Princeton rowing’s four varsity rosters operate under a necessity that differs from all other varsity programs: a reliance on walk-on contributions.
Walk-on statistics for Princeton’s four rowing teams are complete outliers. Recruits dominate the rosters of the other 33 varsity Princeton teams, which typically include one to two walk-ons. For rowing, walk-ons are necessary to field a complete roster. Between men’s heavyweight, men’s lightweight, women’s open weight and women’s lightweight, walk-ons make up 28 percent, 45 percent, 33 percent and 69 percent of the 2019 rosters respectively. In total, men’s heavyweight, men’s lightweight, women’s open weight, and women’s lightweight have 15, 20, 18 and 19 walk-ons.
This may stem from rowing’s uniqueness as a walk-on-friendly sport. Compared to other sports, rowing’s learning curve is not as steep. Furthermore, many high schools do not have developed rowing programs, so many talented athletes have never had opportunities for exposure.
Walk-ons comprise a high percentage of rosters for other top rowing programs, such as Columbia and Georgetown. Georgetown, able to provide athletic scholarships to its athletes, has even more walk-ons than Princeton across all four teams. Financially, adding walk-ons does not place a significant burden on programs.
“The most we lose is some long sleeve t-shirts,” said women’s lightweight assistant coach Alex Morss ’13. “Considering what some of them contribute in the end, it’s totally worth it.”
The statistical discrepancy in walk-on numbers between Princeton’s rowing teams is due to the number of recruiting spots given — women’s lightweight rowing is only allotted an average of three recruiting spots per year, while men’s heavyweight has eight to nine.
But the difference in numbers for yearly recruits does not necessarily factor into team performance, given the high national finishes across each Princeton rowing team. In 2018, men’s heavyweight, men’s lightweight, and women’s lightweight ended their seasons with fifth, second and third place finishes at Intercollegiate Rowing Association Championships in the 1v boat, respectively. Women’s open weight rowing (the only rowing team which is an NCAA sport and does not compete in IRAs) finished in fifth at the 2018 NCAA Championships.
In Princeton’s most recent lineup of the 1v boat, between all four varsity rosters, each spot was held by a recruited athlete. The reputation of a varsity rowing program typically lies with the finish of its top boat — the 1v eight boat. Arguably, this is a credit to the outstanding caliber of Princeton recruits. Recruited athletes have won races at European Junior Championships, Canadian Henleys, Junior World Championships and more.
After Princeton, top rowers frequently continue to compete at the highest level. In the 2016 Rio Olympics, Princeton rowing flaunted six alumni — come 2018, nine Princeton alumni competed in the World Championships.
This adds a whole new dimension to the walk-on story: in Princeton’s boathouse, future Olympians practice alongside novice rowers.
But walk-ons do not diminish the status of Princeton’s top-notch, nationally-ranked program. With hard work, athleticism and dedication, walk-ons can make their way to the top of the roster, and maybe even the world rowing stage, too.
“Walk-ons consistently contribute to top boats,” said men’s lightweight assistant coach William Manning.
In recent years, Emily Schneider ’18 was an experienced lightweight women’s walk-on, who became team captain by her senior season. Kanoe Shizuru ’17 was a novice walk-on on the cusp of lightweight and open weight, who worked her way onto the NCAA lineup for women’s open weight.
And certain names are boathouse legends, such as Heidi Robbins ’13, originally a novice, who rowed in the US women’s eight that claimed the gold at the 2014 World Rowing Championships.
This season, in the 2v boats for men’s lightweight and women’s lightweight, and in the 1v four for women’s lightweight, a few walk-ons are in the line-up. There are also walk-ons in the 3v for women’s open weight and men’s heavyweight.
Walk-on coxswains play an integral role on every team and frequently are in top boats. Recruiting spots are limited for multiple coxswains, yet solid coxswains are essential to rowing — they steer the boats, motivate rowers, provide technical feedback and keep track of statistics.
Additionally, the performance of all boats, outside the 1v, is not to be discounted. Come Eastern Sprints on May 5, Princeton has its eyes set on team cup, which factors in multiple varsity boats.
Perhaps the most important walk-on contribution of all: walk-ons help to maintain a competitive environment that makes every boat better. They advance and augment team depth.
“Walk-on contributions are massive. They push the people above them to get faster, they push the 3v, which pushes the 2v, which pushes the 1v,” said sophomore men’s heavyweight rower Tassilo von Mueller.
“They do more than you think they do.”
Recruiting the Walk-Ons: The Walk-On Process
Rowing coaches and teammates alike see the necessity for walk-ons. But they also recognize that being a walk-on is far from a cakewalk; and, likewise, walk-ons have a high attrition rate. Consequently, there is a need for high numbers from the get-go.
Perhaps oxymoronically, Princeton rowing coaches recruit their walk-ons. They stake out freshman orientation events, like the Pre-rade barbecue and activities fair. Team members take initiatives to encourage walking on, too. Current walk-ons were inspired to try crew at the urgings of Princeton Preview host, a fellow student who attended the same high school, and even a roommate.
Take sophomore Kailey Dubinsky, who had never lifted an oar coming into Princeton. She had not foreseen her Princeton experience being shaped by a fierce dedication to an unfamiliar sport: 6 a.m. practices followed by afternoon lifts, weekends dedicated to all-day regattas, the grueling practice of weight-cutting leading up to a race. But now, with upwards of three hours of rowing per day, Dubinsky’s collegiate life revolves around crew.
During freshman orientation, Dubinsky was approached by Coach Manning, who asked her if she was an athlete.
Dubinsky replied with a quick no, though she had been a competitive runner and hoped to pursue athletics as seriously as possible at Princeton.
Coach Manning handed a flier to Dubinsky, encouraging her to attend an information session about walking onto the women’s rowing roster.
Dubinsky attended a jam-packed session with nearly 70 women considering crew. The following day, she attended a 6 a.m. practice alongside approximately 45 women who had never rowed before.
For the next two weeks, Dubinsky learned basic rowing and ergometer techniques with all novice women. After these two weeks, lightweight novices were separated from open weight novices, but they continued to practice rowing on the water, separated from the recruited athletes.
This weight-separation procedure is standard across the men’s rosters as well. However, the four teams differ slightly regarding how they handle “experienced walk-ons.” Every year, a few “experienced walk-ons” join each roster — these athletes learned to row in high school but decided to join the college team after receiving admission. Depending on the number and skillset of these “experienced walk-ons,” they may or may not join the recruited athletes during practices in the fall. For example, senior William Hess, who walked onto men’s lightweight with experience, immediately joined the recruited athletes, while first-year Artemis Veizi stayed with the other novices on women’s lightweight.
During this time, training the coxswains as quickly as possible is crucial: a coxswain is required to be an immediate leader, helping ensure that practices run smoothly. What’s more, the learning curve for coxing is known to be steeper than rowing, often requiring years of familiarity and mastery.
“Arguably, it’s a lot harder to learn how to cox than to row,” noted Veizi.
During the fall, depending on the year’s numbers, walk-ons may compete in their own boat at the fall regattas: the Head of the Charles, followed by the Princeton Chase.
But after two months, the separation of walk-ons and recruits starts to become nonexistent. As Lake Carnegie freezes over, practices on the water will transition to brutal winter training on the ergometers.
The process of integration commences as walk-ons are challenged to complete the same workouts as recruits.
“We treat every athlete as an individual, but we don’t water down our team for those who merely wish to participate. This is not intramurals. We cater to competitors,” noted Manning.
At this point in the season, severe walk-on drop-off begins. In the 2018 season, by the end of the winter, Dubinsky was one of two novice rowers on women’s lightweight who had not quit.
“I just kept showing up,” laughed Dubinsky.
None of the teams cut walk-ons. If there are enough athletes to seat a boat of eight, that boat of eight will race.
Nonetheless, walk-on attrition is extremely high. Walk-ons who quit during the winter often cite the brutal workouts — ergometer workouts with supplemental training — as the primary factor.
“It’s fairly self-selective. People can figure out if they like working that hard,” said Coach Morss.
“Winter training pushes your physical capacity,” said sophomore Isabelle Chandler, who was the only other women’s lightweight novice walk-on in 2018. “You know there’s the spring season coming, but it can be very hard to go down to the boathouse.”
The time commitment is an issue, too. “There is certainly the Princeton mentality of ‘If I’m not at the top, I should do something else with my time,’” noted senior Emily Erdos, a coxswain for women’s open weight.
Erdos is the former Head Opinion Editor for the Daily Princetonian.
Over Intersession, walk-ons travel to Tampa, Florida and begin fully integrating in practices with the recruited athletes in boats on the water. Come spring, practices resume on Lake Carnegie.
At this point, walk-ons become full team members, no longer part of a separate novice squad. They get their lockers. They get their singlets.
“Once they’re here, we don’t care how they got here or what they did previously, only how much they help the team,” said Coach Manning.
Additionally, they begin infusing healthy competition into the team dynamic, as they start to compete for spots in top boats.
Novices No More: Walk-On Integration Leads to Contribution
In her freshman fall, Dubinsky did not anticipate her own hefty contribution to the varsity lightweight rowing program.
But Dubinsky had been keeping up with her teammates, posting stellar pieces in ergometer workouts. Her coach decided to “seat-race” her against another athlete, to see if she was prepared for a more competitive boat. Seat-racing aims to compare two rowers by switching just one person out in a boat and comparing overall boat times.
“When I started seat-racing to be in more competitive boats, I felt like I was fast enough to compete,” said Dubinsky.
Over a year and a half later, Dubinsky is racing in the varsity four boat.
Walk-on success comes with three main variables: technique, rowing-specific fitness, and work ethic.
First, regardless of natural athleticism, developing solid rowing technique is essential. In this respect, experienced walk-ons often have technical advantages over complete novices.
“It [normally] takes at least a year and a half to get to the technical level of a recruit, from someone who has never touched a blade,” noted Hess.
Next, rowing requires strength and cardio endurance. Developing a cardiovascular base for rowing can take several years; walk-ons with experience in swimming or running may have an easier transition.
Last is a certain intangible quality that nearly every coach, recruit and walk-on interviewed referenced. The ability to push yourself to your physical limits underlies rowing success. Technique and athleticism may take time to develop, but work ethic is expected from the beginning.
Regardless of 2k splits, a singular “work hard” mindset unifies the boathouse.
Ensuring Walk-On Success: Fostering a Unified Team
With 13 walk-ons joining the women’s lightweight program, this year has surpassed all other years in walk-on retention rate.
Artemis Veizi attributes this largely to team dynamics: an immediate bond forged with the other walk-ons and a respect for the veteran rowers.
Additionally, as one of three experienced walk-ons, Veizi was able to help bridge the gap between recruits and walk-ons.
“We knew how to do the workouts, and we knew what we were getting ourselves into. I was confident in my decision to walk on, which could have lent itself to making other walk-ons comfortable in their decision and could have contributed to the retention rate,” commented Veizi.
In practices, this year’s walk-ons received the ergometer scores of Chandler and Dubinsky from the previous year, so that they could track their progress against Chandler and Dubinsky.
“I was pretty conscious of being a walk-on, until this year,” noted Dubinsky. “But we’ve really wanted to integrate the walk-ons earlier — it’s been a huge focus.”
Men’s lightweight is working to foster this culture, too. This year, captains began assigning each committed freshman to an upperclassmen “point person” as an athletic and academic mentor. Meal exchanges and team meals became a priority.
All efforts for retention aside, each walk-on interviewed never considered quitting.
All genuinely love the experience of collegiate rowing, including its challenges — the structure and routine it imposes, the deep friendships and sense of rowing community, the shared struggle yet a simultaneous enjoyment of the physical workout.
In fact, Coach Morss, who currently oversees all the women’s lightweight walk-ons — was a novice rower herself.
“Coming down to the boathouse means a lot. Now, it’s really fun to watch the walk-ons grow into that. The cycle will continue.”