While most members of the University of Illinois community use their flexibility in scheduling lessons to sleep in longer, there is a group of dedicated athletes who prioritize their love of rowing instead.
As he enjoys the sunrise over the trees of nearby Clinton Lake, where the Illinois rowing team trains, President and Gies Senior Benjamin Calderon is ready to take his club to the next level after returning to a post-COVID-19 situation -Reality has returned.
“It was very thin and it was a little bit difficult,” Calderon said. “The team size was much smaller and almost every single regatta was canceled.”
Calderon was enjoying his freshman year on the university men’s team when the pandemic started. With just a year of rowing experience under his belt, Calderon was eager to continue building the community that had accepted him so early in his time in Illinois as a former athlete with an injury-ridden career.
“I have been involved in sports and athletics since elementary school. I did mostly football, lacrosse, and powerlifting through high school, but had to take a few years off because of an injury. I tore both shoulders and broke an ankle,” Calderon said. “After my freshman draft, I went to a picnic area and there were a lot of rowers handing out cards. I had heard about rowing and I thought, ‘Give it a try’.”
Rowing is easily one of the most well-known sports in collegiate athletics. Because most high schools lack a sanctioned team, early access to rowing is hard to come by for a large population of high school students. However, like Calderon, collegiate rowing is very attractive to those who wish to continue competing at high level after graduating from high school.
Calderon describes rowing as a strength-endurance sport where sustained cardiovascular endurance is added to the force required to move a boat with yourself, your teammates, and any other equipment on the boat. Learning to transition from your legs to your body to your arms in each and every stroke is the biggest learning curve, according to Calderon, but he hopes to entice anyone willing to try and commit to rowing to to try it.
“It’s very easy to just send out a few flyers and posters,” Calderon said. “The men’s team was small for various reasons. I want to recruit a strong and competitive class of rowers who don’t need to have experience, just really people who want to work.”
While the rowing team enjoys having fun and is overall a close-knit group of friends, they have recently undergone a cultural shift, shifting their attention to becoming a competitive club rather than being a social one. The recruitment of head coach Michael Siravo, who has over a decade of experience coaching rowers in the UK, brought a new level of commitment to the team.
“We seriously thought about what we want and decided that we want to win medals with the national teams. We’re up against big teams like Michigan, Virginia and Georgia, these guys train every day, you have to be really determined and have a solid training schedule,” Calderon said. “Our coach was honest with us and set this training schedule. It’s not all 24/7 business, but during training we streamlined it a little bit, a little more structure, a little more planning in what we’re doing.”
Siravo, who has a degree in Exercise Science from St Mary’s University Twickenham London, has delivered the results the team wanted, coaching three ACRA All-Americans, 12 full-time graduates and multiple wins for both the men’s and also for the women’s team in Germany.
Rowing training is intense, with varsity teams training six days a week while novice teams train five days a week, with optional evening workouts and multiple opportunities to further improve and train.
“The first month of rowing, which begins two to three weeks into the school year, is mostly a trial period. You can train with us, try it and see if you like it,” Calderon said. “If you do that, you can join the team and eventually go to the lake where you can experience rowing on the water. If not, no problem, we’re glad we could show you the sport and teach you a new workout.”
While early workouts always get recruits’ biggest groans, according to Calderon, he cites waking up early as “one of the biggest perks when it comes to my academics.” Calderon notes that there are multiple STEM majors on the team, allowing them to be super focused during the day and on their homework while still getting their training done.
“You’ll never know until you try, so we have this trial period where you can just try rowing with us, we’ll teach you how to row and show you a few laps,” Calderon said. “You can see the team environment and see if you like it. If you are a former athlete or someone looking to get into athletics, want to get involved and make a great group of friends in the process, then rowing is the perfect environment for you.”