There are rites of passage that virtually every Penn student passes through during their four years on campus. Hey Day. Failing to avoid the compass and realizing it doesn’t actually do anything. And of course, being approached by a representative from the rowing team.
Wednesday night, the students who heeded that call received their first taste of life on the water, with the women’s squad hosting a one-hour information session and the men’s heavyweight team following suit immediately after.
Rowing holds the distinction of being the only Penn varsity sport that actively recruits new members — a status that its coaches and athletes eagerly accept.
“The reason [these students are] here is that we spend a lot of time during move-in and during all the NSO events trying to talk to as many people as we can,” men’s heavyweight coach Greg Myhr said. “So we make a significant effort between all three of our teams to get the word out about rowing.”
The recruiting effort is certainly aided by its visibility. For example, new assistant men’s heavyweight coach Drew Baustian was a fixture at the lower quad gate on move-in day, chatting up virtually every confused-looking freshman behind a bulky cart with a smile on his face.
But the appeal of rowing to the novices — many of whom may have never held an oar in their lives — may lie within the ease at which the sport is picked up.
“I don’t know if you could recruit someone for volleyball or basketball or football who had no idea what that sport was. I just don’t think you could get up to speed in time,” Myhr said. “With rowing, you put an oar in the water, you pull really hard on it and you do it again and again and again.
“And there’s some subtlety to it, but not that much.”
That broad appeal led to a massive crowd of all shapes and sizes packing in a muggy Donaldson Room at Weightman Hall, from the former cross country standouts to the ROTC kids, all the way to the freshman who thought she would need to put on weight to become a coxswain.
Tryouts, though, are demanding. Myhr embraces it.
“It is [intensive,] and we’re looking for pretty special athletes,” he said. “It’s awesome because we do find them every year.”
The number of neophytes that come to a handful of practices before walking away far exceeds the precious few that survive the cutdown process and qualify for the novice team. By Myhr’s estimation, 60-80 men begin the walk-on process to the heavyweight team, but only 10-20 remain at the school year’s end.
A few of those survivors were on hand at Wednesday’s meeting.
Juniors Connor Davenport, Matt Wagener and Diego Fiori — all of whom successfully completed the walk-on process — stood off to the side with smiles on their faces as Myhr and Baustian made their presentation.
For the junior trio, the informational meeting stirred up funny memories of the walk-on process that ultimately proves too daunting for some.
“I flipped a boat ... and that was really cold,” Davenport recalled. “But it was a good time and a memory that will last long past the days where flipping boats don’t happen anymore.”
“[Rowing’s] a sport where anyone can be successful, so we like to have a lot of people come out,” Fiori added. “And yeah, a bunch of them quit, but the ones that don’t can be really integral parts of the team.”
And for everyone associated with the program, success stories like those make the whole process worth it.