When the Huskies hosted rowing teams from the U.S. Coast Guard, Colgate, Marist, and Trinity in Coventry this past spring, it was a homecoming for coaches from three of the visiting squads: four of the visiting coaches had been UConn rowers during the 16-year period since head rowing coach Jennifer Sanford Wendry took the program from a club sport to varsity competition.
That weekend in April was a coaching reunion that included Jen (Smith) Meuse ’98 (CLAS), head coach for Coast Guard, and her assistant coach Jodi Hope ’05 (SFS); Kathy Les ’09 (CLAS), ’11 MS, assistant coach at Colgate; and Michelle Stathers ’07 (CLAS), assistant coach at Marist.
Wendry’s growing coaching tree has many branches, with other former Huskies currently serving as assistant coaches in colleges, including Andriel Doolittle ’12 (CLAS) at Wesleyan; and Stephanie Chivers ’07 (ED) at George Washington. Yet another Husky rowing alum, Allyson Zoppa ’08 (CLAS), ’09 MS, is in her sixth season as an assistant to Wendry at UConn, and Katie Visentin '12 (CLAS) is currently graduate assistant for the team.
Developing a passion
Wendry says until the event this past spring, she hadn’t thought about how many of her former student-athletes were returning with their own teams. “Many of them were captains here,” she notes. “You can see their passion for the sport and definitely leadership qualities.”
The former Huskies say that they developed their passion for rowing and learned how to be leaders from their former coach.
Wendry’s own passion for rowing is a family legacy. She began rowing when she was 7, had her first race in a single when she was 10, and started coaching youth programs in the area round Syracuse, N.Y., when she was 16. Her father, Bill Sanford, led the Syracuse men’s rowing team for 37 years, and three of her father’s brothers, her two sisters, and several cousins all rowed. Her sister Kris (Syracuse), and cousin Tom (Marist) also became coaches.
Meuse, the UConn alum who is now head coach at Coast Guard, was heading into her senior year when the Huskies rowing program made the leap from being a club sport to a varsity sport. Wendry had arrived after coaching at the University of Pennsylvania for a year as an assistant, and before that coaching at a high school and having a senior eight boat win the Scholastic Rowing Association National Championship.
“It was a huge change,” Meuse says. “For the first time, we had equipment that was appropriate. We had access to academic counselors and training. I think that’s what inspired me to get into coaching. I saw what varsity athletics could do for women. Jen [Wendry] modeled the young women coaching. I looked at her and thought, OK, it’s possible. There’s a place in athletics for someone like me.”
After Meuse graduated, Wendry hired her as an assistant coach with responsibility for the novice program, before she left to become an assistant at Coast Guard for several years. As her family began to grow, Meuse left the Bears, briefly returned to Storrs as an assistant, and then returned to Coast Guard as head coach six years ago.
“I thought I had to make a choice between working as a coach and having a family,” says Meuse, who was named the 2012 Coach of the Year in the New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference. “Again, Jen not only modeled that you could do both, she took me back into the fold.”
Like most collegiate rowing programs, members of the Husky squad are often walk-ons who competed in other sports in high school before being recruited to the rowing team by current student-athletes. Partial scholarships may be awarded as rowers commit to the hard work of rising early each morning for practices and training.
“It obviously changed my path in college,” says Stathers, a distance runner in high school who is now an assistant coach at Marist for Wendry’s cousin, Tom Sanford. “Jen was a real leader and she instilled the passion for the sport. I think that’s why you see so many [of us] staying in the sport. The majority of our students are walk-ons. I can share in the fear they have in a new sport, and see them get the same passion that I got. That’s the best part of coaching.”
From student-athlete to coach
Doolittle says working as coach for the first time has taken her back to feeling again like a novice in the sport, learning about rowing from the perspective of a coach. But she recalls the lessons she learned from Wendry, who would find ways to motivate the Huskies even after a disappointing finish to a race.
“At the end of my junior year, we were at the Dad Vail [the nation’s largest collegiate rowing event, with more than 100 colleges competing], and we didn’t have as much success as we wanted,” Doolittle says. “She told us coaching us was so much fun, and it made her love coaching and being out on the water. There was always such an enthusiasm. She has had a long history with rowing; it’s been in her life so long. We see that as a model, that it’s a possibility after we have left college.”
In high school, Les competed as a three-sport athlete in basketball, soccer, and as a sprinter in track. When she arrived at UConn, she wanted to continue as an athlete but did not feel confident that she could compete on three Husky teams that had won championships for many years.
“Rowing seemed to be a good place because they were teaching us how to do it,” Les recalls. “Joining the team as a freshman was the greatest thing that could have happened to me. Everyone is like-minded and wants to do something competitive.”
Les says her relationship with Wendry got off to a “rocky” start, owing to her sarcastic sense of humor amid the grueling workouts and training sessions the team experiences. But by the time Les became a senior, she demonstrated a commitment and leadership that was rewarded when Wendry named her a team captain.
“She and I are very close now,” Wendry says, smiling. “It’s fun having her as a coach now. Going from a student-athlete to a coaching role, it’s fun to hear that they appreciate what goes into it. It just makes me happy they’ve been able to carry on in rowing. It makes me feel we’ve done something right.”
Succeeding beyond the wins
In the past decade, the rowing program’s increasing success has raised its profile in competition, as well as with the growing number of coaches coming out of Storrs. At the Dad Vail Regatta, Husky boats have had seven Top 3 finishes, including three firsts. The best result was in 2005, when UConn won the Jack and Nancy Seitz Trophy for overall team points in the regatta, owing to a first with the Varsity Eight boat that included Hope, a second with the Junior Varsity Eight in a boat with Chivers, and a third with the Novice Eight boat that included Zoppa. Seven Huskies have earned All-New England honors, and more than 30 rowers have been named National Scholar Athletes by the Collegiate Rowing Coaches Association.
The rowing team is poised for greater success in the future with the addition of 10 more scholarships to the four it now has available over a four-year period. As in most Olympic sports, partial scholarships are awarded to extend support for student-athletes. In rowing, a full scholarship allotment is 20. The additional scholarships are the result of the men’s hockey team gaining scholarships as part of its move to Hockey East competition.
“Every school recruits walk-ons in rowing. We’ve been able to recruit good kids. Now we can get great kids,” Wendry says. “This will have a direct impact on our Varsity Eight getting faster. All of our boats will get faster. At the conference championships, you can see the teams that are fully funded and the ones that aren’t.”
Wendry says that while she looks forward to greater success in competition on the water, she reminds her student-athletes that ultimately rowing helps establish personal relationships and build character.
“I keep telling them there are few races you’ll actually remember, unless something bad happens like ‘catching a crab,’ when the oar comes out of the water, in a big race,” she says. “It’s the experience of getting through your college career doing this thing called rowing and having rowing mold you into the person you are, whether you are a coach or something else. Obviously the wins are important, but it’s the relationships that are more important. When I hear from people after they’ve left, that’s what makes me like the job more than dwelling on the tenths of a second.”
See more photos of the rowing team.