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Walk-Ons: A Washington Rowing Tradition

At the beginning of each season, new members join in workouts with the aim of becoming part of the team. The grueling, long hours of tryouts will separate out those who want to become part of something truly special. This process values the team over the individual.

As racing season begins, the teams are named. Those named have the responsibility of representing their institution, their community, and their schools colors and traditions with pride.

Washington’s rowing program has a storied past of successful walk-ons who became part of historic feats that remain unmatched in the rowing world. It is that legacy that has engraved a culture that still resides in the shellhouse today.

No matter where you come from, what your background is, or when you started—if you can row, there is a home for you at Conibear.

This season eight walk-on athletes were part of NCAA and IRA national championships; walk-ons from all walks of life and diverse athletic backgrounds. Some of them had never rowed before coming to Washington, but excelled in other sports and had the work ethic it took to become part of the team.

Brooke Pierson, ’18, Brooke Mooney, ’18, and Jessica Thoennes, ’18, won an NCAA national title in the women’s varsity eight. Maggie Phillips, ’17, Karle Pittsinger, ’18, Bella Chilczuk, ’17, and Valerie Vogt, ‘17, won every race this season, including the Pac-12 and NCAA Championship races. And Madison Molitor, ’19, won Pac-12 and IRA National Titles in the men’s second varsity eight. These eight student-athletes had what it took to make the team; they had what it took to work and develop into the rowers they are today.

From novice to commodore to captain, Phillips showed exactly what hard work can bring you. Having never rowed for a team in high school, she spent her days as a national competitor in dressage. At the UW she started rowing in the novice eight during her freshman year, and moved up to the varsity four by her junior year. This past season Phillips rowed in every race of the second varsity eight and was named to the Academic All-Pac-12 team for the second year in a row.

Mooney, a Peru, Vermont, native, started rowing as a senior in high school at the Vermont Academy. Before rowing, Mooney was a three-time member of the New England’s Jr. National Nordic Ski team and competed at the U.S. Jr. Nationals. Her constant push to become a better rower every day saw her earn a spot on the varsity eight at the halfway point of this season, where she was part of the winning varsity eight at the Pac-12 and NCAA Championships.

Jess Thoennes, ’18, is an all-conference volleyball player from Highlands Ranch, Colorado, who also ran track and played basketball. After learning to row at UW as a frosh, Thoennes raced in the 4V8 last year, jumped to the varsity eight this spring, and most recently earned a spot on the US Under-23 Team. Thoennes will compete in the women’s eight at the World Championships in Plovdiv, Bulgaria this summer.

Pierson came to the University of Washington as a multi-sport athlete, having competed in cross-country, basketball, track and swimming in high school. Like Mooney, she only began rowing as a senior in high school, but by the time she finished her freshman year at Washington she had won a Pac-12 championship in the third varsity eight. She went on to race in the Pac-12 and NCAA champion varsity eight this spring and will be racing in the women’s pair at the U-23 World Championships this summer.

Molitor did not have any previous rowing experience coming into his first year at Washington, but he had made a name for himself as a high school state swimming champion in the 50-yard freestyle. He was in and out of boats during his freshman year, and claimed his spot in the second varsity eight throughout the entire 2017 season and won championships at Pac-12s and the IRAs.

Like Molitor, Bella Chilczuk, ‘17, Karle Pittsinger, ‘18, and Val Vogt, ’17, took their first strokes ever at Washington. Vogt was a middle distance track star who won state championships in the 800 and 1600, but traded in her cleats for an oar at UW, just like older sister Liz. Chilczuk was discovered at a state swimming meet and followed in the footsteps of older sister Giuliana. Pittsinger was a volleyball player and track athlete in high school. The all-star thrower twice finished in the top two at the State Championships for both discus and shotput, and was recruited to the UW Track Team. After reading “The Boys in the Boat” she was compelled to attend the walk-on rowing meeting the first day of school.

These eight student-athletes, and all who came before them, proved that success is possible with hard work and a perseverance to become great. The extensive hours in the weight room, the early morning rows in the rain, and the dedication to the sport both on and off the water are just part of what it takes to be successful at Washington.

But above all else it requires a commitment to the team, a commitment to the team that is bigger than any part of their lives.