Cougar Crew Days celebrating 50 years of rowing at WSU

Cougar Crew rowing on Snake River as people watch on the shore.
Members of Cougar Crew row on the Snake River as part of the group's annual reunion weekend.

A half-century of competitive rowing at Washington State University is being celebrated this week as part of Cougar Crew Days.

What started with a few students building their own boathouse and racing with equipment donated by a University of Washington rowing coach has blossomed into a club that’s given hundreds their first taste of being a part of a bon-a-fide varsity crew team. It also has grown into an intercollegiate NCAA program for WSU women athletes.

A passion for rowing – particularly with the majestic Snake River Canyon as a backdrop – kept Cougar Crew rowing ever onward as new student athletes took up the oars of those that came before. The persistence of Cougar Crew through rough and calm waters demonstrates how important its perseverance is for alumni as well as those in the boats today.

“Student clubs are really difficult to maintain, and when you consider the cost, equipment and logistical needs of the sport, it’s almost unbelievable that the club was not only formed, but persists to this day,” said David Arnold, a Cougar Crew member who chronicled the history of the team in his book, “Pull Hard!”.

Cougar Crew Days is taking place Thursday through Saturday in Pullman and will include races among current and former members as well as a celebratory banquet and auction at Beasley Coliseum. More information is available on the Cougar Crew website.  

Rowing on the Palouse

The grit and determination of the founding members of what was originally known as the WSU Rowing Club were tested early on.

The original boathouse built by members below lower Granite Dam at Boyer Park in 1971 was destroyed the following year by a storm, forcing members to start again. The first WSU rowers only made it to the water because of UW coach Dick Erickson, who donated the team’s first two shells.

Erikson would prove prophetic when he said in 1973 to a team of disappointed Cougs after a race, “Look at what you guys have started…come back here in fifty years and you won’t believe what this has grown into.”

Among the standouts from the early days of Cougar Crew were Paul Enquist and Kristi Norelius, who both earned gold medals in rowing events at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games.

Because Cougar Crew is a varsity sports club at WSU, its members historically join with little or no formal rowing experience. Arnold arrived at WSU in 1984 having never stepped into a rowing shell, yet found himself riding along with teammates as often as he could to get time on the Snake River. Even today, somewhere around 80 to 90 percent of Cougar Crew members join the team as walk-ons, said Peter Brevick, head coach of the men’s crew teams.

“Seeing that connection between the effort you’re putting in and the results on the stopwatch is intoxicating for a student-athlete and in tandem with the support we receive from alumni, it really drives our teams to put everything they can into Cougar Crew,” Brevick said.

The bonds between members of Cougar Crew remain strong today, Following the publication of “Pull Hard,” Brevick learned that a part of one of the original shells had been taken by a previous member and stored in their parents garage. It now hangs from the ceiling of the Hollingbery Fieldhouse and will be rededicated as part of the Cougar Crew Days festivities.

Sharing the Snake River

As Cougar Crew and the sport grew, Women’s Rowing at WSU became an Intercollegiate Athletics-supported sport. The chance to row on the Snake River had evolved into an opportunity for many to continue to pursue excellence in rowing at the collegiate and even world championship level.

It was that opportunity that drew Nicole Hare to attend WSU. A member of the Canadian National Rowing Team, Hare started out in rowing at 12 years old after seeing a race on TV. From there, she started driving to a reservoir near her in Calgary, Alberta and was recruited out of high school to continue rowing.

While a WSU student, Hare competed in the World Under 23 Championships for Team Canada, earning bronze and silver medals in 2014 and 2015, respectively. She took a gap year from WSU in 2015-16 to work more closely with the team, and made its Olympics roster for both the 2016 Rio Games and the 2020 Tokyo Games.

“There’s a great relationship with all the teams at WSU,” Hare said. “We all share the boat house and its amenities, we maintain all of the equipment, both teams share similar experiences of daily trips to the Snake River, and occasionally we will challenge each other in practice race pieces.” 

In addition to her responsibilities as a graduate assistant coach with Women’s Rowing, Hare is preparing to compete for a spot with Canada’s 2024 Olympics team. Rowing for WSU comes with the added perk of the Snake River, where teams can row nearly endlessly with only the prospect of the occasional private boat or small cruise boat to share the waterway with.

While rowing is historically looked at as an “elite sport for the elite,” Hare said the teams at WSU work to ensure opportunities are available for students of all skill levels that are interested in rowing.

“What makes rowing really accessible is that money is used for boats and other equipment than can be shared among so many athletes,” Hare said.  “The traditions in place here at WSU along with all of the people who help to keep it going make for such a wonderful community of support for student athletes.”

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