RR Interview: 2012 Crew Classic Champ Justin Wegner of the Grand Valley State Lakers
Head coach John Bancheri's program at Grand Valley State has become a perennial contender in the ACRA league on both the men's and women's sides, thanks in no small part to the contributions of athletes like our most recent RR interviewee, Justin Wegner. Justin began rowing in high school, and brought some experience to the Laker program when he arrived on campus in 2009. Since then, Justin and the GVSU squad have continued to post better and better results—not least of which was winning the Cal Cup at the 2012 San Diego Crew Classic. Here, Justin shares a little about his rowing background, the program at GVSU, and his thoughts on the rising tide of ACRA rowing.
RR: In the rowing world, we hear a lot about high school athletes who 'burn out' when it comes to rowing in college, but you are the complete opposite, with better and better results to show for it. What motivates you as an athlete and keeps the flame burning so bright?
Justin Wegner: Rowing was the first sport in which I would consider myself successful. When I started rowing my sophomore year of high school it was the first time that I truly felt like I was a contributing member of the team and the first time I found myself in contention for the “first line,” so to speak. I quickly fell in love with the sport, and soon found rowing a central part of my college search—something I had never imagined would be a factor.
Rowing at the collegiate level is a different world than high school. The intensity of training and level of competition greatly exceeded my expectations. My novice year opened my eyes to what it takes to be competitive at the collegiate level and I became obsessed with pushing my level of fitness and improving my technique as much as I could.
I would say that my biggest motivator over the years is the aspect of teamwork in rowing that is not found in any other sport. I truly feel like I am just a small part of the boat, and since I am the only part that I am able to control, I want to do everything in my power to make the boat go faster.
RR: John Bancheri runs a very solid program, and it seems like GVSU is on the up swing—including winning Crew Classic last season. What is your favorite aspect of rowing for Grand Valley? How does Coach Bancheri go about creating a culture of achievement & success?
JW: My favorite aspect of rowing for Grand Valley is that we are a relatively small program at a relatively small school that gets the opportunity to compete, and be competitive, with many schools that are much bigger and better known.
Coach Bancheri is successful because he is able to make the rowers he has fast. He is able to mold the members of the team into good rowers physically and technically through an effective physical training regimen coupled with an unrivaled proficiency at teaching good rowing technique.
We have a few members that have rowed in high school, but none of them, myself included, were high school "stars," so to speak, and the rest of the team are true-novice walk-ons. Coach B fosters a culture where there are no “heroes” on the team. Everyone is important whether you are “pulling from the top, or pushing from the bottom.” There is no reason that someone who works hard and pushes himself cannot be in contention for the eight.
RR: Having spent your first year at Grand Valley in the frosh eight, and your second season in the bow pair of the varsity crew, you made the move up to stroke seat of the varsity eight prior to Crew Classic last year—a big jump and a big stage. How did you find the change from frosh to varsity rowing? Can you walk me through the Crew Classic final a little bit?
JW: The learning curve between frosh and varsity rowing is definitely steep. The importance of every aspect of the sport from fitness to technique is amplified and the margin for error is so much smaller on varsity. For me this made the sport that much more exciting—I loved the challenge. I learned a lot my first year on varsity both from Coach B and from the junior and senior members on the team. I came away from that season determined to improve upon it and get faster.
San Diego was my first major collegiate race at stroke seat, so it was obviously nerve racking, but at the same time it was very exciting to be one of the nine guys who were representing Grand Valley at such a big regatta. That boat had great chemistry and we rowed well together, even with two freshmen, one of who was a true-novice. We had a pretty good race in our heat, very controlled (the way you want a heat to go), and that gave us some confidence going into the final.
The final was one of the greatest races I have ever been in, it was close right from the start, just as we expected, so it really came down to execution. We were down off the start to Drexel who was in lane 5 and they really pushed hard that whole race. Our coxie did a great job of keeping the intensity up but keeping us collected and focused during the start and body of the race, we took the moves we had planned and really committed to them and they got us right where we wanted to be so we were in a good position coming into the last 500.
In the video you can really see how close it was when they go to the aerial shot—it was anyone’s race at this point. Drexel and Purdue were not far back from us and Notre Dame had made a push into the last 500 and was even with us in lane 2. This really turned the intensity up for us. I remember waiting for Chris to call us up for our sprint, he stuck to the race plan right down to the line so we were all ready for it. When he called the sprint we really laid it on. I remember shifting up for the last twenty, and that is where we sealed the deal. We walked away from Notre Dame to finish with a five-seat lead. It was a very exciting race.
RR: How has the team grown and changed since you began with GVSU? What do you hope to leave as your legacy with the Lakers?
JW: Over the past four years I think there has been an increase in the intensity of training and the standards we hold ourselves to as a team. There are more and more guys who are stepping up and the selection for the top boat has shown that. Each year I have been here the selection has gotten more intense. I hope this continues in the years to come and the team will continue to get faster as they push their limits and raise their standards to meet the rapidly increasing levels of competition the sport is experiencing. If my class can leave behind a culture of commitment to improvement and the team continues to get faster next year and in years to come I will be thrilled.
RR: Last year, we saw a nine-boat grand final at the ACRA championships, with roughly 11 seconds separating first through last place. In your view, how much has the level risen in ACRA rowing since you first began at Grand Valley?
JW: I think the level of rowing in ACRA has increased a lot over the past four years. There are more and more teams that are consistently raising their levels to meet teams that have been historically successful and those teams that have dominated in the past are rising to the challenge and producing faster crews year after year. I think this trend, coupled with a consistent increase in the number of entries at this and other regattas, is one of the most exciting aspects about club rowing right now. Last year's ACRA grand final clearly illustrated that the level of competition we are seeing today is unrivaled by the competition in past years at the event.
Thanks very much to Justin for taking the time! You can learn more about the Laker Navy on their official website, and follow Justin on Twitter: @wegnerjustin.