Same prize, new approach for UW's dominant crew
Washington coxswain Sam Ojserkis says this year's eight is unified as it pulls toward IRA championship.
Seattle Times staff columnist
One boat was boastful, cocky, all speed and power, practically an intimidating, irresistible force on the water.
That boat, last year's Washington varsity eight, won the Intercollegiate Rowing Association championship on the Cooper River with brute strength and loud hurrahs.
But this Husky boat, this season, is different, as different from last year's champion as, say, the Miami Heat is different from the San Antonio Spurs.
This boat, which has dominated college rowing this season, beating No. 2 Brown and No. 4 Cal and No. 9 Stanford, is built more on fundamentals, on combining the science of rowing with a single-minded chemistry.
Same school. Same coach. Two different boats, with two distinctly different personalities.
"This will probably tick the other group off, but we had all the superstars last year," senior coxswain Sam Ojserkis said by phone from Camden, N.J. after Thursday's first heat of the IRA championships. "We had a lot of individual talent and there was a lot of what I call fake bravado. A lot of talk and ego and who's going to get theirs and what not.
"This year it's just a group. We're all on the same page. Of course, a lot of them are really skilled rowers, just like last year. But this year, it's just, 'Get it done.' All you have to do it just back it up. You don't need to do a lot of talking."
Ojserkis, the only member of last year's champions who is back in the boat this year, was watching ESPN and listening to the commentators talk about the selflessness of the NBA's Spurs. A lot of what he heard about that team, he thought, applied to his team.
"We're really good at the fundamentals," he said. "That's what really sets us apart. We have the whole thing. We've got old guys. Guys who have been here. And we have young guys and the young guys are pretty hungry. We're all working together and it's all going really well."
This is very much a new crew — two seniors, six juniors and a sophomore — but it has competed as if it has been together for its entire college life, and it is two races from another title.
"As the year progresses you realize that every boat's different and every season's different," Ojserkis said. "Our strengths this year are not our strengths last year. Last year was just vintage power. We were just stronger than everyone else. But this year, we're a lot more skilled and we're a lot more unified. The way we're rowing this year, it's really going to set the bar high for the coming years."
The standards already are so high at Washington that second place is the same as losing. It's unfair, of course, but there is a sense that it's championships or bust, gold or guilt.
"I think the biggest pressure comes from ourselves, which is the real serious pressure," Ojserkis said. "The coaches, everyone on the whole team takes ownership of what they do. No one's telling them what to do. They want to be here and they want to win. All of the other pressure is just sort of secondary. Everybody wants this really bad, and that's where the pressure comes in."
Ojserkis was a freshman in high school in Atlantic City, N.J., spending too much time in the house and not enough time getting out and working and exercising and testing himself.
"I wasn't doing anything, just sitting on the couch being a high schooler," the 5-foot-8, 125-pounder said.
His parents made him tryout for the coxswain's position for the high-school crew. Turns out he was natural.
"I really liked the camaraderie and the dependence on each other," said Ojserkis, who after this season will go to Cambridge and be a coxswain there. "I love working with people. And I do like to lead. I have a little Napoleon in me, so I do like bossing people around."
Continuing with the Spurs' analogy, Ojserkis said Washington's remarkable coach Michael Callahan reminds him of the Spurs' Gregg Popovich in his ability to make adjustments. And, like a point guard, Ojserkis is an extension of Callahan in the boat.
Often it is his job to execute Callahan's orders. And it's his job to push his crew and discover its limits.
"I think sometimes I have the toughest job and sometimes I have the easiest job," Ojserkis said. "It's the easiest job in the sense that these guys are really talented and they just want to get out there and rip people's heads off. I don't need to motivate them.
"But it is tough. Because we have so much talent there are guys who just want to do it their way and it's my job to unify everyone. That's the real challenge, getting everyone's head and everyone's game plan the same. But they trust me, because I've been there before. And they trust each other."
A different boat. A different way. But two days away from the same prize.
Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or email@example.com
About Steve Kelley
Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
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