As a team name, the Wisconsin Badgers are synonymous with such collegiate offerings as football and basketball in Madison. But Wisconsin Athletics offers an array of other sports, all from high-endurance players who wear Badgers uniforms as well.
Rowing is one of Wisconsin Athletics’ oldest, most storied offerings on the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus and has notched a number of notable accomplishments along the way. As the program has evolved, UW students from an array of backgrounds have been able to participate in the time-honored sport.
The Badgers offer rowing in three separate categories based on gender and skill level. Men’s rowing has the deepest roots, stretching back to 1874. Women’s openweight rowing was added to Wisconsin Athletics’ roster as a varsity sport in 1974, and women’s lightweight rowing followed suit as a varsity sport in 1995.
“It’s one of our oldest programs,” says Paul Capobianco, assistant director of athletic communications with Wisconsin Athletics. “It’s got a pretty great history. There’s a great line of success. It’s been one of our better programs.”
This past year, 136 students participated in one of the three teams, which Paul says is about average. The greatest amount of participation comes in the women’s openweight team, with 60 participants on the roster toward the end of the 2018-19 school year. Fifty participants are on the men’s team, and 26 students have taken part in women’s lightweight competitions. In an average year, Paul says 250 to 300 students sign up for rowing during fall tryouts, and participation numbers typically narrow afterward.
While rowing might appear easy to the casual observer, Paul says it’s a high-endurance sport and not for the faint of heart. Students who stick with rowing demonstrate discipline, determination, and a high degree of stamina. “It’s really hard—super hard. It’s almost like a runner’s high.”
While some of the UW students donning a Badgers uniform in support of rowing have been playing the sport long before enrolling at UW, Paul says other team members have participated in other sports—swimming, in particular—and have chosen rowing as a natural next-step sport to participate in as a related activity.
Regardless of a team member’s backstory, Paul says he has noticed a common trait for each participant who sticks with rowing throughout a school year. “It seems to be a sport where you’re all in. There’s that sense of accomplishment.”
When asked why rowing has endured the test of time—remaining a part of Wisconsin Athletics’ roster of offerings for 145 years—Paul credits the natural landscape as at least part of the reason for its longevity. “The lakes are a big part. There’s also been some pretty amazing coaches here over the years.”
Beau Hoopman, one of Wisconsin Athletics’ current assistant men’s rowing coaches, demonstrates skill and mastery within the program. Beau was a walk-on from Plymouth when he joined the program. “[He] won a gold medal in the men’s eight at the 2004 Olympics and a bronze medal in the eight at the 2008 Olympics,” Paul says. “He played golf in high school.”
When the warm weather is in full force, the Badgers rowers hone their skills outdoors in one of the nearby lakes or rivers. When the docks are taken out in November, usually before Thanksgiving, practices turn indoors until winter’s thaw firmly gives way to spring.
Indoor practices take place within the Porter Boathouse on the UW campus’ Lakeshore Path along Lake Mendota. The venue serves as the rowing program’s official home. And some true diehards head south during the UW’s winter break—last half of December and first half of January—to continue their rowing practice outdoors.
The Badgers rowing season in the spring officially kicks into high gear in mid-March and typically lasts into late May or early June.
Over the years, UW rowers have amassed a number of accomplishments. To date, 15 Olympians have been named through one of the program’s two women’s teams. An additional 13 Olympians have reached the achievement through the men’s rowing team.
There have been other notable achievements over the years, particularly through the Intercollegiate Rowing Association (IRA). The Badgers men’s rowing team has achieved nine IRA national titles: 1951, 1959, 1966, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1986, 1990, and 2008.
Women rowers also have enjoyed their share of successes. In its near quarter-century existence, the women’s lightweight rowing team has earned five IRA national titles: 2004, 2005, 2006, 2008, and 2009. Additionally, the women’s openweight rowing team has achieved two national titles, one in 1975 and one in 1986, pre-NCAA.
Rowing has become such an entrenched part of Wisconsin Athletics’ programs that large-scale competitions have been hosted in Madison and the broader area. For example, Paul points to the Big Ten Rowing Championships, which are made available for the women’s openweight team. Two championship events were held on Lake Wingra, one in 2000, the other in 2007. On May 19, the championships returned to the region, this time on Devil’s Lake.
NCAA-sanctioned women’s rowing has been a part of Wisconsin Athletics since 1997, and the UW program has notched a number of notable accomplishments in the more than two decades since it was first introduced.
“Our women’s team has been to 11 consecutive NCAA championships, the longest current NCAA stream among all of UW’s teams that qualify to NCAAs as a team,” Paul says.
For sports lovers interested in learning more about the history of rowing on the UW campus in Madison, Paul says he frequently directs them to Wisconsin Where They Row: A History of Varsity Rowing at the University of Wisconsin , a book by Bradley F. Taylor released in 2005 and published through UW Press.
Dave Fidlin is a freelance writer who has a special affinity for Madison. Dave’s career spans nearly 20 years, and he’s grateful for the opportunity to learn something new each day through his professional pursuits.