Walk-ons are Key to the No. 2 Bears Success

May 5, 2006

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An often overlooked key to the success of the California women's crew team has been the contribution of the walk-ons. While recruitment plays a significant role in shaping intercollegiate teams, the Golden Bears continue to attract athletes to rowing who never took a stroke before coming to Cal.

The Golden Bears completed their third undefeated regular season last Saturday and have compiled 32 regular season wins while only losing one race since 2003. According to head coach Dave O'Neill, this success would not be possible with recruited athletes alone. Typically, one-third of the team members start the sport in college.

'Without question, our team would not be where it is without the contributions of the walk-on athletes,' O'Neill said. 'Our varsity eight usually has one or two women who learn the sport in college, and there have been years when it has been half.'

O'Neill points to the 2002 varsity eight, which placed third at the NCAA championships and had four walk-ons. There were many non-recruited athletes the following year when the crew was ranked No. 1 throughout the regular season. In addition, eight of the 23 women who competed at the 2005 NCAA championships had never been in a rowing shell before entering college. Cal won the national championship that year.

Junior Megan Smith and sophomore Onna Poeter have raced in the Bears varsity eight this year, and neither of them rowed in high school. Smith, a three-sport athlete in high school, was spotted on campus during her first week of school and encouraged to attend an information meeting for crew. Poeter never participated in athletics before learning to row last year at the University of Puget Sound. She decided to transfer to Cal this year and, according to O'Neill, is the strongest woman on the team.

'Megan and Onna are great examples of women learning to row in college and becoming terrific Division I student-athletes,' O'Neill said. 'They have come really far and are realizing just how good they can be in this sport. It's been fun to see them improve each and every day.'

Although the transition to rowing, especially at Cal, has been a challenge, Poeter has been more than up to the task.

'I was immediately thrown into a physically difficult sport with an intense training program,' Poeter said. 'I have been able to watch myself get stronger, faster, and more fit in such a short amount of time. This has been an amazing experience.'

There are many reasons why rowers can achieve such success in a relative short amount of time. Typical walk-ons are already athletic and strong, but most high school students are never exposed to the sport.

'California has some fantastic junior programs, but there aren't enough,' O'Neill said. 'A lot of kids and their parents have never even heard of the sport.'

Additionally, O'Neill notes that children start swimming, playing soccer and other sports at an age when rowing would not be feasible. Almost all junior rowing programs do not start until the ninth grade or have a minimum age requirement of at least 12 years old.

'By the time most junior programs start, a lot of girls who could be Olympic rowers are focused on other sports,' O'Neill said.

Since rowing requires significant physical demands, evaluating an athlete's potential can be difficult at an early age.

'Rowing is more of a physical sport than a skill sport,' O'Neill said. 'Rowing coaches look for a body-type, so we think everyone who is tall and strong should become a rower. There a countless stories of someone learning the sport in college and a few years later competing in the Olympics.'

While the rowing technique is never fully mastered, O'Neill believes an athlete can become competent in the sport within a year.

'I think we do a good job teaching the sport to novices. Everyone is constantly working on the skill aspect, but the physical component makes the biggest difference,' O'Neill said. 'After the initial novice stage, the years of experience are almost irrelevant.'

'Once a walk-on joins the team and learns the sport, she blends in and typically everyone forgets who walked on and who has been doing it for years,' Poeter said.

Since Cal women's crew is consistently among the top collegiate programs, the team recruits the best junior rowers in the country and world. However, O'Neill expects walk-ons will continue to play a significant role in the years ahead.

'We are always looking for athletes who have a great attitude and want to work hard,' O'Neill said. 'You never know who is going to develop into the next All-American or Olympian.

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