Sweat pours down their faces as the bite of the cool morning air stings their nostrils; they pant furiously, straining with all of their might to keep in harmony with the others. While so much is going on inside the boat, the UCLA club men’s rowing team hurtles gracefully across the water like a bird through the air ““ it looks simple, almost effortless.
“When everyone is on the same page and you’re one unit on every stroke ““ that’s the best,” said Brian Belleville, a fourth-year physics student. “It’s amazing how once everyone gets in sync, the boat gets stronger and it starts to gain that momentum ““ that’s when you know it’s going good.”
The men’s rowing team has been a club sport at UCLA since 1991 when it was dropped by UCLA Athletics as an official NCAA sport. This means that the team is comprised of all walk-ons, competing on their own merit.
“No one on this team gets a scholarship or other benefits to compete,” said Griffin Lowe, a fourth-year civil engineering student. “We’re out here at the beginning of every year being really aggressive in recruiting on Bruin Walk, at the Sports Jamboree, everywhere. It gets tough.”
Despite the lack of scholarship athletes and funding from UCLA, the team requires a similar level of training and commitment that rivals a typical scholarship program. The team starts intense training in October, when the varsity rowers are either rowing or weight lifting twice a day, every day.
“We’re on the water every day at 6 a.m. in Marina del Rey,” Belleville said. “It can be difficult at times, but we love it ““ that’s why we’re out here.”
Despite their dedication to the program, they saw very little success last season, leading to the hire of a new coach: Scott Charette.
“The men’s rowing program at UCLA has had a history of success,” said Charette, who came to UCLA after a year of coaching the varsity program at Loyola Marymount University. “Whether the team was going to be good right away or not was not my concern. There was a lot of potential to build a good team and a good program.”
The coaching change instigated a whole new culture for the program based around the simple fact that UCLA is filled with driven, committed individuals ““ two attributes that are vital toward turning around a program.
“To get into UCLA, you need to be able to operate at a higher level,” Charette said. “You have to be an overachiever to be at UCLA, and those are qualities that also make great athletes.”
Charette’s philosophy coming in was to loosen the reins and let the team focus more on its technique and less on training. This led to some unanticipated, but welcome, results.
“Scott is more of a hands-off kind of coach,” Lowe said. “He left it to us to find that motivation and just focus on our stroke. He let us show what we were capable of.”
Only one year removed from a winless season, the Bruins placed second in men’s pair and third in men’s varsity eight at the Western Intercollegiate Rowing Association Championships in Sacramento on May 1.
This event was the culmination of a long season that gave UCLA the chance to prove that it belonged in the upper echelon of men’s rowing on the West Coast. The third-place finish by the men’s varsity eight did just that, as they finished first among all club teams, behind Gonzaga and UC San Diego, two fully funded varsity programs.
“One of the players from (UC Irvine) came over to Scott after the match and talked about how they would have given anything to be where we were,” Belleville said. “To know that the competition wanted it as much as you and that you were able to come out on top ““ it meant a lot to me. It meant a lot to our team.”
UCLA later wrapped up the season at the Pac-10 Championships where the men’s varsity eight finished in sixth, one spot ahead of archrival USC, who beat them in 2010.
“It’s a really unique opportunity to be a part of this team and a part of this sport,” Lowe said. “This team is all built around trust and knowing that the guy behind me and the guy in front of me is 100 percent dedicated like I am. It makes me really proud to be a part of it.”