Coaching shake-up produces varied results for rowing

by Jordan Rose | 11/17/05 6:00am

Change has certainly been the theme of Dartmouth crew throughout the fall season. There were rowers fervently hoping to improve upon previous campaigns and freshman recruits and walk-ons eager to get a taste of collegiate competition. But there is one unexpected difference in the boathouse this year -- a new group of Big Green coaches. The crew program began the fall season with a total of five new coaches, including three new head coaches for the men's lightweight, men's heavyweight and women's squads.

The lightweights welcomed head coach Steve Perry in July, who replaced long-time coach Dick Grossman. Before arriving at Dartmouth, Perry had enormous success as the freshman lightweight and assistant varsity lightweight coach at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis. His freshman team went a combined 33-1 in three seasons, and in 2005 both of his crews garnered gold medals at the Eastern Association of Rowing Coaches Sprints.

In the heavyweight camp, the College hired Walter "Buzz" Congram as interim head coach to replace Scott Armstrong, who is on leave for the year. Congram boasts an extensive and impressive coaching resume; before several successful seasons with the MIT women's lightweight crew, Congram coached the Northeastern University heavyweight squad from 1978 to 2001. During his tenure with the Huskies, his crews were consistent finalists in the Eastern Sprints and IRA Regatta, and he was inducted in the Northeastern Hall of Fame.

Women's crew took a more youthful approach when they hired Wendy Levash as their head coach. Levash comes to Hanover via Princeton after a three-year stint as an assistant coach for the Tigers and a three-year stay coaching Cornell's novice eight. A 1998 Princeton graduate, she was the Eastern Association of Women's Rowing Colleges Novice Coach of the Year in 2002.

"The boathouse has quite a different feel this year," said lightweight captain Ryan Wheeler '06. "These new coaches have provided all three of our teams with a much needed spark of enthusiasm, and we've enjoyed the benefits of that enthusiasm."

Coach Chris Schimdt '90, head coach of the freshman heavyweight crew team, was realistically optimistic about the new staff's progress in the fall. "I think you can't expect too much to be different after five to six weeks. It's a fairly young coaching staff; they're getting their feet wet."

The efforts of the new coaches have paid some dividends since the start of early morning practices and erg workouts, evident in several races the Big Green have entered.

On Oct. 22 and 23, all varsity crews trekked down to Boston to compete in the 41st Head of the Charles Regatta, one of rowing's most prestigious events. The men's heavyweight finished last in 40th place, while the lightweights finished 15th out of 21 boats.

"The Head of the Charles was a disappointment for the team, but we have been working hard to improve our technique and build fitness," said heavyweight captain Robbie Carey '06. "The team is young and lacks experience, but we have been making big strides with our Coach Congram."

Wheeler commented on the lightweight's effort, saying, "The Head of Charles is one of the biggest regattas in the world, and we were pleased with the result, especially since it was so early in the season."

The women's eight clocked in at 17:45.993 to finish 15th out of 47 teams. "This was a good improvement on our 20th place finish last year," said co-captain Anna Sjogren '06.

The varsity lightweights and women's team then traveled to New Jersey for the Princeton Chase on Oct. 30. The men's side placed in the middle pack, with the A boat finishing 14th at 14:11.83 (a five-spot improvement from last year's race) while the B team came in at 24th with a time of 14:31.56. The women fared slightly better in "a very exciting race," according to Sjogren, finishing eighth and 25th out of forty-three crews.

Last weekend, Dartmouth hosted the Green Monster, an all-freshman invitational race. Once again, the women's crews outshined their male counterparts. The women dominated the field, taking first (15:56.8) and second place (16:12.5), while the C boat rounded out Big Green's entries with an eighth place finish out of 12 boats.

The four men's entries, two lightweight and two heavyweight boats, finished in the middle of the pack, capturing places 10 through 13 out of a field of 23.

Coach Schimdt did not dwell on the freshman heavyweight's outcome at the Monster. "We have two '08s and only five [freshman] have experience. We've made great progress, we finished middle of the pack and we're pretty happy with that."

Aaron Martin '09, a freshman lightweight rower out of Malvern Prep, said, "Given the work he had done coming up to the race, we felt we all should have done better. The whole team felt that they could have done better. This was a lot of the guys' first race and they'll learn from it, and we're optimistic for the winter and spring seasons."

In recent action, the men's freshman lightweight and women's squads spent the weekend, Nov. 9-10, at Princeton for the Belly of the Carnegie head race. Once again, the freshman had an average showing, with the B boat capturing 10th place, beating the Big Green A boat by almost forty seconds. The A boat took 14th out of 20 squads.

The women's squad continued to demonstrate that they were a team to be reckoned with, posting second and fourth place out of a crowded field of thirty-three boats. The B boat, finishing with a time of 17:18.58, was only bested by the Radcliffe B squad, which took the race at 17:14.52.

While the Connecticut River will soon begin to freeze over, the Dartmouth crew program is indeed ready to heat up for the spring season.

"Our team is really looking forward to the rest of the fall and winter training, because that is traditionally when Dartmouth rowing teams improve the most," said Wheeler. "We are spending two weeks in Miami over Christmas break to get in more rowing time, and have a rigorous training program scheduled for the rest of the winter term. The spring, our main racing season, is going to be an exciting time, and every team in the boathouse is full of anticipation."

Sjogren expressed her optimism, saying, "We are very excited to build up our speed and surprise the rest of the league in the spring. We are working in an attempt to secure a bid to the NCAA National Championships in June."

The Big Green wrap up their fall season with one more race, when the men's teams return to Boston for the Foot of the Charles on Nov. 19.