BY LAUREN BOSTON
Veteran rowers and recruits alike went to last week’s team meeting, eager to prepare for upcoming competitions.
Instead, they learned there would be no season at all.
Fifteen minutes before the Aug. 29 informational meeting, athletic director Ed Hegmann pulled rowing coach Phil Schmehl aside and broke the news.
The University of Mary Washington administration recommended that the Board of Visitors suspend the intercollegiate rowing program effective immediately.
The decision was a shock to both Schmehl and the team.
“I had no idea,” he said. “One issue was a practice venue since we can no longer use Lake of the Woods, and I knew finding a new home was important. We also have a declining number of male rowers and the boats and equipment aren’t really covered because we don’t have boat houses. Those were the main factors in the decision.”
According to junior rower Betsy Bouton, the team’s practice venue became threatened last year.
“While the majority of the residents liked having us practice there, there was one woman who didn’t want us there and threatened us with a law suit if we tried to continue practicing there,” she said.
Talk of suspending Varsity status began late last Spring following the complaints.
“We really came to the defining moment when Lake of the Woods denied our request to use the lake any further,” said acting president Rick Hurley. “They had said to us early on a year ago that this is your last year. I wrote to them and appealed to them to reconsider letting us use it for one more year and I offered them $5,000.
“I mean here’s something for your troubles, because previously we hadn’t been giving them anything, but their decision was final.
“We were working on this idea of the Rappahannock volunteer land but when the [$100,000] cost estimates began to trickle in that gave us an additional pause. We’re uncomfortable spending that kind of money on land we don’t own.”
The news came on the heels of an award-winning season for the women, who finished 7th in the nation after the varsity eight won the petite final at the NCAA Division III national championship in May.
Despite a successful finish last year, Schmehl and his team knew they needed a new practice site. The Eagles coach had begun the search for a new home this summer.
“Lake of the Woods was 20 to 30 minutes away, depending on traffic, so rowers were spending an hour of their day in a van,” he said. “That’s such a waste of time. We want a significantly close venue, ideally right around 10 minutes away. I thought I had some good leads this summer.”
However, practice venues never panned out, with declining numbers on the male side weighing on the UMW administration.
According to Schmehl, the team finished with only six men last Spring, with numbers usually between 10 and 16.
The recommendation is pending a vote by the Board of Visitors on Sept. 14. Should the BOV decide to finalize the decision, the team would likely move to club status.
Schmehl is concerned the team will struggle financially if their Varsity status is permanently suspended.
“The most money you get as a club is about $4,000,” he said. “Our budget last year was $44,000. Running off of 1/11 of that would be significantly challenging.”
Hurley said the administration is still open to reinstating the team’s Varsity status if they can find a practice venue and boost membership.
“We’re carefully using the term suspend as opposed to terminate or eliminate-suspend,” Hurley said. “If this resurrects itself and shows sustainability, then I’m sure we would seriously consider returning it. We’re not totally ruling it out.”
In the meantime, Schmehl is urging students to stay as active with the team as possible. The coach has also met with recruits, alumni and actively sought a permanent practice home.
“I’ve looked at the Nye River resevoir in Spotsylvania County, the Duff McDuff Green Memorial Park in Stafford County and the Rappahanock River,” he said. “From my point of view, the best permanent home is the land donated to us on the Rappahanock. From there you’ve got to enter into some partnership.”
According to Schmehl, rowers can still take the physical education course.
“It just won’t take place on water and their designation will no longer be that of intercollegiate athletes,” he said.
Bouton is hopeful the rowing program will survive in some capacity, though an abundance of challenges are inevitable.
“Our coach said he would definitely form a club team if we do not regain our Varsity status, it would just be much harder for us to compete because we would receive significantly less support monetarily,” she said. “We wouldn’t be able to host home races, and paying entry fees, gas and travel costs to get to any races would greatly decrease our competition schedule.”