It's Not Exactly Walking On Water
Spohr didn't give many a second look until she saw a stack of fliers on a table for the Alabama rowing team.
Spohr, who had no experience with rowing, casually took the top flier and kept walking. Its message was simple, yet clear: "Be a varsity athlete."
Soon, she would attend an informational meeting for the team with a friend.
Before long, the Edwardsville, Ill. native, who had never rowed in her life, would be competing in NCAA Division I athletics as a member of The University of Alabama's newest varsity sport.
The opportunity presented to Spohr is a unique one in the world of college athletics, where high school recruits garner heavy media coverage amidst large press conferences to announce their college decisions. It's an opportunity for a student already studying at The University of Alabama to turn interest into more than just a hobby, but a passion.
A passion, Alabama Coach Larry Davis says, that is taking root in students at schools around the country.
"In general, every collegiate rowing team in the United States relies on walk-ons more so than any other sport because most collegiate rowers didn't know about the sport when they were in high school," he said.
Rowing was added as The University's 21st sport in 2006, after Alabama Athletics Director Mal Moore and Senior Women's Administrator Marie Robbins had been searching for a sport to add to Alabama's varsity roster. Field hockey, lacrosse and equestrian had all been considered before it was decided that rowing – with its booming club participation and natural body of water adjacent to campus – would fit the bill.
The challenge, Davis said, was the lack of prior rowing experience around campus. Despite the club participation, none of the athletes on the first-year rowing roster came to Alabama as rowers. All either picked it up as a member of the UA Crew club or, in Spohr's case, were merely interested in the prospect of being an NCAA athlete.
"To build a program and work with novices requires real patience," Davis said. "As coaches, we have program goals and things we want to accomplish, but we have to take time to let people develop. We're going to start with the basics, like how to hold the oar. You're not going to have a collegiate tennis coach that shows an athlete how to hold a raquet, or a softball coach that shows how to stand in the batter's box, but we have to do the equivalent of that. It requires extra patience."
In its first season of varsity competition, the team raced out to a number of highly successful events, earning victories over crews from schools such as Notre Dame, Cincinnati and Murray State with a group of girls whose interest in the sport the year before had been no more than participation on the club team or a brisk walk across the Quad.
"That's what I thought was so good about what we did last year," Davis said. "We didn't really have the recruiting base of programs we were going up against.
"Our team was all walk-ons."
Davis knows that in the world of collegiate rowing, Alabama is almost a walk-on of sorts, pulling girls out of its own student body and teaching them along the way while more established schools feed on the rowing-rich areas of the country such as New England, or even look across borders to bring in experienced rowers from Europe, Canada or Australia.
Just last season, he said, two of the top three college teams in the country had six to eight international athletes on their top crews.
"At a lot of schools, it is becoming a little more difficult for the average walk-on to have a true shot at becoming a first varsity boat athlete during their four years," he said. "Not impossible – it could happen - but the opportunities are becoming somewhat diminished.
"The importance of walk-on student-athletes is going to change as our team develops. Each year we may rely a little less on walk-ons and it may become a little tougher for someone who's never rowed before college to get a shot somewhere in their four years to be at the first boat level."
Despite the advent of more international athletes in the world of collegiate rowing or the progression of rowing as a sport at Alabama – Davis officially signed his first recruiting class this season, with five new rowers joining the team on athletic scholarships – the need for walk-ons, he said, will always be there. It is the approach to getting the girls on the team, instead, that will change.
This season, Alabama hired a new assistant coach for rowing who has the responsibility to recruit a high-quality group of walk-on athletes – primarily, former athletes in other sports such as swimming, softball or volleyball who, for one reason or another, might be interested in trading in their goggles and bats for an oar.
"The goal is to increase the quality level of our walk-ons," Davis said. "The idea is to convince non-rowing former high school athletes to take a chance on the sport and, because they have a good background as an athlete they can make it as a rower."
Unlike some schools, who immediately place new scholarship athletes on upper-level, NCAA-eligible crews within the team, Davis's approach to his first crop of scholarship athletes is to put them with walk-ons, letting them grow with, mentor, and assist with the teaching of the inexperienced walk-ons.
Mixing the two groups together, he said, continues to aid the progression of rowing as a sport at UA, as well as maintaining what could be regarded as the distinctiveness of rowing as a sport on campus – its openness.
"You get the chance to represent the University of Alabama in a way very few people do," he said. "That's an intangible to me with a very big value. If you look at our student body of around 24,000, there are only about 500 student-athletes total. To have a varsity opportunity and not be a recruited high school athlete is phenomenal in my opinion. Very few sports provide this kind of opportunity for a fairly large number of athletes with no experience in their sport."
After the informational meeting, Katherine Spohr began racing for the University of Alabama on the novice team. She loves showcasing the team's progress at races, but it's in practice, she says, where she sees her teammates struggle and fail, that she finds the real value of competition.
Competition that, without the ability to walk out of a classroom, across the Quad and down to the Black Warrior River, might not have otherwise been available to her.
"It's kind of a ‘how did I get here' thing," she said. "They didn't really find us; it was that moment that kind of happened that you can't even think about how it happened."
Then she smiles.
"And I know it sounds cheesy," she says, "but each day is a highlight."
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