the strength and grace of bodies at work, enjoys the perfect synchronicity of eight women rowing like one trusty machine.

And with four straight national titles, Western’s women’s rowing team could be called one of the best, trustiest machines ever in the sport. Both the four- and eightwoman boats decisively won their title races this year. The varsity eight and varsity four have not lost to another Division II opponent since May 2004 and routinely trounce Division I programs with bigger pockets. And no other collegiate rowing team in any NCAA division has ever won four national titles in a row.

The record is impressive, to be sure. But what Gilbert loves about the sport now isn’t what her team accomplished, but who her team was made of.

“There’s not a whole lot of glamour to the sport,” says Gilbert, 22. “It’s a brutal seven-minute sprint. You feel like you’re going to die at the end of it. It would be ridiculous for us to do that for the spectators. We’re doing it for ourselves. We want to see what we can do together. We want to perfect it together.”

Longtime head coach John Fuchs (’88) gives a lot of the credit to the core group of 2008 seniors, Staci Reynolds, Samantha Marikis, Amelia Whitcomb and Gilbert, who were with the team all four years – and for all four championships.

“Having met the best friends of my life really made the sport easy for me,” says Gilbert, last year’s team captain, who ferried her teammates to early morning practices at Lake Samish in her parents’ minivan.

Each year, the friendships have gotten stronger in the varsity eight boat, says Reynolds.

“This year was probably the best year yet,” she says.

Reynolds is so serious about getting in the best shape possible that she won’t listen to music when she runs because it would distract her from thinking about how fast she’s running.

But she’s serious about friendship, too. She hated not recognizing the faces of first-year novice rowers in the dark first months of morning practice.

So potlucks began as an important way for team members to get to know each other. When you have to go to bed at 9 p.m. your freshman year, at least you can hang out with others who’ve chosen to follow such an upsidedown lifestyle.

Besides, says Gilbert, “our team is infamous for loving to eat.”

But more importantly, food was the means by which they built their bodies – and their friendships. And those friendships built the team.

“There are a lot of issues around food, especially with females and especially with athletes,” Gilbert says. “We all kind of stick with one another in a commitment to good nutrition, especially when we start competing and training pretty hard.”

At the height of racing season, competitive rowers consume about three times as much food as their non-racing classmates, yet every pound in the boat is one more pound they have to push the length of a 2,000-meter race. Every bite has to count if they’re going to have the energy to endure their seven minutes of pain on race days.

So the team channeled their love of food into weekly potluck gatherings. They swapped recipes and ideas for how to get the most out of what they put in their bodies. They even wrote a cookbook for assistant coach Karla Landis (’03), who passed along some team favorites found here. They also fixed their own meals before races, staying in hotel rooms with kitchens and pooling their dinner money. That way no one had to worry that the dinner prepared by a stranger would sit badly in her stomach during the race the next day.

“We had one vegetarian on the team,” Reynolds says. “We all made sure she was taken care of.”

The lifestyle of competitive rowing drew their friendships even closer. Whitcomb jokes that she was dating “Bob” all four years.

“We have a boat named Bob,” she says. (It’s named after Bellingham businessman Bob Diehl, a longtime supporter and one of the university’s first rowing coaches.) But Whitcomb’s not complaining. “As corny as it sounds, for me it was all about the girls I was around and the friendships I was making,” she says. “As much as I love the sport, for me it was really about the bonds I was forming with the other people.”

In addition to their grueling rowing regimen, the women also managed challenging academic schedules. Reynolds, for example, tried to do her homework ahead of time to complete her major in Biology/Anthropology and her minor in Chemistry. Whitcomb relied on summer internships to complete her major in Toxicology.

“Everyone learned how one another functions when we’re completely strung out,” Gilbert says.

They know each other well enough to know when to crack a joke and when to keep quiet during a brutal morning practice when cold rain is turning to snow, and well enough to know that calling out one rower’s name motivates her to pull harder, but would only rattle another. That’s critical knowledge for the coxswain, responsible for coming up with the words to inspire four or eight exhausted women to pull even harder.

“We all know that whatever is going on in our lives, whatever bad test scores, relationship drama, financial problems, anything like that, when you get in the boat, you’re in the boat,” Gilbert says. “You leave everything on shore. You’re just there to row and you don’t want to let anyone down.”

It’s not a lifestyle everyone can stick with.

“If you want the kind of freshman college life where you’re staying up really late, meeting people and going to parties,” Gilbert says, “rowing’s not for you.”

Even with the winning record, about half to two-thirds of the team leaves each year. Fuchs understands why so many decide to leave, but it’s part of his philosophy that being on the team is a choice. That’s why he only recruits freshmen from among students who already have been admitted to Western.

“They’re on the team first because they wanted to come to Western,” he says.

Even workout instructions sometimes sound like suggestions, says Reynolds.

“He’s not checking to make sure we do it,” Reynolds says. “But when it comes time to choose the boat, he’s going to choose people who are the most fit, who have obviously been doing all the workouts. He knows he can trust them. They’re not going to stop working hard, because they’ve been given a choice and they’ve chosen the harder path.”

It’s hard to imagine life without crew, says Reynolds, who spent part of her summer training for singles rowing events.

“It’s amazing to accomplish a race in a single,” she says, “because it’s so intense – and so painful.”

But a boat with one woman, she says, doesn’t have nearly the momentum as a boat pulled by eight friends.