In the 11th year of its program, the UCLA rowing team has reached a new zenith.
Ranked as high as No. 3 nationally at one point in the season, the Bruins’ dominance this season has contributed to the excitement surrounding the team’s future.
Even though its matchup last Saturday against No. 5 USC ended in a one-point loss to its crosstown rival, the defeat has only served to motivate the team for the Pac-12 Championships.
“I think it’s been evolving to this point for the last few years,” coach Amy Fuller Kearney said.
“We were 12th in the country two years ago, and last year we had a very young team. They are an incredibly hard-working, coachable group, and they deserve the success they’ve had.”
Fuller Kearney has been coach for the 11 years that the program has been established at UCLA. She helped initiate the Bruins’ Division I program in 2001.
Prior to her arrival in Westwood, Fuller Kearney was the assistant coach for Stanford’s rowing team. Her own rowing career began in college at UC Santa Barbara, and she went on to become a three-time Olympian.
“It’s been a process, and in that process we have to keep learning and keep pushing, keep adapting, both the coaching staff and the athletes,” Fuller Kearney said. “This has always been the goal. It’s always been what we have aspired to (do).”
The coaching staff has adopted a more active role in motivating the rowers in order to garner the respect and attention of the athletes as they train.
“I’ve noticed a slight difference, as far as interactions between the coaching staff and the rowers,” senior Anastasia Alexander said.
“They’re more interested in developing a relationship to develop our team. We don’t want to show up to practice every day and feel like we’re working really hard and not really getting back an element of trust.”
The team has relied on the experience of past rowers as well as the addition of walk-ons to maintain a high level of competition.
“They’ve brought in a great foundation of athletics and fitness from other sports and learned to row and fell in love with it,” Fuller Kearney said.
“You have to fall in love with it because it’s really hard, and so, if you don’t love it, you won’t be successful. It’s always a part of our sport.”
As the team garners new recognition, the role of recruiting has brought a significant boost to the competitiveness of the program.
This year’s freshman class helped strengthen the team both mentally and physically, as the presence of more elite athletes has enhanced the depth of the team as well as the morale during practice and training.
“I think everyone that is returning has really stepped up in this past year, as well as having the new freshmen, who are great,” senior Ariel Handler said. “I just think everyone who came back after last year has stepped up a ton.”
Assistant coach Justin Price recently stepped into the position of recruiting coordinator for the team and has reeled in the best recruiting class the program has seen thus far.
“Certainly, when you’re successful, it does make recruiting top athletes easier,” Fuller Kearney said.
“I just don’t think there’s any going back. The expectation within all the athletes will always be higher. They have to be empowered, they have to be their team, and they have to have that expectation and the confidence to perform.”
With the addition of this top-notch recruiting class, the Bruins will certainly be in a position to prolong their success next year as the team is only losing two seniors: Handler, who serves as a coxswain, and Alexander, who rows in the first varsity eight boat.
“The girls on the team are really starting to believe, and that true confidence that you have now going to the starting line just gives them a little extra skip in their step, and confidence in any race situation that they can pull through,” Fuller Kearney said.
The team received its first-ever championship berth two years ago, and it is motivated to reach that same level as the postseason approaches.
“We’ve gained a lot of speed, and we’re really fast right now for our program,” Alexander said. “But there’s still so much more speed to be gained.”