If you should find yourself on Ross’s Landing on Saturday, October 10th around 7:00am, be prepared to witness a spectacle—the good kind. The Chattanooga Head Race is an event that hosts hundreds of boats and over a thousand crew members as well as thousands more coaches, friends, and spectators. It is a race that comes from a long and well-respected tradition, and over the years it has attracted some of the region's finest competitors and hard-working athletes.
One such group of athletes is the award-winning Georgia Tech Crew team. The school’s largest club sport and an official crew team since 1986, Georgia Tech is worth watching. They have four squads: novice men, novice women, varsity men, and varsity women with the novice squads consisting solely of members just starting out in their rowing careers. After a year with the Georgia Tech program, they’re promoted to varsity. Of the 90+ members on the teams, maybe six have rowed prior to their first year at Tech. Most of Georgia Tech’s team is novice squads, and typically the varsity squads consist of members beginning their second year rowing.
What does that mean for spectators? It means they have the chance to watch groups of young people—not necessarily the most experienced in their field—working hard together to accomplish a common goal.
But in addition to the team on the water, there’s hard work and sacrifice behind the scenes as well. As a club sport, the team is managed by 10 student officers comprising a "Board." They’re the ones who are responsible for hiring the eight-person coaching staff, coordinating members, and most importantly, passing information from predecessor to successor when the Officer Board changes year-to-year. They do all of this on a yearly budget of nearly $100k (not including the occasional $30k expense of purchasing a new racing shell), which is nearly entirely funded by student membership dues. Kaye says around $30k of their budget pays for their entire coaching staff.
The team’s main goal off the water is to increase their endowment to properly compensate their coaches. “It’s common for club teams to have high turnover in the coaching staff because of the lack of money and the time demands of the job,” Team President Alec Kaye says.
While finding funds is certainly a challenge the board and team face, they also experience yearly board changes because members graduate. “Changes can be a huge struggle for the team,” Kaye says. But two factors have kept them successful thus far—their alumni support and their coaching staff. “Young alumni tend to linger around the officer board to ensure the transfer of knowledge, and the older alumni offer anything you can imagine to better the team. We’re really incredibly lucky,” he says.
It’s not surprising that the coaching staff is the other key to Georgia Tech’s success. Long time coach Rob Canavan (21 years with the team) retired in January and is credited with leading the team to become the Southeast powerhouse club that it is with its 3 IRA (Intercollegiate Rowing Association Nation Championship) medals and 35 Dad Vail (the largest intercollegiate rowing event in the U.S.) medals. Canavan brought stability to the once-small club team. The new coach, Jay Skuban, is an excellent rower (he rowed for Yale) and an experienced coach.
Georgia Tech Rowing’s season is from August to May and they approach their workouts with the idea that: “It takes nine months to build a champion.”
Kaye says the team quote has two meanings: 1) our seasons last for nine months, and 2) we believe any person can become a champion as long as they are diligent in their preparations. Our team motto is actually: “Plan to Win, Prepare to Win, Expect to Win.”
Planning and Preparing are nearly complete synonyms, Kaye says, but that goes to show how much they emphasize effort. Kaye also says there is no single individual who makes the team successful: “Every time we practice, every person in any boat works to become a single unit that operates and breathes together. It's simple yet complex, and I'm glad that atmosphere runs through the veins of this rowing club.”
How do they excel? What’s their training secret? Kaye says, “Pretty much all successful programs will say the same thing: get the mileage. On the ergs, on the water. That's pretty much the secret.”
In addition to the hard work of training and competing, members have challenging curricula. Kaye says, “There are no easy courses at Georgia Tech.” On top of the tough classroom work, it takes an average of 50 minutes one-way to get to the boathouse from campus (Atlanta traffic is the biggest factor in the commute); the cost per rower per year is typically around $1300; the club constitution demands zero consumption of alcohol during the last two months leading up to Dad Vail; and they practice 6 days a week with the expectation that rowers do additional workouts on their own. That’s the price of excellence.
“And yet,” Kaye adds, “they figure it all out and manage to find the time and energy to devote themselves to this team.” As president, Kaye often finds himself devoting more time to this team than he does to his studies, not because he’s foolish but because, “I can look into the eyes of a Georgia Tech Rower and outright know that every second is worth it.”
When you see the rowers on the Tennessee on October 10th, make sure you find the Georgia Tech teams in their black and yellow uniforms and boats. You’ll see dedication, passion, and devotion gliding across the water.