Campus History

Early Morning Rowing Practice

Jeff Miller photo

Jeff Miller photo

The sacrifice? Heading to practice long before the campus comes to life. The reward? Seeing the sun rise and knowing you’ve done your best.

For five years, six days a week, Bryan Hanson ’88 relied on the same Timex Ironman watch alarm to wake him up at 5:30 a.m. He walked to rowing practice in the dark, encountering students still making their way home wearing yesterday’s clothes.

Early morning practices are the stuff of legend for UW rowers, who bond with Lake Mendota, and one another, during the hours logged on the water at dawn. Crews began hitting the lake before sunrise more regularly in the 1970s, when the introduction of women’s teams led to gridlock at the boathouse and on the docks. Joel Berger ’01 proudly notes that before most students had hit the snooze button, he and his teammates had “already put in a day’s worth of pain and suffering.”

The grueling sessions are emblematic of the sport: athletes pushing their physical and mental limits to little or no fanfare. The good days, when bodies synchronize and boats glide evenly across the water, offer moments that help crews forget the bad days, when the water and the ride are choppy. (See related essay, page 63)

On the coldest mornings, the oars cut through skim ice, cracking the surface “like crème brûlée,” recalls Tessa Michaelson Schmidt ’00, MS’05. For some rowers, including Matthew Tucker ’98, a certain olfactory memory remains strong: the “meat goo” aroma wafting from Oscar Mayer. “I will never forget that smell,” he says.

From the team’s docks near the Lakeshore residence halls, coaches direct the coxswains to steer boats using landmarks, including the governor’s lakefront mansion. In the 1950s, a governor reading the morning newspaper on his terrace called to complain, taking issue with the harsh language a coach was using to instruct a rower.

Some years later, Langdon Street fraternity members who didn’t appreciate having their slumber disrupted used rubber-band launchers to fire full beer cans at startled rowers, including Mark Rowell ’84. In return, Rowell says, then-men’s coach Randy Jablonic ’60 was fond of blaring John Philip Sousa marches over his bullhorn, “just to let the students know we were enjoying our morning row.”

What’s your favorite UW tradition?

Tell On Wisconsin about it at, and we’ll find out if it’s just a fond memory — or if it’s still part of campus life today.

Published in the Spring 2013 issue


  • Kate (Hillmann) Ruffing '98 May 22, 2013

    Thanks for the article on UW Rowing – brought back a lot of nostalgic memories. It is definitely an experience that many don’t have during their university career.

    But for those who dedicate their time and bodies to the sport, there are many good memories. Rain, sleet, snow, sun, ice, wind.. we were out there together. Being a UW Rower is a badge of honor and every class has their stories of what happened on and off the water.

    P.S. Thanks Tucker for the “meat goo” memory – had almost forgotten about that one.

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