Rowing team begins practicing with new members

It’s pure darkness at 4:55 in the morning as a group of students gather in front of the Union ready for a morning of Illini rowing team practice — the first practice with new novices who made the team after two weeks of intense tryouts.

“Hey everybody,” a cheerful Michael Roggeman says to an audience who merely look at him while rubbing the sleep from their eyes.

“You can tell when I’ve had my coffee,” explains Roggeman, the team president. “Some days I’m like, ‘Who’s ready to row today?’ and other days I’m like ‘Hello.’ Everyone knows when I’ve had my coffee.”

The rowers disperse into cars and begin the 20-minute drive to Homer Lake, where their equipment is stored and practice is held during fall and spring. In the winter months the rowers use indoor rowing machines called ergs.

Together, eight men and one woman begin stretches and warm-ups, preparing for the physical challenge ahead. The woman, Elizabeth Smith, leads the men as they hoist the boat over their shoulders and move into the water. Smith, a freshman in LAS, is the coxswain, meaning she keeps the rowers taking a straight, safe route and motivates them during races.

“We’re the brains, they’re the brawn,” Smith says with a laugh. “I like being in control, I’m a little bossy.”

The rowers enter the water as Erik Kroeker, the men’s head coach, starts them warming up. Then they row 500 meters, a short distance sprint compared to competition — typically, 2,000 meters is a spring sprint race, while fall head races are as long as 5 kilometers.

The coach wants to tire them so he can see what mistakes they start to make, looking to see what the rowers will do wrong come race time.

“When you’re rowing, your entire body gets tired,” Kroeker says. “Arms, legs, lungs, muscles. That is when the little mistakes come out.”

The eight men row in a line straight back, following Smith’s every command as she yells different strokes and keeps the crew’s pace.

The men row together in sync, placing their oars in the water, hauling it through, releasing the blade, recovering the oar and doing it again, all while listening to Smith talk over her microphone.

“People think she’s just saying row, row, row your boat, but really there’s a lot more to it than that,” Kroeker said. “She is the key to communication.”

Kroeker rows as fast as he can in a separate boat behind the rowers, unable to keep up because of the manpower shortage of one versus eight.

He watches the man in the stroke seat falter, worrying the men behind him will do the same.

“It’s like a game of telephone,” Kroeker said. “Everyone follows the lead of the person in front of him.”

Some rowers are novices like Smith and freshman Ben Feicht, who rowed during high school. Others have been around, like senior Roggeman, who never rowed before joining the team his sophomore year.

The rowers make up varsity, novice and women’s teams. This is the first year the team had tryouts, which ran for two weeks in an effort to find people truly committed to the sport.

“If you’re athletic, you can learn how to row,” Roggeman said. “We want people who are dedicated, though, who we can count on to come at five in the morning. Because you can’t do this alone, you’re not going to get very far in the boat if one person is slacking off.”

This season they are ready for new things. On Oct. 22 the team will compete at the Head of the Charles River Regatta in Boston, Mass., one of the largest rowing regattas in the world.

The competitiveness and the sport is what most people come for — when Feicht looked at colleges he made sure they had a rowing team — but the teamwork and the friendships are what people stay for.

“You meet people here that you’re friends with through all of college,” Roggeman said.

“My roommate is from the team, it’s just a great group,” he added.

As practice ends and the team rows in, everybody is more awake. And much wetter than before, dumping water out of the boat onto the dock.

“It’s a rare opportunity to be at a competitive level in college,” Kroeker said. “If people want to try something new and do competitive sports at a collegiate level, we’re a great opportunity to do that.”