Spotlight: Lightweight rowing makes a triumphant return following its 2020 cut

Despite being cut by the College in 2020, the lightweight rowing team is more successful now than ever.

by Daisy Dundas and Caroline York | 8/30/23 1:15am

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Courtesy of Adin McAuliffe ’24

This article is featured in the 2023 Freshman special issue. 

This past season, the men’s lightweight rowing team qualified for the Intercollegiate Rowing Association Championships, or IRAs, for the first time since 2014. The team was cut by the College in 2020 due to budget deficits caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, but it was brought back in 2021 after legal action was threatened due to the alleged violation of Title IX rules. The team’s recent history, from its brief disbandment to its comeback this past season, demonstrates its resilience.

Comeback Season

This past season, the men’s lightweight rowing team qualified for IRAs for the first time in nearly a decade. 

“This year felt like a rags-to-riches story after the team was cut,” team member Wyatt Ellison ’25 said. “The team didn’t exist in 2020. In 2022, we came in dead last, and this year we qualified for the national championship for the first time in a long time.” 

Several members of the lightweight team have also found success in international competition. Cooper Tuckerman ’22, who took a fifth-year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, made his mark rowing in the Varsity Eight. He is currently training at a “high performance … rowing year-round training program” with 2024 Olympic aspirations in the lightweight double.

In July, team member Ryan Tripp ’25 competed in the 2023 World Rowing Under 23 Championships in Bulgaria, where he finished 4th in Heat 1 in the lightweight men’s Double Sculls with a time of 06:50.86. Although he did not advance in competition, Tripp noted his gratitude for the “opportunity” to compete on the world stage.

“The level of competition is very high for lightweights, and especially at Worlds,” Tripp said. “It was ultimately a frustrating racing experience. The races were not as good of performances as I thought we had done in practice. Although it was disappointing for myself, in the bigger picture, it was very neat to be at the regatta and to compete at a really high level.”

Trevor Michelson, who was recently appointed as head coach of the lightweight rowing team, said his staff and athletes have an “insatiable nature.”

“This past year, we had the best year in program history in 10 years,” Michelson said. “Every single person on our team, including myself and my assistant, left the IRAs disappointed in our result. That’s the best case scenario. Everyone’s disappointed with our best year in 10 years, and we want more. I can’t ask for more than that.” 

Coaching Change

At the conclusion of the 2022 season, former lightweight rowing head coach Dan Rook retired, and assistant coach Michelson took over as interim head coach after being with Dartmouth Rowing for five years prior.

After the team’s historically successful 2023 season, winning two petite finals at Eastern Sprints, the College promoted Michelson to the role of permanent head coach. Athletes expressed their gratitude for both Michelson’s personal style of coaching as well as his understanding of the sport’s unique toll on the body.

“[Michelson] is somebody who I think really understands the direction the league is heading towards,” Ellison said. “Under [Michelson’s] leadership, we have dedicated a lot more time to training in heart rate zones personalized to each rower’s lactate threshold. [Michelson] has a great combination of encouraging strength, conditioning, technique and recovery.”

Team Cut in 2020

On July 9, 2020, Dartmouth announced that it was eliminating five varsity sports teams, including lightweight rowing, which affected “about 110 total student-athletes.” The administration cited the cuts as an effort to “increase flexibility in admissions and ease its budget deficit” following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Michelson remembers seeing “great improvements” in the team before the cut occurred.

“We were going to be really good that year,” Michelson said. “We had our average [2000 meter personal record] score drop that winter by about 14 seconds. Getting cut was really hard, and our guys were really upset.” 

Tripp, who was originally a ’24 but took a gap year, harbored the same sentiment as his coach.

“The team’s cut was completely devastating,” Tripp said. “It also felt disrespectful; it was a devaluation of all student athletes, which felt especially frustrating because we have very high academic standards on our team — both our team GPA and recruiting standards are high.”

After the team’s cut, several athletes made readjustments; some lightweight rowers quit the sport, others transferred and some, including Adin McAuliffe ’24, had even planned to join the heavyweight team.

After members of the women’s swimming and diving team and women’s golf team sued, claiming the College was violating Title IX guidelines, the College reversed its decision, and all five teams were reinstated in 2021. Although other cut teams had national searches for new coaches following the cut, Rook came out of retirement to lead the team once again, according to Tripp.

“The season when we first came back was a rebuilding year because we had missed a class of recruits,” McAuliffe said. “We had a very limited roster, but I think the excitement and the help from the alumni and the passion from the coaches really helped get everyone back into the mindset to keep pushing on despite all these setbacks.”

Team member Michael Oddo ’25 said Dartmouth was supportive of the team post-cut. 

“From the spring travel season, I thought [the College’s support] was definitely more than enough,” Oddo said. “We’ve had discussions where we’ve tried to think about other things that Dartmouth might provide that we would want, and we couldn’t really come up with anything.”  

Team Culture

According to Michelson, over 50% of the current team’s spots go to walk-on athletes, meaning recruited athletes make up the minority of the team. 

Every year, the team has four recruiting spots, which is significantly less than the women’s and heavyweight rowing teams, according to lightweight rowing team member Sawyer Hall ’25. Most notably, there were two walk-ons in the premier Varsity Eight boat. The team has a novice program, which encourages walk-ons to learn the sport. 

Oddo himself is a walk-on, and said he feels that the intensity of the sport eliminates any discrepancy between the walk-ons and the recruits. 

“[Michelson] … puts us through so many practices that you have to get good,” Oddo said. “We’re all spending all our time together. If we weren’t doing as many practices, it wouldn’t be as cohesive or as fast, and there wouldn’t be so many of us.”

Alex Ward ’26, a recruit, reiterated the same sentiment.

“Everyone’s treated the same,” Ward said. “Everyone likes each other. There’s no negative stigma towards walk-ons; instead, we have a very strong walk-on presence.”

However, this upcoming season, the team has a new roster cap for Title IX compliance that has the potential to disrupt the novice program, according to Tripp.

“We don’t know exactly what it will look like, but we have a roster cap that is new starting this next year, whereas the women have a goal roster minimum,” Tripp said. “That’s impacting us because we’re going to have to cut probably around five to 10 people this fall, which is really too bad.”   

Lightweight rowing’s unique aspect of weight adds a “challenge” to the sport, according to Hall. All rowers must weigh less than 160 pounds at regattas and the boat average weight must be under 155 pounds; the closer a rower can get to the weight limit without surpassing it, the more efficiently they can move a boat, according to Ward.

“The weight aspect is definitely an added challenge on top of rowing that a lot of guys on our team take pride in doing really well,” Hall said. “We’re really focused on doing it in a responsible and healthy way. [Michelson], Dartmouth Peak Performance and our nutritionist have done a great job streamlining that process. Once you’ve been through a season, it gets a lot easier as you know how to individualize your plan.”

Ellison said the camaraderie on the team helps with cutting weight.

“I think the team has a good balance of people being pretty easygoing, relaxed and joking around having fun,” Ellison said. “But then we all know why we’re there, and that’s to train to try to win the championship.”

As of the 2023 season, lightweight rowers were affiliated with nine different Greek houses, according to Hall. He said that team members have different social circles outside of the sport, yet remain close in the boathouse.

“I think it’s definitely a unique team in that there’s a lot of different personalities that are attracted to rowing,” Hall said. “If we didn’t row, a lot of us would never interact on campus, but a lot of my closest friends are people I really only see at the boathouse. We come together once or twice a day and just work super hard and do the same thing, developing a really deep sense of respect for one another.”

Future of Lightweight Rowing

Going forward, Tripp and McCauliffe will be the team’s co-captains for the 2023-24 season. Tripp explained that his favorite aspect of the team is the camaraderie.

“My favorite thing about being a team is just being with the guys,” Tripp said. “I think that we do have a really special group of people, and whether we’re in the boathouse, in Foco after practice or in the library, we have a really special group of people, and that’s the most special thing about it.” 

Michelson said he believes that the team will keep improving this upcoming year.

“We are going to be better in October than we were in September; we will be better this upcoming February than we were last February,” Michelson said. “And we keep getting better.”