When Andrew Lennard arrived in Stillwater in the summer of 2018, he started looking for a rowing team.
At the time, there wasn’t one.
“I saw there was no rowing. I thought, ‘OK, is there no water. Is the name Stillwater just some cool name?” Lennard said.
He found out there used to be. In 1974, a proud Oklahoma State crew program had been founded before any other college in the state had one.
But, it had been dormant for nearly a decade and Lennard, who had spent the past few years as an assistant coach at Michigan State, knew what he had to do.
He had been hooked on the sport ever since he had been recruited when he was a freshman at Cincinnati. Back then, Lennard didn’t know much about rowing crew, but because of his height, he was a natural fit on the water.
Little did he know down the road that he would have to resurrect a program from scratch in the middle of the Oklahoma plains. But, when his wife, Anna, was hired as a professor at the Spears School of Business, here Andrew found himself about to do exactly that.
“Once I found out there was a lake and there used to be a rowing program that died out, I knew there was something viable here,” Lennard said. “I sat down with my wife and discussed the options and knew if I was going to do it, it would be ‘all in.’ So for the last two years, this has been my full time pursuit and passion.”
Whereas at MSU, Lennard had been able to be an assistant coach on the side with his day job more in line with his major of construction management, at OSU it would be a round-the-clock enterprise.
The first goal on his list was attracting interest in the program, which he started by telling students at the annual Lights on Stillwater event. Lennard had more than 100 people sign up and for the first couple of weeks, it was a challenge.
Since there was no equipment to speak of at first, Lennard had to fight tooth and nail to try to jump-start the program.
“When initially dealing with an administrator, I was asked the question if we really needed boats to start a rowing team?” Lennard said. “ To his credit, apparently the answer was no because for the first three weeks of the team, we had no rowing equipment at all. I was taking people to the rec center, taking people out to fields and training and lifting, working on fitness.”
Luckily for the program, there was a rowing haven only about an hour south in Oklahoma City’s Boathouse District, home of the U.S. Olympic training site for rowing.
Lennard was able to take students down there to use rowing machines and get on the water, eventually even making a deal with the director there in Mike Knopp, who was an OSU rowing alumnus from the 1990s.
“He has been trying to get rowing back up for a while, but the main gap was leadership,” Lennard said. “No one who knew the sport and lived in Stillwater was willing to take on that coaching role. He was able to initially loan us some equipment. We have since taken out a loan within the university to purchase that equipment. Now, these rowing machines and boats.”
The crew has 12 ergometers now at the Lake Carl Blackwell Boathouse it shares with the OSU sailing club. Lennard said the machines are the bread and butter of the sport as that is the best way to simulate the stroke on land, plus it is what is used in indoor competitions.
In rowing, there are four types of boats or shells. There is a single shell for one person, a double shell for two, a quadruple shell and an octuple shell. OSU has just one quadruple shell that was rowed by a member of the crew back in 1982 whose daughter was now on the team. Along with its age, it had another disadvantage because of the way it is built. The shell is supposed to be set up so the coxswain – the member who steers and motivates the four rowers – is supposed to sit in the front.
That change happened about 30 years ago and since the shell was older than that, the coxswain was set up for the back in that design, which provided some adjustments when the quadruple shell crew would compete.
Because of the limited equipment and limited knowledge, Lennard and the crew just worked on basics and mainly fitness at first. OSU did attend one competition, or regatta, in Wichita, Kansas, in November at the indoor Frostbite Regatta.
There, a novice men’s crew of eight rowers medaled despite the program only just restarting a few months before.
In the first year, Lennard knew that with the right amount of training, OSU could do well because of the way rowing is set up. At a regatta, there are four divisions. There is a men’s varsity, a men’s novice, a women’s varsity and a women’s novice.
OSU was able to lean on the novice aspect because of how inexperienced a lot of rowers were to begin with. Now, going into the second season, they will be able to have some returners on varsity squads.
The Frostbite Regatta was the one competition in the fall just so the crew members could get a taste of what it was like.
“We just wanted to get some equipment, have some bodies out here and go have a good time in the fall,” Lennard said. “After the fall season, we buckled down and had to get off the water so we were wading in the water to put the boat in and climb in. You can only do that so late in the season from a temperature standpoint. It’s not safe to go. From there, over the winter, we did a lot of intense training on the rowing machines initially in the Boathouse.”
Not only was the water of the lake frigid, though. The Boathouse has no heating and air conditioning so even when the crew was practicing indoors last winter, they would have to be bundled up to combat the cold.
Luckily, Lennard was able to find space at a former restaurant on OSU’s campus in one of the dormitories. That way it was closer for students and it had heating.
It was on campus where the crew hosted a 24-hour ergathon to raise money for the program. There, rowers had sponsors in what was essentially a rowing marathon. The team raised $5,000 there, which was half of the operating budget of $10,000.
Lennard said the budget isn’t much for a rowing program as when he was at MSU, the operating budget was $120,000.
“It is unfortunately an expensive sport,” Lennard said. “The moment you say boat, people think you have a disposable income.”
He understood the small amount given to the program, though, because it was the first year back and it hadn’t been viable for a while. Thanks to fundraisers like the ergathon, which he said they would most likely do again, as well as one this next year they will try called “Rent a Rower,” he is hoping to continue getting by.
The only way to get more support is to continue be successful and that is exactly what OSU did in the spring. In rowing, spring is the premier season where one often gets to see the races out on rivers with photo finishes at the end.
After practicing all through spring break and working six-day weeks, the OSU team battled against better funded programs and held its own.
The team headed to regattas in Topeka, Kansas, and Wichita, where they medaled at the Plains Regional Championship. To up the competition against more prestigious schools, they then went to Nashville, Tennessee, to row the Cumberland River.
Finally, for the ultimate test Lennard sent the women’s novice quadruple shell team to Gainesville, Georgia, for the American Collegiate Rowing Association National Championships. Gainesville was where the 1996 Summer Olympics took place for the rowing events.
Because of finances, Lennard had to make a choice on who to send. Plus the fact OSU didn’t have a trailer meant that he had to rent a boat from Vanderbilt for his crew to row in as the 37-year-old shell had to stay home.
Despite all of the hardships over the year and starting from scratch, the women’s novice 4+ team finished fourth in the country, missing the chance to medal by 0.5 seconds. The members of that group were coxswain Davis Bunn, Taylor Stoll, Ellie Pope, McCall DeQuasie and Bailey Harper.
“It is quite a story to say we went from nothing to being at that level in just one year on a shoestring budget,” Lennard said. “The boats that we were able to acquire, some of them are older than the athletes rowing them. To be going against these crews with strong alumni bases and strong university and community support and do as well as we did with as little as we had, I think that speaks volumes to the quality of the students and the efforts they put in and that we are on the right direction as a program.”
The finish in ACRA Nationals proved to Lennard that rowing can be something that is successful in Stillwater. He hopes to be the fastest team in the region in a few years, but he will have to have help. Whether it is financial support or more help from the student executive board to take some of the administrative duties off his shoulders, he thinks it is possible to attain that goal.
He doesn’t want to raise dues for members like many other schools do because Lennard wants to change the stigma of it being an elitist sport. That is the only way he thinks the sport will grow outside of its coastal, upper-echelon borders.
“One of my main goals has been trying to make this a much more accessible sport and fight the reputation that it has of being this elitist sport where only the upper crust can participate,” Lennard said. “Toward that end, we have been keeping dues as low as possible. The athletes are paying about 15 percent of what athletes are paying across the country. At the University of Michigan, they are on the hook for bringing in $2,500 a year per athlete.
“From that standpoint, that very quickly creates a barrier for a large percentage of the campus and that is something we are trying to avoid here. Doing that, it means we need to find some outside support and keep costs low so we can allow students, no matter what their background is, to come out and represent OSU on a national scale.”
Also, that way more people can come watch regattas and the sport will continue to catch on. He hopes down the line to even have a community rowing program, as it is a sport that anyone can do, he said.
“The primary advantage that the powerhouses have had is they have the history and culture,” Lennard said. “With that, comes a lot of support and financial funding. There is something to be said that if you are in Boston or Philadelphia, if you walk around campus and ask someone if they want to join the rowing team, they will say absolutely. Here, they ask what is rowing? The first step in the Plains Region has definitely been education and exposing people to this sport that they have really never seen or engaged with.”
Lennard has big dreams for the program that just over a year ago was dead. Maybe one day, he can get the program as an NCAA-sanctioned sport like at Oklahoma, Tulsa, Central Oklahoma and Oklahoma City University.
Until then, he has to keep building up the program and that starts with recruiting for this year, which he will start in earnest soon.
“We very much would like to engage the community and built that culture of rowing in the region,” Lennard said. “We want to increase the visibility of the program and get more people out on the water and share and spread the sport. It is a lifelong sport.”
For more information on the OSU rowing team, you can head to https://www.okstatecrew.org/ to learn how to join or support.