Cougar Crew recruits identify with movie’s ‘classic underdog story’

WSU's Cougar Crew team rowing on the Snake River.
Many recruits across the nation are surprised to learn the team practices on the beautiful Snake River.

First-year Washington State University student Finley Luther vividly remembers his first race as a coxswain on the Cougar Crew team. It was a mad dash to the finish line as his boat edged out a competitor by less than a second.

“It was intense, and I did everything I could to motivate my rowers to keep pushing hard until the end,” Luther said. “It was pretty extraordinary and played out like a scene in Boys in the Boat.”

Boys in the Boat is a New York Times best-selling book by Daniel James Brown that chronicles the improbable journey of rowers from the University of Washington (UW) who won gold at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. The book inspired the creation of a Hollywood movie by the same name, that debuted nationwide in December 2023.

Luther watched the movie with his dad during winter break, and when an email message arrived in his inbox a few weeks later from Cougar Crew Assistant Coach Bjorn Elliott inviting him to tryout, he jumped at the chance to try the sport.

“The movie was definitely a factor that encouraged me to join, and being part of the team has been a great experience for me,” Luther said.

Luther wasn’t the only one influenced by the movie. Cougar Crew experienced a significant increase in the number of students who attended tryouts in January. While the fall semester is typically the biggest recruitment season for the team, Elliott said 24 students showed up for spring tryouts, almost double the number from last year.

“I was surprised by the amount of interest and had to scramble to ensure we had enough rowing machines for everyone,” Elliott said.

The ultimate team sport

Elliott described Boys in the Boat as a classic underdog story, one many of his rowers can relate to. Crew is not like football, basketball, or baseball where most kids start playing at a young age. Most of Elliott’s rowers had never picked up an oar before joining Cougar Crew.

That was the case with Carter Mills, a senior who has become the fastest rower in the top varsity eight-man boat.

“It is a really good sport to do in college because even though it pushes you to your limits, you can learn how to do it easily,” Mills said. “It’s perfect for students who miss the competitiveness of high school sports and the camaraderie of being on a team.”

Elliott said rowing is often called the ultimate team sport, a sport that does not have individual heroes.

“When you stop thinking about yourself on the water and get the boat to move as one, it feels like there’s just one person rowing, one consciousness,” Elliott said. “There’s nothing like that feeling of connection with the other guys.”

Becoming an ‘elite’ program

That feeling of connection is a selling point for Elliott as he talks with recruits. This is the first year the team has had a fulltime assistant coach, and a big part of Elliott’s job is to reach out to potential athletes locally and at high schools across the country. He is letting them know that WSU has a storied history of rowing dating back to 1970 when Cougar Crew was founded.

The WSU community can now see part of this history when they visit the Student Recreation Center. Recently installed in the lounge area is a 300-pound wooden shell named after Cougar rowing alum and former coach David M. Emigh in 1979.

“Cougar Crew alumni helped put on display one of the team’s early racing shells in the Student Recreation Center.
Cougar Crew alumni helped put on display one of the team’s early racing shells in the Student Recreation Center.

“The secret sauce to our success is our alumni who provide a lot of support for our team through donations and helping our graduates find jobs,” Elliott said.

Alumni donated $190,000 during this spring’s crew banquet, much of which will go to eliminating club dues for future rowers. That support, and the team’s success on the water (it finished eighth out of 32 teams at last year’s conference championships), bodes well for the team’s future.

“We are becoming an elite program within our division,” Elliott said. “I think we are going to grow fast in the next couple of years.”

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