Hawkeye rowing team heads to NCAA Championships for first time in 16 years

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

The moment Cristy Hartman has spent seven years training for will arrive at 8:12 a.m. Friday on Lake Mercer in New Jersey.

That’s when she will lead a boat full of nine Iowa athletes into competition at the NCAA rowing championships. It is a milestone moment for a Hawkeye program that hasn’t reached this point since 2001. But it’s also some personal validation for Hartman, a fifth-year senior who took up the sport as a high school junior in Wisconsin and became so proficient at it that she was named first team all-Big Ten Conference this year.

“I cried,” Hartman said of her reaction when Iowa was chosen May 15 for an at-large berth in the 22-team field for the NCAA Championships. “It was a long road in college trying to get there, so it finally happened this year. It was my No. 1 goal coming to college. I wasn’t surprised we got in, I was more overwhelmed.

“It happened just in time for me.”

Iowa senior Cristy Hartman sets the tone for the "first varsity eight" boat with her rhythmic rowing. The Wisconsin native was first team all-Big Ten Conference this year.

Iowa is ranked 13th in the nation and made the NCAAs by virtue of tying for fourth place at the Big Ten championships. The Hawkeyes have been rising steadily since Andrew Carter came aboard as head coach four years ago.

Hartman has been there every stroke of the way. She sits at the head of Iowa’s “first varsity” eight boat, directly in front of the coxswain, where her rhythmic rowing sets the tone for the seven athletes spread out behind her.

Hartman said she has long sensed that Iowa was ready to break through into the national rankings. Her first inkling that that might occur this year came during winter training.

“Every time you finished a piece (a training interval), everyone was dying,” Hartman said. “And it was like, ‘Wow, everyone goes as hard as they can go every time.’ No one was afraid to almost pass out after a piece. There was a lot of aggression going on.”

That attitude carried into a February scrimmage against Texas, currently the fourth-ranked team in the nation. Carter, who came to Iowa after coaching Miami, sat in a motorboat and watched his top crew compete in a 1,000-meter sprint against the Longhorns. The Hawkeyes won.

Carter caught the eye of senior Victoria Bricker of Runnells.

“She kind of had a sheepish grin on her face, that look like: ‘Did that just happen?’” Carter said. “I winked at her and she burst into a huge smile. And that was the moment I knew we were going to be OK.”

The Iowa rowing team will be competing in its first NCAA Championships since 2001 this weekend in New Jersey. The Hawkeyes are ranked 13th in the nation.

No one is expecting Iowa to win the three-day event in West Windsor, N.J. Iowa’s first varsity eight is seeded 15th, its second eight is seeded 13th and its “four” is seeded 16th. The total points scored by the three boats determines the champion. The Hawkeyes are hoping to outperform their seeding in each event. All agree that a top-12 finish is within reach, and would be ideal for their first foray into national competition in 16 years.

For Carter, the significance of making nationals is that it continues the steady progress he’s been preaching since he arrived in Iowa City.

“I think the expectations of the kids has changed a little bit,” he said. “I think it just allows our story to be that much more interesting so we have more credibility when we talk to high-end prospects.”

Carter, like all rowing coaches, seeks out athletes who have had success in other sports in high school that might not necessarily be thinking about competing in college. It’s known as “talent transfer” and it’s how he landed six of the eight rowers in his top boat.

“We definitely cast a big net to that group. We were actively reaching out to volleyball clubs, track teams, basketball players, whoever we think could help us,” Carter said.

Hartman was a cross country runner who started going to the Milwaukee Rowing Club after a friend invited her. She found a natural talent for her new sport and hasn’t looked back. But that’s not a typical path to rowing in the Midwest.

Junior Ashley Duda’s story is more common. The Illinois native came to Iowa because of its pharmacy school and was surprised to be tapped on the shoulder during her freshman orientation. It was a rower asking her if she wanted to try out for the team.

“I guess I was taller, somewhat athletic-looking,” said Duda, who ran cross country and track in high school. “I was like, ‘I’ve never done it before. It’s like a D-I sport. I don’t think I’d be good enough to do it.’”

Duda tried anyway, and quickly learned that she was plenty good enough. She was second team all-Big Ten this year, occupying the seat directly behind Hartman.

“Our crew, the first eight, isn’t the most powerful necessarily compared to some of our competitors. But we have good technique and we know how to apply ourselves better than some teams might,” Duda said. “It’s row smarter instead of stronger.”

Duda, an accidental college athlete, has found that rowing practices are her favorite part of her day, certainly the least stressful given her demanding major. She has learned to block out the pain that comes during the 2,000-meter races that typically last a little over six minutes.

“Everything hurts the whole race, but you’re not thinking about it until after you’ve finished,” Duda said. “Because you have boats beside you, you can see boats that you’re beating and you have eight other people in the boat that you know they’re feeling the same kind of pain. So you’re like, ‘I’ve got to just keep going.’”

Duda has become so hooked on rowing that she’s even considering a post-college attempt to make the U.S. national under-23 team. But first comes this weekend’s competition. And Duda is confident her Hawkeyes will make some waves.

“I think as a program, this is going to change how people look at Iowa,” she said. “Before, people didn’t take us seriously at all. We were just kind of like someone to race that would be a sure team to beat.

“And now we’re like a threat, I think. We’ve definitely broken into some different territory than we’ve been before.”