By the time 1989 rolled into 1990, the traditions built with nearly ninety years of existence were embedded at Conibear Shellhouse. The men were living and eating together, rolling out of bed at 5:30 a.m. and on the water by six. They rowed in eight-oared shells, they intensely competed with each other on the water, then came home for breakfast and sat down as brothers. The drying room reeked, the washer and dryer were always busy, and the message board was a mess. Choose a decade – even back to the old converted lighthouse on Lake Union, and, give or take a few electrical appliances, life was pretty much the same.
But there were particular similarities to the transition from the sixties into the seventies. There was a relatively new head coach who had begun to turn the program around. He, like his predecessor, had a vision of where the program could go and had the energy to do it. And ironically, it would be Bob Ernst that would take a crew back to the IRA twenty years after Dick Erickson had first abandoned it, going full circle on this oldest of traditions.
And it did not stop there. In fact the progression of the nineties would, in many ways, bring west coast rowing full circle at the IRA’s. From infancy, to dominance, to decline, to absence – and then back to a position of consistent participation and high performance at the storied event. And at the heart of that were two exceptional coaches, two intense, veteran competitors that would go head to head just like the Ulbrickson-Ebright days. Only now it wasn’t just two times a year – it was four times. For those in the rowing community looking for entertainment, by the time this decade was over, it did not get any better than springtime on the west coast.
Bob Ernst’s goal of re-instilling confidence in his team was beginning to play out, with the surprising finish at the 1989 national championships playing a large role. In addition, with two years behind them, there were fewer surprises for the men in coaching style or training expectations. So the team headed for San Diego ready to face Harvard, Navy, and Syracuse from the east and a slew of participants from the west and midwest with a team ready to build on the momentum created in 1989.
But for a team so focused on this event, they hardly could have been prepared for what ultimately transpired. The JV’s could not get in gear and finished a disappointing fourth behind Harvard, Cal and OCC, and the freshmen also dropped their race, finishing third behind both UCLA and Stanford. It was not a great way to begin the event. But in the final of the varsity race, the team got a good start and rowed an aggressive race, the crew moving out on the remainder of the field along with Harvard. In the sprint to the finish, the Huskies held off the Crimson and won the Copley Cup for the first time since 1985, a major victory on the comeback road, the crew ecstatic with the overdue victory.
The celebration, however, was short lived. Once ashore, they were advised by race officials that the race would be re-rowed (a highly unusual occurrence for a completed race – the only time we could find a full Washington race re-rowed on the same day ironically came in 1903). Fourth-place Wisconsin claimed an oarsman had his hand up when the race was started. A livid Bob Ernst could do nothing but send his crew back to the starting line. But this time his mentally and physically exhausted team did not get a good start, falling back, and falling back some more, finishing way back of winner Harvard (UCLA was second). Harry Parker said “I was very, very pleasantly surprised.” But Ernst was now coming unglued, saying “It was probably the biggest calamity in the history of Washington crew. I’ve been coaching twenty-one years and I’ve never seen a race re-rowed.” He added, regarding the team, “It’s a complete deflation. They’ve been killing themselves to win this race the last three years. Now we win it and have it snatched away from us.”
The frustration building within this program was now physically apparent. Four years of two-foot losses, oarlocks popping open, and buoy’s getting whacked had taken a heavy toll. Nowhere was that more evident than from Bob Ernst, who on his way out of San Diego filed a stinging protest with the San Diego officials. That protest was actually upheld by the USRA some weeks later, the results reversed to the original finish, and to this day recognized as the official results of the Copley Cup race in 1990.
But none of that mattered at the moment, Ernst now faced with repairing the damage done from an entire team going home without their shirts from the first regatta of the season.
On April 28th the team met California in Oakland with, as Dick Erickson might say, “blood in their eyes.” And for the first time since 1984, the varsity prevailed over the Bears on the Estuary, winning by about a length. The freshmen also won, but the JV’s continued their frustration, losing a close race by about three seats.
The men came home hoping to build on that success at the Windermere Cup. Facing Cambridge, Navy, and a national squad from China on a gorgeous 80 degree day, the team had high hopes to be the first Husky team to win the coveted trophy. The start was spirited, Cambridge snapping a wooden oar and unfortunately dropping out early (unlike San Diego, there are no re-starts or re-rows on Opening Day). But the Huskies were short off the line, scrambling to keep up with the Chinese and Navy squads that rowed away from them. The finish was the closest in the short Cup history, China holding off the Midshipmen by about three feet, but the Huskies were well back. Rick Clothier (Washington ’65), head coach of Navy, said of his surprising team “these guys really wanted this. I think they really wanted to give the coach a good welcome home.” That they did, with a disappointed Bob Ernst saying of his young team “they rowed really tight.”
So entering the Pac-10’s at Sacramento the coach had as much of an unknown as ever. His team had beaten UCLA once at San Diego, then lost in the re-row. They had defeated Cal, but then come home to be soundly rocked on their home course by a Navy squad they had defeated earlier.
The final on Lake Natoma was a throw-back to the seventies. The Huskies got a decent start but UCLA moved ahead in the body of the race to lead by over a half-length. But coming into the sprint the Huskies poured it on, rowing through the Bruins in the last thirty strokes and winning the west coast championship for the first time since 1985. The JV’s could not overcome a tough OCC, but the freshmen surprised both Stanford and UCLA, their betters at San Diego, by winning their event. The varsity four also won. And Ernst, like Erickson after his first victory at the Sprints (also over UCLA), was positively exuberant over his varsity. “I told the guys if they were going to win, they were going to win at the end,” adding “tradition won the race for us.”
On June 16th the Huskies would get their long-awaited rematch against Harvard (Eastern Sprints Champ) and Wisconsin (IRA Champ), with Syracuse and UCLA there to round out the field. On a classic Midwest summer day (90/90 – heat/humidity), UCLA and Syracuse jumped to an early lead with Washington right there, but on the settle it was Wisconsin and Harvard that kept moving. Husky coxswain Derek Popp said “We shifted our cadence down after the start. But the other crews kept theirs higher and slowly pulled away from us.” And how. Washington finished a disappointing last, with Wisconsin cruising down the course to complete a fantastic season, winning by open water over Harvard and putting to rest any of the controversy surrounding San Diego. “You really have to go after it in the first 1000 meters here,” said Washington captain Michael Fillipone. “After the first 1000 meters, we were out of it.”
But like the ending ten years earlier in 1980, there was plenty to be happy about after the sting of this loss was put in perspective. Washington had won the west for the first time in five long years. “I’m really pleased with the progress we’ve made in the last three years,” Ernst said the night before nationals. “I’d like to win the championship this year, rather than some other year. But the goal is to develop a program, not just win one championship.” That “development” would mean maintaining the supremacy of the west, a goal worthy of the tradition at Washington, but one that had proven so elusive since the 70’s.
Later in the year, Rob Shepard rowed to a silver in the U.S. eight in Seattle at the Goodwill Games (Shepard also rowed in the 4+ garnering fourth), and Scott Munn and Jason Scott rowed for the U.S. at the World Championships in Australia in the 4+, while Rob Shepard rowed in the straight four.
The varsity stern four, left to right: Colin Sykes, Mike Fillipone, Scott Munn, and Gordon Grundell. Washington Athletic Department photo.
The Junior Varsity 8: Cox Kristin Bailey, Stroke Rob Richardson, Greg Campbell, Cam Andrews, Mitch Molitor, Tom Lamonte, Tucker Orvald, Chris Moore, Toby Lumpkin. Chris Moore photo.
The varsity on the bridge, spring 1990. Washington Athletic Department photo.
San Diego welcomed the Huskies back with open arms in 1991, and Bob Ernst was smiling again, a year’s worth of time clouding the memory to one of the more bizarre endings of a major regatta in rowing history. And there to greet the Huskies was a knockout field, one of the best ever assembled, rivaling the early eighties. Harvard, Syracuse, Wisconsin, Cal, UCLA, Penn, Navy, Temple, and Virginia were all there to compete for the Copley Cup.
The JV’s finished third behind Penn and Cal, Ernst opting to leave the frosh at home after a winter season marred by injury and illness. The varsity had a good start and led the pack through 500 meters, drawing away with Harvard by the midpoint. But there the Crimson powered through the Huskies, and stayed ahead through the sprint to win by a length. “It was an amazing field,” said Bob Ernst “(and) given the level of competition, I am pleased.”
The crew would wait a month before returning to top level racing for the Windermere Cup the first weekend in May. The freshmen faced their first test of the season and promptly dropped their race by open water to the Bears. The JV’s could do little better, losing to Cal and the visiting Cornell squad in their event. The varsity would also face Cornell and Cal – and a pre-elite crew from Czechoslovakia – in their event, the four crews getting a fast start down the boat-lined course. Cal took an early lead, but by 1000 meters Washington inched ahead, building on their lead entering the Cut. Cornell and Washington then fought it out to the finish, Washington winning the Windermere Cup for the first time by a half second over Cornell, the Czechs another two seconds back and Cal crossing better than a length behind. The surprising win said a lot about the improvement of the Huskies, a jubilant stroke Matt Minas saying afterward, “It’s nice to get a home victory. This is our whole home season.”
But their season would not be complete without a win at Sacramento, and the team knew it. And the day did not start out well, with the varsity four, the JV’s and the frosh all dropping their contests, California coming out on top in the freshmen and JV events. It was up to the varsity to salvage the day, and they did so with a furious start and a strong body, holding off UCLA to win by about a length, and earning the trip back to Cincinnati. “These guys are consistent,” said Ernst, adding “last year’s crew was like…if the planets were aligned, they could go fast.”
But this consistent team had their work cut out for them. Northeastern had already defeated Harvard in their dual and won the IRA, and Penn had won the Sprints. Washington had lost to Harvard, but defeated Cornell, who also made the trip to Cincinnati for the (newly) USRA sanctioned event, along with UCLA.
The race was an all-out sprint from start to finish, and the varsity just did not have the speed in the first 500 meters to stay even with both Northeastern and Penn – or Harvard. But even the Crimson could not keep up with the two lead crews, caught in a fantastic battle down the course, Penn coming back on the other Huskies in the last few strokes to nip them by a quarter second for the national championship. Washington finished fourth behind Harvard, Ernst saying “I said it would be a great race. Unfortunately we didn’t quite keep up the first 500 meters.”
But the coach had promised the team at the beginning of the season a trip to Henley, if they had a solid season followed by a win at the Pac-10’s. The men lived up to that standard, particularly by virtue of the Windermere Cup victory, and the squad was entered in the Ladies’ Plate two weeks later. They drew Isis in their quarter-final and advanced with a quarter-length win, the only American team to advance that far (Cornell, and national champion Penn were also there but were knocked out in the first round). The Huskies then met a seasoned Leander/Moseley combine in the semi, rowed them hard and led through Fawley, but were unable to match the Britain’s speed in the last third of the race, losing by a length and a half to the eventual winners of the event.
The experience was a classy way to end a season that saw the team take a significant step forward. All of it fit into Ernst’s goal of developing a consistent program. It would not be the last time his teams would visit Henley.
Michael Fillipone (4+) and Jason Scott (8+) both won a silver medal at the Pan Am Games in Havana, Cuba in the summer of 1991. Fred Schoch (lightweight coach) and Scott Munn (senior 8+) represented the U.S at the World Championships in Vienna.
In their quarterfinal match-up at Henley, the team jumped out to a one length lead, but had to hold a tough Isis crew off at the finish to win by about a deck. The crew did not have a lot of time in this Empacher, Ernst using the Dick Erickson technique of standing like a vulture on the docks waving money after the first day’s elimination. The crew spent most of the week training in a wood Empacher – no one knows if it was the Martini Achter. Judy Slepyan photo.
The varsity left to right: James Haug, Cam Andrews, Paul Yount, Ron Long, Scott Munn, Mike Urness, Dave Herness, Matt Minas, and Derek Popp (cox). The guys are wearing the latest in unisuit rowing fashion. Washington Athletic Department photo.
Momentum is a great thing when you have it. But the Huskies would find themselves trying to get the feeling again after racing on a polluted Mission Bay the first weekend of April, 1992.
They came into the race confident, but the varsity was quickly humbled, finishing second in their heat to defending national champion Penn and relegated to lane four for the final on the windy course. The team battled hard but just could not overcome the competition or the conditions, finishing well behind Harvard and Penn and losing out to Wisconsin by a bow ball to finish fourth. Even so, the results were satisfactory to Bob Ernst, his JV’s winning for the first time since 1988, and the freshmen winning for the first time since the ice age (1979) and winning decisively over OCC.
But it was about to get worse. On a particularly chopped up Estuary three weeks later new Cal head coach Mark Zembsch had his Bears ready, blowing open a healthy lead in the first 500 meters and holding the Huskies at bay on the sprint, winning by two seats on a wind aided, tide aided course. The JV’s also surprisingly fell to the Bears by about two seats, only the freshmen preventing a sweep. “Cal rowed us exactly the way they needed to – we ran out of race course,” the coach said, quietly fuming over the course conditions and boat wakes that reduced the Estuary to a boiling wash.
And now just about everyone had run out of patience. This was not the way the season was supposed to be going after the previous two years of building, and everyone knew it. Upon returning home, the varsity got up the next day (Sunday) and held a no-coaches practice to work out the aggression. The following week on the water was as intense as they get, and the men re-committed to the season together.
On Opening Day they unleashed their pent-up frustration on a Lithuanian select collegiate crew and the Cambridge lightweights, moving out early on the start and then just burying the competition, winding it up at the end and winning by three boat lengths. “We took out all our aggressions this week,” said Husky captain Paul Yount. “We needed this race.” The JV’s had a barn-burner, beating OCC by inches in the fastest race of the day. But the highly regarded freshmen were defeated by Brentwood School, the third time since 1988 Tony Carr had brought his tough and always polished prep school crew into the freshmen event on Opening Day and won.
The men would get their re-match against California three weeks later on Lake Natoma, but would also face UCLA, an excellent team seeded first at the Pac-10’s due to their earlier defeat of Cal. First, however, would be the JV’s and frosh, both exacting revenge for earlier losses by defeating their west coast rivals. The varsity four also won, leaving it to the varsity to complete the sweep.
But UCLA exploded out of the blocks, moving out to a full length lead on the six lane course by 1000 meters. The Bruins then sat on the rest of the field, cruising into the last 500 meters well in command. It was then the Huskies came storming back, inching through the Bruins stroke for stroke, and in a final battle of wills pulled to even with ten strokes left, and crossed the line within two feet of their rivals – but this time two feet in front to win. “In the last 500 meters it was all mental”, said an elated Husky coxswain Mike Chudzik of the remarkable effort by his crew. And the four race sweep was the first since 1978, the varsity race eerily reminiscent of another all-time comeback that same year.
So once again the revived Huskies would go to Cincinnati with high hopes ready to face down the crews from the east. But like 1991, the crew was out of it early and had a miserable race, watching the winning crews practically disappear over the Ohio horizon and finishing over twenty seconds behind eventual winner Harvard. “I’m glad we got this far but I’m not happy with this performance”, said a perplexed Bob Ernst, after watching Dartmouth, Harvard, Penn, Cornell and Navy all fight it out through the race, Harvard (5:33.97) defeating Dartmouth (5:34.26) by a seat and both crews shattering the course record.
Although his crews had swept the west coast championship, his varsity winning there now for the third consecutive year and erasing the memories of the late eighties, there was a certain unease building in Bob Ernst. He was back where Dick Erickson was in the early eighties, wanting more consistent racing on his schedule like the east coast and wanting a national championship. “They are in a league where they can judge their boat speed in a week-in and week-out basis,” said the coach of the east coast schools. And he lamented the demotion of the UCLA program from varsity status, a move that would lead to the dismantling of that program. “Our league is getting smaller and it seems to be getting weaker,” he said, adding “we have to make our own standards now out on the west coast.”
This would not be the first time. The west coast was notorious, through the decades, for the ebbs and flows of collegiate rowing competition. Truly, with the loss of UCLA it was in an ebb, and Ernst would begin a dual with Wisconsin in the next year to help alleviate that. But be careful what you wish for. The next year would also set the stage for a rapid and dramatic rise in west coast rowing, one that very few could have foreseen that day as the sun set over the steamy shores of Lake Harsha.
At the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, Scott Munn and Rob Shepard represented the U.S in the eight, finishing fourth. Roberto Blanda competed for Italy. Also, Fred Schoch continued as coach of the lightweight 4- at the Lightweight Worlds.
Mike Urness and Kestas Sereiva after winning the straight pair event at the Canadian Henley in the summer of ’92. Five Washington pairs (ten rowers) participated in Bob Ernst’s first summer camp, lasting about six weeks. The men lived in the shellhouse and practiced in the mornings, then three pairs made the trip to the Canadian Henley. Bob Ernst photo.
The varsity, left to right, Kestas Sereiva, Scott Behrbaum, Jeff Seifred, Phil Henry, John Kueber, Paul Yount, Cam Andrews, Colin Sykes, Mike Chudzik (cox).
San Diego offered the same unknowns as any previous year when the men arrived there in early April. And like 1992, the competition was top level, this time Yale joining Harvard and Penn for the first time in the 90’s.
All three Washington teams won their heats and had a good shot at the finals. The freshmen won for the second year in a row, but the JV’s fell to Yale by three seats in a terrific race. The varsity got a good start and powered down the course in control. With 500 meters left Harvard began to move but the Huskies put it into the next gear and won going away, with open water separating them from the Crimson, Yale finishing third, Penn fourth, and Cal fifth. “These wins should help put us on the map” said Captain Scott Munn.
Coach Ernst then had three weeks to fine tune his crews before taking the varsity back to Madison, Wisconsin, for the first in what was hoped would be a perpetual dual race with the Badgers. Both programs had storied histories, and both were in corners of the collegiate rowing world where week on week competition was hard to come by. The “UW” regatta was an effort to bring these two powerhouse teams together on an annual basis. Incidentally, the very first race by Washington outside of the west coast was against the Badgers on Lake Mendota in 1910.
This time the races were slated for the 1,852 meter Lake Wingra course due to forty mile per hour winds that ultimately cancelled the event on Saturday. On Sunday April 25th, the crews took to the lake anyway and the Huskies roughed up the Badgers, winning by open water in 5:21 on the shortened course.
That was an important test, and now with each coming week the competition would be ratcheted up. The following week the varsity met 1992 national runner-up Dartmouth for the Windermere Cup, and the home crew won but under less than spectacular circumstances. “We waited for the command to start the race and Washington didn’t” noted Nicholas Lowell of Dartmouth. Washington, with a runaway lead in the first 100 meters, then scrambled down the course with a gritty Dartmouth team slowly inching their way back, the Huskies finally prevailing by about four seats. Captain Scott Munn called the team’s performance “unfortunate”, a good way to describe an event that did not reflect the character nor talent of this squad.
A week later it was Cal coming north to race on the Cut, the dual back to the traditional stand-alone event instead of being included in the now significantly wider Opening Day festivities. And Washington poured it on, sweeping all of the races by multiple lengths. The frosh in particular rowed a classic race, down almost a length to the higher stroking Bears early on but just powering through at a 34, pulling away to win by twelve seconds. The varsity had a similar race, coxswain Mike Chudzik saying “Once we settled, we put the hurt on. We definitely really settled for the first time this year, so our racing is really coming together.”
Two weeks later the crew settled well and won against a now rapidly deteriorating west coast rowing scene, UCLA having abruptly emasculated their program and turned it into a club sport. They were never a serious contender and faded early. Ernst was not particularly pleased with his varsity crew either, calling the effort “fair” and saying “they row just well enough to win”, the varsity coasting down the course in 6:10, with Stanford a length back and Cal behind them. The freshmen lost by a seat to OCC, but the JV’s were impressive in defeating a tough field including OCC and Cal.
In fact impressive enough that Ernst would send them, alone, to the IRA regatta on the Cooper River in Camden, New Jersey. This would be the first IRA regatta held on this location due to flooding at Syracuse, and the first time a Washington crew would compete at the storied event since 1972. And they did not disappoint, beating favored Northeastern in a time one second slower than Brown’s winning varsity time, and bringing the Kennedy Cup home, ironically, the second year in a row that Washington competed at the event (the 1972 JV’s also won). It was an astonishing victory over a highly competitive field, and it sat the varsity up as co-favorites against Brown heading into Cincinnati one week later.
But Cincinnati would ultimately play out like the 60’s and the deja vu wasn’t pleasant. Plagued by varying degrees of back injuries leading into the regatta, the Huskies rowed short and stiff and fell out of contention early, Brown pulling away with Pennsylvania to win by a half boat length in 5:54.15, the Huskies crossing in fifth in 6:03.37 and barely holding off California, a crew they had hammered three weeks prior rowing on “cruise control”. Anything can happen in a six boat do or die race, but Ernst had to be frustrated with this result, especially after lauding this crew as one of his best ever.
And they probably were. Certainly the talent and depth of this squad would rival any in the history of the program. But the fickle nature of boat racing meant there would not be a second chance. Steve Gladstone’s Brown squad would ultimately take their trip to Henley and win the Ladies’ Plate, adding salt to the wound. But 1993 was a significant year in the improvement of the team. In fact, it was probably no longer fair to categorize the program as “building” or “improving”. Ernst had all but swept the west coast regattas, and had a JV national championship to prove the depth of his squad. Washington was in full recovery now. The trick would be to maintain it.
In the summer of 1993, Jason Scott and Scott Munn maintained their positions on the U.S. senior team, competing in the 4+ at the World Championships.
Jeff Seifred, Phil Henry, and Roberta Blanda celebrate their Copley Cup win, the first since 1990. San Diego Union-Tribune photo.
The IRA champion JV team, the first team to travel to the IRA since 1972 – and the first to win since the 1972 JV’s. Left to right: Ryan Allison, Sasha Panasik, Rob Lorenz, Dan James, Erik Sjaastad, Girts Bietlers, Ned Flint, Steve Kunnen and Kristen Bailey (cox). Husky Crew photo.
The varsity heading under the bridge to win the Windermere Cup. Seattle Times photo.
The team started out strong at San Diego, the freshmen and JV’s both having excellent performances, the frosh winning by open water over California and the JV’s winning by about a length over Harvard, followed by Penn and OCC. The varsity, however, cast Harvard too far out by the midway point, and in the sprint were able to overtake Temple but could not reach the Crimson, losing by a half-length. “We fumbled the race away to Harvard,” said Bob Ernst, “We gave them a boat length and ran out of race course.”
Three weeks later the team would meet a Wisconsin team on the Cut that had not participated at San Diego. This time the varsity had a good start, powering off the line and stroking away from their midwest rivals to win by over a length of open water.
The Cal Dual was on the Estuary, and the team swept the regatta for the second year in a row, again winning all events by open water. The varsity rowed a solid race, capitalizing on a good start again and rowing away from the Bears after 1000 meters.
The Windermere Cup a week later was memorable but mostly for the gorgeous day that blessed the crowd and athletes on hand for the event. A Dutch development (under 23) team was the main competition in the headline event, finishing a length back from the varsity, with Stanford finishing more than four lengths back. The frosh and JV’s also won, both defeating tough OCC competition. “They (the varsity) came out and settled down and went through them (the Dutch) with some modicum of poise” said an articulate Ernst after the races were completed.
So all of this would set up the Huskies as the team to beat at Sacramento. The freshmen made quick work of OCC, with Santa Clara finishing third in that race. The varsity also won, just missing the course record but cruising to a two-length victory over Cal and third place Long Beach State. The race of the day was in the JV event, where OCC pushed the Huskies down the course in a tight race, Washington pulling it out at the end to win by a half second.
Ernst made it clear to his team, prior to leaving for the nationals at Cincinnati, that a win or second place finish would send the varsity and JV’s to Henley. The JV’s, undefeated since losing to Yale at San Diego in 1993, and the varsity, with only the defeat to Harvard at the most recent San Diego event, were certainly deserving. But the deterioration of the competition on the west coast left a significant question to be answered for Ernst and his squad: were they fast enough to compete for the national title?
That question would be answered on Lake Harsha on June 18th in a screaming tailwind. But both Brown and Harvard slowly separated themselves from the pack, with Washington and Princeton together about a length back. Coming into the sprint Brown was able to nose in front of Harvard in 5:24.52, knocking about ten seconds off of the record. Princeton and Washington finished three-four about five seconds back, the difference being about six feet. “I’d rather have been third than fourth” said a dry Ernst.
The outcome of this race put into perspective for the coach where his program stood. Now dominant on the west coast, the frustration first discussed after the ’92 nationals was once again brought to bear. His team was no doubt a top crew in the nation, but shaving five seconds off a screaming fast time with the kind of competition now seen in the west was going to be a real challenge. The “one chance for it all” set-up at Cincinnati certainly made for an interesting race, but for the Huskies, without the opportunity to race against the crews they were consistently facing there, it was cold turkey. By 1995 Ernst would employ a new strategy – new for this crew, but in fact a dormant tradition for Washington that went back to 1913. He was headed to the IRA.
The varsity, left to right: Steve Kunnen, Phil Henry, Roberto Blanda, Scott Behrbaum, Girts Beitlers, Dave Smith, Dan James, Mike Callahan and Dom Gagliardi (cox). Washington Athletic Department photo.
For the first time since the boathouse opened in 1950, the rooms at Conibear would be empty in the fall of 1994. It was a combination of factors, but the final straw was a new NCAA rule that outlawed dormitories specifically for housing athletes. It was surreal to walk into the crewhouse and find it empty, a place that for over 40 years housed the team. Immediately the Board of Rowing Stewards began to plan for an alternative, but administrative priorities and red tape would postpone any redevelopment or improvement of the site for a decade. “The thing that’s frustrating for me”, said Bob Ernst, “is that the projects that seem to be a higher priority are not getting solved and this thing (the crewhouse) just lays.” (1)
But regardless of whether they lived together there or not, the men still called Conibear home. And there was not a lot of drop off from the year previous by the time the squad made it back to San Diego the first weekend in April. The freshmen had the most impressive performance of the day, winning by eleven seconds over runner-up Cal. The JV’s also won, beating back Cal, Penn and Harvard by a length. The varsity had a strong start and middle, leading the pack through the first 1500 meters, and this time Harvard’s charge was neutralized by the Huskies, who won going away by a length in 6:02.5. The sweep was, remarkably, the first by Washington since 1974.
The crew would take the momentum with them to race Wisconsin (finished eighth at San Diego) at Madison. But both Silas Harrington and Michael Callahan would end up hospitalized with what was presumed to be food poisoning, and due to the team traveling without spares, the race was canceled.
So once again Bob Ernst had a good team that was waiting around to race. Their next chance came on April 29th on the Cut against Cal, but the varsity again rowed away from the Bears, winning by seven seconds. The frosh and JV’s also won.
The Windermere Cup was interesting, but the frustration was building for Ernst. His varsity had no trouble with the visiting South African under-23 team, winning by three lengths, but the race was overshadowed by a spectacular women’s varsity event featuring defending national champion Princeton and Washington. “Princeton and Brown had their dual meet today,” said Ernst of the men’s side. “If they had been willing to come out here, we would have paid for both of them to come. But guys don’t want to risk it. They want us to come and play on their turf all the time.”
The men would finish the regular season at Redwood Shores for the Pac-10’s, the first conference championship there since 1983. The Cal freshmen exacted revenge for their lopsided defeat at San Diego with a win, but both the JV’s and varsity won handily, the varsity by over three lengths.
Ernst knew he did not want to go cold turkey at Cincinnati again, and thus, with the help of the Stewards, decided to take his varsity and JV teams to the IRA’s. The IRA regatta offered heat racing with a repechage, providing at least a slight cushion and more importantly the opportunity to race into the final.
And both crews made it to the Saturday finals. The varsity had a good start and led for most of the first half, but the elite Brown team was too strong, ultimately pulling through and winning the race by a length. Washington and Navy fought for second, the midshipmen nosing the Huskies out by a bow ball at the end. But the race of the day was with the undefeated JV’s, who controlled their race from the outset and won the Kennedy Cup over a charging Princeton squad by a third of a length. The results were impressive on a number of levels, not the least of which was the first appearance by a Washington varsity at the storied event since 1972 and a finish in the medals by both squads.
So Ernst would take this team (varsity and JV’s) back to Henley for the first time since 1991. And Washington had probably it’s best showing there since 1984, the varsity advancing in the Ladies’ Plate to the semi-finals, where they rowed a fierce race against a Nottingham club crew (with questionable credentials to be entered in a “student crew” event, as Notts County is a training center for pre-elite and elite oarsmen), nonetheless breaking both Barrier and Fawley records for the event and losing by a length after Nottingham came from behind. Nottingham was clocked, on a wind-aided Thames, in 6:04 in the fastest time of the day for all events. The Nottingham team subsequently dominated the event the next day, defeating the Princeton varsity by three lengths. The Washington JV’s were equally impressive, advancing through three races in the Thames Cup, only to lose in the final on Sunday to a superior Imperial College squad. More information on the 1995 Henley Regatta (with a description of the Thames Cup final) can be found at the Henley Royal Regatta Index.
Later that summer Marc Schneider represented the U.S. at the Lightweight Worlds in the 4-, while Jason Scott (alt.) and Scott Munn returned from their hiatus in 1994, Munn picking up a gold in the 4+ senior World Championships.
The varsity, bow to stern: Mike Callahan, Chris Schmaltz, Kestas Sereiva, Ryan Allison, Silas Harrington, Roberto Blanda, Girts Beitlers, Marc Schneider, Kara Schocken. Washington Athletic Department photo.
(1) The Seattle Times, 6/2/95, pg D1, Shellhouse Upgrades Not at Top of UW List
Bob Ernst had been trying to get his team to the next level since the loss at Cincinnati in 1994. In fact, Ernst had set his crews on a discernible “stair step” since inheriting the team in 1988, first regaining the confidence at the end of 1989, drawing them back to superiority on the coast in 1990, then reaching the consistency of the ’92 squad, followed by the shear talent of the 1994 group. With a third and first at the IRA in 1995 the national tile was within his grasp, and by the fall of 1996 he would incorporate an even more intensive land training regimen. Two-a-days were the norm, with one workout a day often coming on the ergometer. It was intense, but it also led to a very fit and disciplined team that made up his varsity eight by the time the season would begin.
The varsity came to San Diego looking to defend the Copley Cup title for the first time since 1985. Harvard, Penn and Berkeley – with eleven wins together at the now storied event – were there to welcome the Huskies. But the team rowed a solid race, taking a strong move midway through to pull ahead of Harvard, and then holding the Crimson off in the sprint to win Washington’s eleventh Copley Cup by a length. The JV’s also won, but the frosh dropped their race by open water to Cal and OCC.
Wisconsin, fifteen seconds back of the varsity at San Diego, came out to Montlake two weeks later and rowed a gritty race, hanging with the Huskies until the Cut. But Washington had understroked their Midwest rival through the body of the race, and pulled out to an open water win at the end.
On April 27th the team traveled to the Estuary to meet Cal. In a surprising reversal from San Diego, Cal avoided the sweep by defeating the JV’s, but this time dropped the freshmen event by a length to a hungry frosh team. The varsity race was close – closer laterally than lengthwise, as the crews brushed oars midway down the course causing a Washington crab that knocked six oar Andy Tyler off of his seat. But the Huskies regained their composure and cruised to an open water victory.
Opening Day featured a visiting pre-elite Russian squad and Yale University, the Bulldogs bringing their varsity and JV’s. The JV race was the closest of the day, with the Huskies rallying to win by about a half-length. The varsity race was impressive, the Huskies charging into the lead and rowing one of the more aggressive races seen at the Windermere Cup event (harkening back to the Soviet performance in ’87), defeating Yale by a length, the Russians finishing another length back. “The thing we’ve been training for this year that we didn’t have last year probably is we want to be a 2000 meter crew,” said Coach Ernst. “We want to have good speed all the way down the course.”
The dominant varsity crew would not let up three weeks later, winning the Pac-10’s at Redwood Shores by five seconds over California. And again Cal would avoid the sweep by reversing the results from the Dual, losing to the Husky JV’s, but beating the frosh by two seconds in an excellent dual race.
The varsity and freshmen left the next day for New Jersey, their first row coming Thursday in the prelims. The freshmen came second to Princeton in their heat, but the varsity rowed a now trademark hard and high race, handily defeating Eastern Sprint champion Northeastern and runner-up Pennsylvania. Looking like the team to beat, they subsequently had a poor start in their semi, coming second to Princeton and making the final a toss-up. The frosh advanced via a repechage win over Boston U. and Penn.
On finals Saturday, the freshmen ultimately finished fourth, a length and a half back of winner Princeton. The varsity had a good start in their race, and led the pack through 1000 meters, but with 500 meters to go Princeton drew even. It was then a barn burner into the finish, the crews all but even until the last 200 meters as Princeton gradually inched ahead to a one second win in 5:29.6. The two crews broke the course record (set by Brown the year before), but it was little consolation. “It’s disappointing to lose, but this is the most exciting, best race I’ve ever seen” said Ernst, a man with over twenty years of collegiate and international experience.
As hard as it was to lose that race, 1996 did put Washington crew at the level Ernst had been seeking. The change in training, and the commitment of the athletes and coaches, had led to a season that made the coach proud. And although he would be losing an elite level oarsman in stroke Michael Callahan, only two other members of his top eight would graduate. That left a solid contingent, now experienced in the new training schedules, returning to match up against the nation’s best in 1997.
At the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Jason Scott (senior 4-) and Marc Schneider (lightweight 4-) represented the U.S., Schneider winning Olympic bronze.
The varsity with the Windermere Cup, left to right: Richard Parsons (partially obscured), Mike Callahan, Silas Harrington, Andy Tyler, Rich Tzeng, Brett Reisinger, Matt Shostak, Matt Anderson, Carl Bolstad. Washington Athletic Department photo.
The 1996 U.S. Olympic team made a guest rowing appearance at the Windermere Cup events, here standing behind the surviving members of the 1936 Washington Olympic team, sixty years since their glory in Berlin. Future Washington coach Fred Honebein is second from the right on the upper stand, contemplating the big, gold, W painted on the apron. Washington Athletic Department photo.
Now admittedly on a “crusade” to win the national championship, Bob Ernst and his team barely skipped a beat in the nine months between the ’96 IRA’s and the first race of the season in 1997. With a new coxswain in Sean Mulligan and new stroke oar in Bob Cummins (a transfer from Cornell who had sat out the ’96 season), the varsity was never headed after the midway point and cruised home to an open water victory over California and Pennsylvania, with Wisconsin, Yale and Harvard trailing. The JV’s and freshmen also won their events, the frosh by almost three lengths.
Two weeks later the varsity followed up the San Diego win by defeating Wisconsin on Lake Mendota in the annual dual by about a length.
The season began to get interesting in earnest when Cal came north for the Dual, an event that historically meant “anything can happen”. That would be particularly true now that Cal was again being coached by Steve Gladstone, a man that had guided the Bears from 1973 to 1980 with impressive results. But he was most recently coming off an exceptional run with Brown, guiding that team to two consecutive “triple crowns” (Eastern Sprint, IRA, and Cincinnati champions) in 1993 and 1994. His twenty year record of coaching college and elite level crew spoke for itself.
This time the varsity got a quick start and moved to a four seat advantage, but Cal stayed right with them as the crews entered the Cut. Even a solid sprint could not shake the Bears, who rowed an inspired race all the way down the course, to lose by only two seconds. Although the JV’s and freshmen also won, Mulligan noted after the race that Cal was “ready to go after San Diego.” And Gladstone said, “It’s never pleasant to lose a race of any kind. At the same time, it’s pretty clear that we’re getting faster.”
The Huskies were too, however, and would seek to prove how fast against a newly formed but highly experienced (five Olympic gold medals between them) Australian national crew on Opening Day. The goal was to get out hard, and the Huskies did in the wind and chop, taking a power move at 1000 meters and then pulling away to an open water victory. The JV’s and frosh also won – the freshmen, like in San Diego with a quality performance – to sweep the regatta. James Thompkins, two time Olympic champion from Australia said of the Husky varsity, “I was surprised a college crew would look that polished.” That comment underscored the depth of sportsmanship and respect these two teams paid each other as a result of this Windermere event and the first match-up (an Australian victory) in 1988.
The Pac-10’s, now back at Sacramento, would feature another re-match with the Bears and the racing would not disappoint. The freshmen would not lose a beat, winning by about the same margin as they had at San Diego and cruising to a three length win. The JV’s won by a length, setting up the varsity for the race of the day. The six-boat race quickly turned into a dual, with two of the fastest crews in the nation battling back and forth down the 2000 meter course, Washington prevailing over California at the end by about three seats in a spectacular race.
These two west coast crews were now in peak form and headed to the IRA’s knowing both would contend for the championship. The Huskies would place all three crews into the finals after winning their heats.
On Saturday, May 31st, the powerful freshmen would begin the day with an almost six second win over Wisconsin, finishing the season undefeated, and becoming the first frosh crew to win the Steward’s Cup since Lou Gellerman’s 1969 squad. The JV’s then rallied to a surprise victory in the Kennedy Cup, winning by a half-length over runner-up Brown. That left the varsity, who stormed out of the gate with Cal and Brown. But Brown did not give an inch, and led the Huskies by three seats with 800 meters to go, five boats including California, Wisconsin, Princeton, Brown and Washington all within a length. At 500 meters the Huskies began to close, and into the sprint dramatically pulled away from the pack, winning by eight seats over Brown and California in 5:51.0. The victory was the first IRA varsity win since 1970, and capped the first sweep for Washington at the national championships since 1950. “I couldn’t be happier right now,” said Ernst. “This is what we wanted to do…everyone goes home with a smile.”
But the season would not end without a trip to Henley for the varsity and JV’s. The JV’s would get knocked out in the quarterfinals of the Thames Cup by Goldie, but the varsity would advance to the final of the Ladies’ Plate to face the British National Lightweight Team on Sunday. The lightweights got a typically fast start, leading by a third of a length by the Barrier. But it was the mid-part of the race where the British made a surprising move, rowing to a 2/3rds of a length lead by Fawley. It was there that Washington poured it on, moving back five seats in twenty strokes to draw almost even. As the crews rowed past the final enclosures the race was too close to call, and the crowd was hushed as the judges reviewed the race. The eruption of cheering upon the announcement was all one needed to know of the outcome: Britain by a foot.
It was an excruciating way to end the year. There was praise all around for the lightweight team who obviously rowed a gritty, impressive race. And, not surprisingly, a now tuned up Australian National team won the Grand Challenge Cup, an impressive victory by the classy team that had visited the Cut in May.
The praise for the Huskies would have to wait until they returned to Seattle, to a rowing community that had not seen such a dominant team since the Truman administration. There were twenty-eight young men (and one young woman, JV cox Missy Collins) who in 1997 re-defined Washington crew in the mold of the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s, going undefeated in the regular season and winning three national championships. It certainly had not come easy, Bob Ernst ratcheting up the expectations with each year, and finally reaching the level he had strived for since 1988.
That summer was also one of victory overseas for two Huskies, both Bob Cummins and Phil Henry winning the gold in Chambery, France, world champions in the senior 8+. Also competing for the U.S. were Michael Callahan in the senior 4-, Sean Mulligan in the lightweight eight, and Erik Miller in lightweight pair.
The IRA champion varsity, left to right: Bob Cummins, Brett Reisinger, Silas Harrington, Andy Tyler, Matt Anderson, Matt Schostak, Aaron Beck, Carl Bolstad. Washington Athletic Department photo.
The backbone of the varsity graduated in 1997, leaving five new seats available in the first boat. Fortunately for Bob Ernst, he had one of the strongest classes in recent memory moving up from an undefeated freshmen season to compete for the vacant positions.
So it was a relatively young varsity boat – with four sophomores in the engine room – lining up at San Diego to face down the usual cast of characters, including Yale and Harvard. But it was California that came to the race sharp, knocking the freshmen out by a length and the JV’s by more than ten seconds. In the varsity event, Washington finally got the start they wanted and were able to open up a length lead by the midpoint, holding the Bears off into the sprint and winning the Copley Cup for the fourth year in a row.
Victory over Wisconsin by about a half-length of open water two weeks later on the Cut preceded the California Dual, now moved from the Estuary to Redwood Shores. On April 25th California once again powered to impressive wins in the JV and freshmen events, the frosh race a barn-burner, with Cal winning by about three seats. But the varsity race was a jaw-dropper, both crews storming out of the gate. Suddenly, at 400 meters, with the crews almost even, Cal’s stroke oar Andreja Stevanovic hooked the coxswain’s steering cable, ripping the cord from the shell and rendering the boat rudderless. Washington coasted to victory. It was a bizarre outcome and only served to stoke the fire of a Bear squad hungry for victory.
Opening Day offered a chance at friendly revenge against Nottinghamshire County Rowing Association – the same club that knocked the tough 1995 squad out of the Ladies’ Plate – and including four of the oarsmen out of the lightweight team that spoiled the undefeated season of the Huskies one year prior by a foot. And the race played out very similarly at the beginning, Notts jumping to an early half-length lead. But this time the Huskies kept locked on their opponent and did not allow them to move further, then shot through them midway through the course en route to a six-second victory. The Brits got some measure of satisfaction out of a one second win in the JV event, a terrific race for the crowd lining the shores of Montlake.
The Windermere Cup offered a brief respite from the now almost incessant focus on Cal, so it was back to work for the Pac-10’s slated for May 17th at Sacramento. But neither the JV’s nor the frosh could exact revenge for their earlier defeats, the frosh race once again providing some of the best racing of the day. Instead, revenge this day would be reserved for the Bear varsity, who attacked the start and sat on the Huskies down the length of the course, winning by about a second. This was the first Pac-10 victory for Cal in the varsity race since 1986, and the first sweep by the Bears since 1982.
The IRA’s two weeks later would offer the final showdown for these exceptional crews, and an opportunity for Washington to do something not done since 1941; win back to back Challenge Cups. The JV’s and freshmen would also get a chance to defend their titles, and all three crews advanced into the finals, the varsity and frosh crews winning their semifinals in impressive fashion.
The freshmen began the day with a gutsy race, but still fell to their west coast rival Cal, this quality Bear crew winning the Steward’s Cup for the first time since 1982, Washington finishing second. The JV’s held tough in their event but could not unload on the sprint, finishing a close fifth.
But it was the varsity race that was an all-timer, probably one of the best in the history of the event. Four crews matched speed through the first 500 meters – California, Princeton, Washington and Penn. By the midway point Washington and Princeton began to pull away from the pack, moving stroke for stroke, taking moves and counter-moves down the course. Even as the crews approached the finish line there was no discernable difference in the teams, the sprint to the finish a blur as the crews crossed the line, Princeton pulling it out by a second in the last 100 meters. “Princeton had to row a perfect race to beat us and they did,” said Ernst. It came down to who had the most at the end, and there’s not much more you can ask for a race of this caliber.” Coxswain Sean Mulligan was even more animated. “This is absolutely the most fantastic race I’ve ever been a part of,” he said. “It was back and forth between us the whole time. Princeton’s a great crew, and I applaud them.”
This race – in fact this season – was a throwback to the years laid down before these crews. It was not perfect, but it was an accurate reflection of the traditions embraced by the teams competing. Cal and Washington had duked it out four times, a bizarre outcome at the Dual leading into a terrific race at the conference championship. And the IRA was back where it belonged – offering a good venue and absolutely fantastic racing, guys selling it completely for the right to hold a trophy for a few minutes. No, it was not four miles, but anyone involved in that race, on that day, knew the commitment and effort left on the Cooper River was no different than that left on the Poughkeepsie seventy years before.
And for Washington, the disappointment of losing their titles meant they would go home like so many before them, intent on the season to come. Like so many years before, all they needed to know was that California was as strong as ever.
1998 ended overseas with another impressive performance by Huskies, including a silver medal in the lightweight 8+ for Sean Mulligan, a bronze for Phil Henry in the senior coxed pair, with Michael Callahan (4-) and Bob Cummins (alt.), Erik Miller (lt. 2-), and Steve Gillespie (4x) also landing spots on the team.
Captains Denni Nessler and Brett Reisinger with the W trophy from the Wisconsin dual. Washington Athletic Department photo.
It seemed almost remarkable, given the competitiveness of California in the decade, that 1998 would offer the first Pac-10 varsity championship in twelve years for the storied program. But like Washington, California was also on a stair step improvement schedule, and by 1997 the program was back with a vengeance. Now two years later, Steve Gladstone had the program running on all cylinders and then some.
It was with that machine-like precision that Cal came to San Diego and just mowed down the competition. The Bears won the Copley Cup for the first time since 1982, but it was not as much that they won, but how they won. Almost eleven seconds – three boat lengths – separated the victors from second place Washington, the Huskies another nine seconds in front of third place Yale and the rest of the pack. “We rowed a pretty good race, but it was evident Cal had more power” said senior coxswain Sean Mulligan in the understatement of the day. The California JV’s also won, but the Husky freshmen rowed a strong race, winning their event by a length over the Bears.
Two weeks later the varsity traveled to Wisconsin for the annual dual, and defeated the Badgers on a windy, short Lake Wingra course by two lengths. This was a very good Wisconsin team, and the margin underscored the speed of the Husky varsity this early in the season.
But on a sunny April 27th, Cal came north to the Cut with confidence. The Bear freshmen avenged their loss at San Diego by beating the Huskies by about a half-length, and the Cal JV’s also came fired up, dismantling their Washington counterparts by two lengths. But the row of the day was handed in by the Cal varsity, powering away from Washington from the beginning and rowing down the course in flawless harmony, winning by eleven seconds to complete the sweep. Anyone witnessing this row knew they had seen something special. “I’m really impressed, because I know we’re going fast right now,” said Mulligan. “To beat us by that much, they’re really clicking.” Bob Ernst added, “I don’t think we had a particularly bad row; Cal’s just that much better than we are.”
Apparently the sun was only going to shine when Cal was around, because the Windermere Cup a week later featured some of the worst weather seen in two decades. Although in past years the course had been shortened one or two hundred meters to accommodate the swells off Lake Washington, for the first time in this event the races were cut to 1,500 meters, shades of the early years where a four miler would have been started only to see a shell break in half across two rollers. Even with the shortened course the crews almost swamped during warm-ups. “It was the most stressful day of my life trying to get those races started” said Ernst. But the varsity had another good – albeit short – race, defeating a New Zealand pre-elite team (with very little on the water time together) by two lengths in 4:30.4. The JV’s and freshmen also won shortened races, both defeating crews from OCC.
The big question was whether the team had found a way to close the gap on California, and the answer two weeks later on Lake Natoma was a sobering “no”, the varsity succumbing by the same eleven second margin. The JV’s were equally clobbered, and this time the frosh lost by a full length to hammer home the fact that California had a dominant team and were not letting up.
Ernst knew that this Cal team was special and that his crews, measured on any level other than that of the Bears in this year, was very good. So he took all three crews to the IRA’s to prove it, and prove it they did, all three rowing into the finals on the strength of impressive rows in the heats and semis. In the finals, the freshmen finished fourth behind Brown, Cal, and Princeton. And the JV’s showed a spirit that could have easily been stuffed after the Pac-10’s, finishing second only to Cal by about a length, in the process pulling through Princeton in the last few strokes in a gap measured in inches.
The varsity race was an all-out sprint, typical now of this race and just as fierce as any in the decade, Cal moving out to a half-length lead over Princeton and Washington early. By the midway point Cal had a length on the two crews, Washington leading the Tigers by three seats. In the sprint Princeton was able to cut into the Bear lead only slightly, and California cruised home in 5:23.6, with Princeton about a length back and the Huskies in third, about three seats back of the Tigers. “Considering the amount of times this crew has been beaten up this year, it could have been really easy for them to have given up,” said Ernst of the fight left in his team to medal in the top two events.
The Washington coach also noted at the end of this race, and now the end of this season, “I don’t know of any rivalry more intense than the Washington – California rivalry. It’s right on the verge of being dangerous.” That, of course, might depend on your perspective. From the perspective of a coach, it was undoubtedly dangerous. But from the perspective of the fan, there was nothing more spectacular than the kind of competition and quality of crews being churned out by Ernst and Gladstone at the turn of the century. As the two universities inched closer to the one-hundredth year since their first athletic encounter on the water, the intensity and quality of the competition was as great as it had ever been. Who would want it any other way?
Rounding out the decade, Washington athletes made the most impressive overseas performance in many years, the following men representing the U.S. at the Pan Ams: Marc Schneider, Lt. 4-, gold; Michael Callahan, 4-, silver; Phil Henry, 8+, gold. At the World Championships at St. Catherines, the following men represented the U.S.: Marc Schneider, Lt. 4-; Erik Miller, Lt. alt.; Phil Henry, coxed pair, gold; Sean Mulligan, 4+, gold; Steve Gillespie, alt. Former Washington lightweight oarsman Willie Black was the manager of the team. Not since the 1984 Olympics did Washington have this kind of representation and medal winning performances at the elite level.
The freshmen eight at the IRA’s, left to right: Ashley Rosser (cox), Peter Dembicki, Matt Farrar, Matt Deakin, Patrick Stewart, Chris Hawkins, Logan Birch, Jon Burns, Brendan Patterson. Washington Athletic Department photo.
Thank you The Seattle Times and Seattle Post Intelligencer for providing the balance of information for these years.
The history content on this website is copyrighted © 2001 – 2015 by Eric Cohen, ’82, Team Historian.