RR Interview: Arthur Ericsson, Washington State Men's Head Coach

WSU Men's Rowing following WIRAs, 2010 (Photo: A. Ericsson)
Recently, there's been much reason to discuss the Washington State men's rowing team, as the boards on Rowing Illustrated suggest. After breaking into the medals for the first time at the ACRA Championships with a silver in the Novice 8 in 2009, the Cougars took first place in the Varsity 8 at the 2010 WIRA Championships, and later took home the bronze medal in the Varsity 8 at ACRAs. Here, RR asks Cougar Head Coach Arthur Ericsson about his own rowing background, the nature of building a club team at Washington State, and the team's goals for Spring 2011.

RR: How did you first get involved with the sport? How would you describe your own rowing background as an athlete, and what made you choose Washington State?

AE: Sadly, I did not stumble across rowing until just after college when I saw a 'Learn to Row' sign for a community program. I fell in love with the idea of the sport right then and there, and the next day I went down to row with my best friend. He lasted one day and I've lasted 15 years. My history in sports was significant, but I never really found a good fit to be more than good (ballgames). Now my athleticism had the right vehicle to excel. River City Rowing Club gradually built up some pretty fast Men's Masters 8s. I was always the only guy in the boat who didn't row in college. The only time that was ever an issue was when I first met someone -- they always ask, "Where did you row in college?" I was also the only lightweight in the boat, and that is why I have made a point of restoring lightweight rowing to Cougar Crew. I chose WSU because it was a big university. I believe that the larger the enrollment is, the larger the size of the team should be. And numbers are one of our fundamental strategies for a strong program.

RR: What kind of state was the program in when you arrived, and what unexpected challenges did you face when you took over the program as Head Coach six years ago?

AE: The team was very respectable when I arrived, but I needed to build up the numbers, and the lightweight program was non-existent at that time. Seeds of commitment and a vision had been planted with the previous coach and captain. If you looked at it you might just see bare dirt, but I knew that if I threw myself into it that we'd be able to harvest that momentum. I was involved in leadership in all aspects of the team, working with the student officers, admin. and alumni. The biggest challenge then and continues to be today, class conflicts for our daily rows. 50% turnout for rows is not uncommon. I am constantly working around this challenge.

RR: Since you have arrived, there have been a great deal of changes at WSU. This evolution was capped off least season by the best performance from the Cougars in recent memory, winning the WIRA Championships in the Varsity Eight (as well as taking home first place honors in the Lightweight Eight), and taking the bronze in the V8 at the ACRA Championships later last Spring. How have you gone about building a club program to the point where you have multiple eights medaling at regional championships?

AE: We have had some lean years, and the cycle of depth will always be a part of any program. But one thing that I can't quite explain is the type of crew we tend to develop. The guys extend themselves tremendously with fundraisers just to keep this ship afloat each year. For training on the ergs, I'm always incorporating mental challenges. They become fighters. If they can put themselves into a position of contention, they will prevail or die trying. The team works from a point of view that if you put in the same effort as everyone else, then you deserve to be treated with equal respect. And we are one of the few college teams on the West Coast that features a lightweight program. It's wrong-headed to do away with lightweight rowing because of the belief that it will dilute your resources with respect to the premier heavyweight events. Our two programs are really one and the same. They support each other and make each other faster as a result.

WSU Varsity launch at WIRAs, 2010 (Photo: A. Ericsson)
RR: Last year's success looks to have been built upon a very strong 2008-2009 novice class, which took home the silver medal in the Novice Eight category from ACRAs in that year, after having taken fourth at the Pac-10 Championships (edging varsity program Oregon State University into fifth place in the process). How important is it in a club program to field a strong novice program, and how has your novice men's coach Julia Gamache, WWU graduate and three-time Division II NCAA First Team All-American, gone about recruiting and developing talent?

AE: Half of that Novice 8 didn't return but of those that did, the depth of their talent created a big divide in our team that was extremely challenging. The old varsity felt threatened by their cohesion and talent, but also worked incredibly hard to defend their seats resulting in a very fast 8 in the end.

Of course a consistently strong novice squad is critical. There was one year in particular when our novice had no athletic depth. I watched the season unfold knowing all along that this was my future. It was a long hard year having to put all the same effort into coaching them knowing that we could only be so fast. The only speed we could find was by doubling into a 4 that year.

Recruitment at WSU is a team effort. We have almost no novices with previous rowing experience, and, quite frankly, those that show up at WSU, with a few exceptions, are almost always a joke. We just make it our goal to make sure that every guy who could row has been beat over the head a couple of times during the first week of school. What Coach Julia does to develop and retain them is the real magic. I think her biggest strength is what she says and how she says it. She's supportive but sets the bar very high. Her retention has been extraordinary both during their novice year and to return onto varsity. We refer to her coaching style as being compassionately condescending.

RR: In addition to the Varsity 8's successes last season, you also fielded a JV8 that took the bronze medal at the 2010 WIRAs, and three novice eights, all of which made their respective grand finals. How have the culture, atmosphere, and expectations of the team changed given the level of recruiting and intra-squad competition over the past three seasons?

AE: With respect to the guys that rowed here 4-7 years ago I would say that the culture (work hard) and atmosphere (work harder) haven't changed at all. What has changed is the size of our roster. This has presented its own challenges but has been one of the means by which we have been successful. I don't think it has created expectation though. Our competition is far to fierce to ever have expectations. But by having boats to race next to you each day, it's more fun and it makes you faster. The team points trophy meant a lot to us because everyone on the team was able to contribute to make that happen.

RR: Last Fall, you performed quite well against club programs during the head racing season, but found Gonzaga much improved from last year. How do you rate your speed at this time this year as opposed to last season?

AE: We were somewhat disheartened by the fall results. With only three guys returning from last year's V8 we are a young lineup which has needed time to develop. If you were to ask me three or four weeks ago I would have said that our speed is less than this time last year, but recent training has given everyone faith that we can be fast. And the novices are having another solid year.

RR: With San Diego Crew Classic just around the corner, what will you be looking for as you begin the 2011 season? Are you looking to make an early season statement, or are you training through with the singular priority of medaling at ACRAs?

AE: Every race is treated the same. We don't spend $600 per athlete to go down there and race anything less than all out. Whether a statement is made or not it will be a critical race. Races have to be part of the training plan. Sure the training leading up to it will be different than into ACRAs but with our winter weather challenges one should expect us to keep improving on the water after San Diego at a faster rate than those in warmer climates.

Thanks very much to Arthur Ericsson for taking the time. 

Upcoming interviews: National Team member, Lightweight World Champion and Beijing Olympian Will Daly, and Megan Kalmoe, UW All-American, 2008 Olympian 2012 Olympic hopeful. Also coming soon: RR Interviews Mary Whipple, Olympic gold medalist and coxswain for the US National Team.


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