What it's like to be an Aggie By Philip Sanzo

It’s a little bit of a hike to get from the University of Massachusetts campus to the UMass men’s rowing team’s boathouse in Northampton. Luckily at 5:45 a.m. there is not much traffic on Route 9 and the trip only takes about 15 minutes.

Six miles into the journey on the left-hand side of road, just before the Calvin Coolidge Bridge, there is a large building with “UMass Rowing” professionally embellished in capital letters on the side of it. That’s the Minutewomen’s boathouse. They are Division I.

Just over the bridge, immediately to the right is a small metal structure with “UM Rowing” painted on front door of the garage. That’s the men’s boathouse. They are considered a club.

With the sun just barely peeking its rays over the horizon, the men’s rowing team, still known as the Aggies, stretches and retrieves its boats from the boathouse. The club is broken up into three boats: the first varsity eight, the second varsity eight and the varsity four. The first varsity eight, known as the 1V, is seen as the top varsity boat.

Led by Coxswain, President and lone senior Kristina Deangulo, the 1V carry the Hudson, their new boat, from the boathouse to the aging, decrepit dock on the bank of the Connecticut River. In unison, the Aggies place their boat in the water and rig up their oars.

The 1V consists of eight seats and a coxswain. In the eight seat, also known as the stroke, directly in front of the coxswain at the stern of the boat is Ekim Otucu. In order behind him is Stephen Beaumont, Justin Iwen, Sam Chiburis, Matt Hobbes, Carl Brasch, George Meltzer and rounding out crew at the bow is Jake Savona.

Once settled in the water, the 1V begin to row up the Connecticut River. Following in a motorboat carefully observing and using a megaphone to amplify his critiques was coach Tony Cronin.

It’s a little after 6 a.m. on March 22 and the temperatures rarely surpass freezing. That doesn’t matter to the Aggies, though. They have races every weekend in cities ranging from Philadelphia to Worcester and will cap their spring season down in Georgia for the American Collegiate Rowing Association National Championships.

According to Savona, the 1V finished last year’s ACRA’s in the top 10, a finish that has consistently improved over the past few seasons. Yet University funding is continuing to shrink and practice space on campus is more and more restricted.

Other club teams at UMass have also suffered from a lack of funding and overall recognition from the University. It even led to a petition.

However, the Aggies don’t resent the University for its lack of commitment and resources; if anything, they embrace it. According to Otucu, “it kind of gives you that chip on your shoulder.”

What the Aggies do is strenuous. They are required to work out twice a day — once with the team as a whole in the early morning on the water and then again later in the day lifting weights and rowing on the indoor rowing machine. A typical day usually begins at 5 a.m. and ends at 10 p.m. with two practices, classes and homework in between.

Being that club sports cannot offer athletic scholarships or any sort of financial compensation, these student-athletes’ ability to remain at UMass relies solely on their academic standing. And with majors ranging from mechanical engineering to building and construction technology, handling rowing and academics becomes a complex balancing act.

Otucu, the eight seat rower, is a neuroscience major on a pre-med track. The sophomore has his hands full with classes but says that rowing provides his life with balance.

“So you know that when you get out of class in the afternoon you know you have to come to Totman [Gym], do your afternoon erg workout and you know you have your homework to do,” Otucu said. “And so it’s just very clear-cut. I think a lot of people have a hard time finding a way to structure their lives because they don’t have enough commitments in their lives.”

Essentially, club athletes like Otucu and the rest of the 1V do not have the National Collegiate Athletic Association athlete status to account for any excused absences for rowing over school. Balancing their life is an all-day affair that they are expected to maintain.

The day starts off early for Otucu, 5 a.m. to be exact. He puts on multiple layers to prepare for the cold, early morning temperature on the river. He then proceeds to make his way to the carpool spot and waits for his teammates to pick him up.

The sun is not fully out yet, and will not be for another hour. Otucu assumes his place in the eight seat of 1V boat and the Aggies make their way up and down the river for the next two hours. With some of the Aggies having classes at 8:30 a.m., the turnover from practice to class is a quick one. But for the others, breakfast at Franklin Dining Commons is the next move.

After breakfast some of the rowers head to classes, others back to their dorms or houses. Otucu heads straight for his bed. “Then a mandatory nap, because there is no way you’re going to be able to function for the rest of the day if you don’t get a nap in at that point in the morning.”

Following a 6 a.m. practice and a midmorning nap, Otucu goes to his classes much like every other college student. Then 4 p.m. rolls around and the focus shifts back to rowing where Otucu and a group of other rowers will do their afternoon workout for roughly two hours in Totman Gym.

When it comes to scheduling practice times, the Aggies are fairly lucky compared to some club sports. The Aggies have their boathouse on the river and small space for storage on campus in Totman. When the women’s club rugby team wants to schedule a practice, it needs to reserve a certain space for a certain amount of time, according to Shannon Kelly, a member of the women’s club rugby team. Sometimes even a reservation is no guarantee.

“The other week we were able to get McGuirk [Stadium] scheduled from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. and our entire team showed up,” Kelly said. “Our coach drives an hour and a half to coach us and the men’s soccer team was just there, playing a scrimmage.”

Kelly said the women’s rugby team’s practice was moved to 10 p.m. until midnight.

Much like the other club sports on campus, financially speaking, most of the Aggies' funding comes from $1,000 dues that each member is expected to pay. The payments are broken up throughout the course of the year into approximately $200 increments.

According to Cronin, the dues go toward the Aggies’ uniforms, travel fees and race entry fees, among many other aspects of running the program.

“So it’s not like their $1,000 is just here and then everything is on top of it,” Cronin said. “That $1,000 is everything that we do. It gives them a food stipend when we travel, it gives them transportation to and from these regattas, transportation to and from these camps every year.”

With club sports all but completely neglected, the Aggies continue to work. They meet on the second floor of Totman and they push themselves to improve. Red in the face and glistening from the sweat, the Aggies continue practicing with the erg. Sometimes they even race each other.

On the second floor of Totman Gym there is a maroon door with a “UMass Men’s Rowing” sticker placed on the front of it. Past the door is a long, poorly lit closet, cluttered with erg machines, weights and workout equipment. It is in slight disarray but is a storage room nonetheless. A door leading into the gymnasium is located on the left-hand side of the storage room. However, during the day that is reserved for the dance department, forcing the men’s rowing team to practice in an alternative location: the stairwell on the other end of the closet.

The Aggies make their way to the stairwell throughout the course of the afternoon. In order to work around their class schedule, some of the rowers elect to work out as late as 8 p.m.

The vibe of the workout is atypical and seems secretive. The closet is dark and the stairwell is practically hidden. Erg machines are lined up at the top the stairs and usually up against the railing in order to provide some sort of opposing resistance.

It’s quiet.

At times the only sound that can be heard comes from the cable attached to a handle, winding and unwinding as the Aggies simulate rowing on the water.

The white noise it creates is calming, yet eerie. So often workout spaces are filled with music to help fuel the motivation and distract from the pain. The Aggies’ stairwell once too was like that. However, noise complaints from other people in the building forced the Aggies to kill their music. Each rower compensated though by personally investing in wireless earbuds that they can use while they work out.

“It’s come to the point where you have a small space and it might not seem like much but it’s our space.”

The music situation is not ideal and neither is the space that the men’s rowing team practices in. But they make it work, and even like to embrace it.

“It’s come to the point where you have a small space and it might not seem like much but it’s our space,” Savona said. “Whatever we have we’re going to try and keep it ours and keep it in our own kind of way.”

The Aggies are a proud group. They are proud of their facilities, proud of their accomplishments and especially proud of each other. While many joined for the exercise, many stayed because of the team.

“It was honestly the group of guys at first,” Iwen, a junior, said. “We had such a good group and I met Jeremy [Hall], he’s my best friend and we got along really well, it was just a lot of fun. And working out is also, it’s not something I used to do, it’s something I wanted to do to make myself feel better too. The guys definitely helped me stick around.”

Despite the lack of recognition from the University, the Aggies continue to race and compete, holding themselves to high standards. This culture of “rolling with the punches” as Otucu puts it, helps to not only keep the team motivated, but to also attract prospective rowers.

Many NCAA teams, especially at UMass, can point to their facilities as a way of attracting recruits. Club sports like men’s rowing are not afforded the same luxury. Being unable to offer recruits any money to attend UMass — a school becoming increasingly more expensive — and not having the facilities to use as a selling point makes recruiting difficult. Ultimately, the Aggies have to sell the University and their team culture.

“We show them around the University and say like ‘Oh yeah, this is a really cool place to come and learn and row,’ so please come here and please row for us kind of thing,” Savona said.

According to Brasch, a sophomore and the six seat rower for the 1V, the sense of community the team has is its biggest selling point.

“That’s definitely something that we pride ourselves on,” Brasch said of the Aggies’ culture. “So I think try to welcome them into that and try to get them to have a good sense of just how close we are is probably the biggest selling point we have for potential freshmen.”

That type of relationship kept Deangulo active as a coxswain for club team. Now living with eight of the rowers in a house off campus, Deangulo said the program has grown immensely since she was a freshman four years ago. She attributes this to the 1V she has been commanding since her sophomore year.

“No one even noticed us my freshman year,” Deangulo said. “We had brought two eights and a four and I raced in the freshmen four and we came in last place and now we’re actually involved and people think about us when we go there.”

Early mornings on the Connecticut River and countless hours of working out in a stairwell culminate with a regatta on the weekend. On April 8, a Saturday, it was in Worcester on Lake Quinsigamond. This weekend was particularly busy for the Aggies. They had two separate races in two different towns on back-to-back days.

The first day was not supposed to be a particularly cold one, but the wind whipping off of Lake Quinsigamond at 9 a.m. required the crowd of spectators at Donahue Rowing Center to bundle up in hats and gloves. The first race they saw was between the varsity eight teams for Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Wesleyan University, Colby College, Hamilton College and UMass.

A poor start put the Aggies behind early in the 2000-meter race. They were unable to recover and ended up finishing fourth, 12 seconds behind WPI — a Division III athletic school.

The Aggies pulled the boat out of the water and carried it back to their trailer where they met with Cronin to discuss their performance.

The men’s club rowing team had little time to dwell on their poor performance; it had a race the very next day on the Malden River in Medford, Massachusetts where the Aggies finished in third. After an off-day Monday, the team was back out on the water Tuesday morning and working out in the stairwell Tuesday afternoon.

The weekly process restarts. They practice twice a day and race on the weekend.

They still get up at 5 a.m. to be on the Connecticut River by 6 a.m. because they love every minute of it. They love being an Aggie.

Philip Sanzo can be reached at psanzo@umass.edu and followed on Twitter @Philip_Sanzo.

All photos by Philip Sanzo.

Created By
Philip Sanzo

Report Abuse

If you feel that this video content violates the Adobe Terms of Use, you may report this content by filling out this quick form.

To report a Copyright Violation, please follow Section 17 in the Terms of Use.