Not many students know about the Virginia rowing team. Most are not aware that while the men rowers have club sport status, the women are recognized as a varsity sport. In their fifth year with varsity status, the Cavalier women already have two national gold medals to their credit and are the team to beat in tomorrow's first-ever ACC championships at Charlottesville's Lake Monticello.
The Cavs will be competing against Duke, North Carolina and Clemson - the only other varsity teams in the conference. Virginia comes in heavily favored in all four races. They will compete in the first and second Varsity Eights and the first and second Varsity Fours.
The first team Varsity Eight has a distinct advantage over its competition. Ranked sixth in the nation, the boat is the returning silver medalist from the 1999 National Championship. The second team is vying for its third NCAA gold medal.
The team's rise to the top of the national standings is atypical in collegiate sports. Without resounding support from the University community and without much publicity, the Cavaliers have found strength in their dedication to their sport and to each other.
"We have complete faith and trust in each other," senior co-captain Emily Egge said. "It's a very close-knit group. Extraordinary circumstances bring us together. A large part of the success has been head coach [Kevin] Sauer - he's one of the best head coaches in the country right now. [He and assistants Lou O'Brien Berl, Anna Kate Deutschendorf and Sarah Harrick] are the most dedicated people in the world."
Sauer, in his 12th year coaching at Virginia, was the head coach for both club teams until 1995, when he left the men to refocus all his efforts on the varsity women. In 1997 Sauer turned down a much more lucrative offer to coach at Cornell and stayed with Virginia - a school with less athletic funding for crew than most Ivy League schools.
The state-of-the-art Virginia training facility cost $175,000; meanwhile, Princeton's boathouse was built for over $6 million. Yale's facility is appraised at a value slightly higher than $10 million.
Sauer acknowledged the economic challenges his team faces but said, "boathouses don't make boats go faster. It's the people that go into the boats that count."
An outsider looking in might think the team's practice schedule is unbearable. The rowers rise at sunrise for practice every weekday morning and row in the cold water, often in below-freezing temperatures. However, most of Sauer's athletes have been training this way for so long that life without it is unthinkable.
Just five years ago, women's rowing was still a club team without the tradition of the national rowing powerhouses. According to Sauer, the squad's promotion to varsity status was supported by the Virginia Athletic Department to comply with Title IX. Passed by the U.S. Congress in 1972, Title IX is intended to provide equal scholarship opportunities for women at the collegiate level.
While the women's team was rewarded for its efforts, the men still remain a club team because of the lack of scholarships available.
With all her squad's immediate success, Egge said the team wonders why it receives such little attention from its community.
"It's frustrating," Egge said. "The lack of press comes with the territory of a non-revenue sport. We just let our oars do the talking."
However, the team hopes to see spectators take the trek out to Lake Monticello tomorrow on a day when most people will be watching horse races in the sun.
Said junior rower Jenny Sherman: "It's Foxfields without the hangover."