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Q&A With Women’s Crew Coach Will Porter

Will Porter at the post-race meeting (Tim Bennett photo)
Will Porter at the post-race meeting (Tim Bennett photo)

Discusses Varsity Eight's Three NCAA Titles And Coaching Philosophy

Four Years Of Success Photo Gallery

On May 30, Yale's varsity eight won the grand final at the NCAA Championship. It was the third time in the last four years that the Bulldogs had the fastest crew in the nation and the fourth straight year a Yale boat captured an NCAA crown (the second varsity won in 2009). Yale has now been selected to the NCAA Championships in each of the last nine years. In addition, Yale has won the Charles Willing Team Trophy at the Eastern Sprints in two of the last three years, and has been the Ivy League champion in four of the last six years. Head Coach Will Porter has guided the Bulldogs to all that success and he recently sat down to discuss the state of the Yale women's crew program.

SPO: The program has been very successful for the last decade. What were the keys to taking the next step and winning individual NCAA boat titles?

WP: Looking back it has been a steady build. When I took over as the head coach, Yale had not been to the NCAAs in two years. Our 1v and 2v had just finished in the third level finals at the Eastern Sprints. There was nowhere to go but up.  Most people think Yale has always been a powerhouse, but if you look closely that is not necessarily the case.  In 2000 we were able to make the finals at the Sprints and we got an at-large invite to the NCAAs. That was important. Those rowers in '00 got the ball rolling. In '01 we got an at-large bid again and that led to a team bid in '02. That is why I believe so strongly in the NCAA defining rowing as an individual/team sport because I built our success on the at-large eight bid.

In '04 we finished second both as a team and in the 1v and that was a key moment. I think we came out of that championship believing it was possible to win. In '05 we won the Sprints out of nowhere in the last 500. '06 was a tough year, but we carried over Rachel Jeffers who was in the 1v from '04-'07. In her senior year she stroked our 1v that broke through and won the national championship. If you look at it closely and you know the athletes, you can see how the Class of 2002 is connected to the success of '04, and '04 led to the '05 sprints which led to the '07 season which runs straight to 2010.

The keys to breaking through are the athletes. The fundamentals of the program have always been solid and as the athletes have gotten better we have gone faster. That is not to say the earlier athletes were not as good as the current athletes, but they did not benefit from the momentum in the program the way the current team does.
SPO: You have won four individual championships at the NCAA's but you have not won the team title. How do you feel about the team title versus winning the varsity eight?

WP: I would always want to have the fastest crew in the country. That is not to say I would not want to win the team title. I think it is important to recognize individual crews as well as teams. Rowing has been around for a long time and the national champion has always been the fastest varsity eight. Look at every other major championship in this country - the IRA, Sprints, PAC-10, South- Centrals, on the high school level Stotes, Scholastic Nationals, NEIRA, CJ's, USRowing. The winner of the varsity eight is regarded as the national champion. It is engrained in our sport. Now the NCAA comes along and has to find a fit for a large roster so they create a team championship which is great, all the major regattas have team championships as well. But the national champions have always been the fastest eight in the country. I will say the rowing media could do a better job of staying  true to our sport by covering the varsity eight winner a bit more than a one line mention in every article.

SPO: Has the success changed the perception of Yale women's crew nationally?

WP: When you win people either love you or hate you. Look at the Yankees - you either love em or hate em. I do not see us as the darling of the rowing media. I know high school athletes like our program because they come here and see how fun it is. Like I said before I think the current perception nationally is that we have always been good. I do not think we get enough credit for the success we have had.

Winning three of the last four national championships in the varsity eight is an amazing accomplishment. It has not happened in the NCAA era. The '07 crew was legendary. They went undefeated, won the Sprints and the NCAA's. They won every heat, semi and final. That is unbelievable. They were flawless. That does not happen too often.

I do not care what program you are, it is never easy to go fast. It takes hard work, talent and luck. There are definitely schools that it is easier to recruit to because they are attractive for one reason or another. But Yale is a highly selective school and there have been plenty of great athletes who would love to have come here but were not academically able to. I am ok with that. This place is about excellence and it fits well with what we are trying to do at the boathouse. Yale is not for everyone, it should be hard to get in here. We want the best of the best. We want athletes who want to race at the highest level and are not willing to compromise their academics to do it. At Yale we believe you can do both at a very high level.
SPO: One of your main philosophies is to make sure your rowers have fun and enjoy the experience. Explain why that is so important to you?

WP: Rowing should be fun with a capital "F". To me rowing and racing has always been a blast. I love it. I loved it right from the first stroke I took. It suits me. I love hard work and I love being flat out on the edge flying on the water, working my body to its limits. I miss it. I miss the freedom that you find right in the middle of a big race when everything is churning and you are not thinking - you are just being.

As a coach I look around at regattas and I see so many athletes and coaches who just do not seem to be enjoying it. I kid my team all the time about how uptight rowers are. I do not want to see us acting like that.  As an athlete I was coached many different ways and I know the most powerful motivator is to love what you are doing. True success comes from passion. Our motto has always been to go as fast as we can.  It is not personal. I could care less who we are racing, ultimately we are racing to be our best.  We have always said we will be our own judge of our performance because only we know what we are capable of and what we are trying to achieve together.

I want my athletes to take that with them after Yale. I want them to pursue their lives on their own terms with passion and a desire to become the best they can be in everything they choose to do. I don't want them to settle. As a parent that is what I want for my children. Ultimately I want them to be happy, that is all any parent truly wants for their kids. Rowing is a place where you should be having fun. Yes we are serious about our pursuit but we are not going to operate in fear and stress. Those are negative. I prefer positives.
SPO: The Class of 2010 played a major role in the recent success. What made that class so special?

WP: It has to be regarded as one of the best classes in the history of women's rowing. There are two world class athletes in the class, but we have had athletes just as good as them in the past and we have never had the kind of success this group had. The things that make them great go beyond rowing. They are a very close class, they are honest people and sincere. They also happen to all be very driven and very competitive, but they were able to compete against each other without destroying each other. In the end they put the team first and that is sometimes tough for high end, talented athletes to do. From top to bottom the class was full of winners.

SPO: Did you expect the class to make such a major impact when they first arrived?

WP: I knew Tess Gerrand was good. But Taylor [Ritzel] and Alice [Henly] were way better than I could have ever hoped. Maren[McCrea]was a known talent but Chart [Catherine Hart] and Mia [Kanak] were just way better in reality than on paper. The rest of the class – Katherine Adams, Mary Pat Wixted - were great leaders in our lower boats. The answer is no I could never have expected them to be as dominant as they were. I also am very skeptical of recruiting classes. I never think an athlete is that great until they are here and prove they can perform daily at this level. It is still a big step from high school to what we do.
SPO: What were your emotions when this year's varsity eight crossed the finish line first at the NCAA Championship? Were they different than the first time in 2007?

WP: In '07 I was relieved that we won because we were perfect up to that last race. It was almost too good to be true and I really wanted those guys to get that one for themselves, they had come so far. In '08 I was pleasantly surprised because we were third with 500 to go. I was standing right at the 1500 meter mark and I saw we were on the move. We had not won the Sprints so I was psyched to see them get it right in their last race. I came out of '09 frustrated because I believed we were better than we showed all year. We never made it to our top speed.

This year I was standing in the exact same spot as '08 and I knew as soon as we got out off the start we were in a good place. When they won, I was on the phone with [my wife] Mia yelling. I was pumped. They are the fastest crew I have ever coached. They could really move the boat when they were on.

All three [championships]were awesome. It never gets boring and I try to savoir it because you never know if it will happen again.
SPO: What qualities do you look for when recruiting high school rowers?
WP: Recruiting is tricky. There are many different things that go into success. In the end we look for those athletes who are good students, who education matters to as well as athletes who want to be the best they can be. Obviously it takes certain physical qualities, but to me the personality and the character of the recruit is the most important thing. I want determined athletes who like the hard work, the struggle, the process of going fast. I am not interested in high maintenance people or drama. I want real people who are sincere and earnest in what they do, willing to work for results.

SPO: What about Yale attracts potential rowers?

WP: Everything. The place to start is the University. Yale is arguably the best university in the world. There are Yale graduates at the top of every profession worldwide. It is an internationally known university full of world class facilities and world class professors.

It also happens to be the birth place of collegiate rowing in the US with a great history in the sport. Between our boathouse, our three indoor rowing tanks and our weight room we have more space dedicated to rowing than any other program in the country. As soon as athletes visit Yale it becomes clear why we are able to do what we do.
SPO: You have an experienced coaching staff in Kate Maloney and Jamie Snider. How important have their contributions been to the success?
WP: Kate has been here since '03 and Jamie joined us in '05. Kate brings a level of consistency to her position. She is certainly one of the best assistant coaches in the country and she has been approached by several other universities about head coaching positions. I think Kate has a great situation at Yale and she enjoys working with high level student athletes and they love rowing for her. She knows her main job is recruiting and development and she embraces it. A former Olympian, Kate is a strong woman with a big personality. She is a great role model for our athletes. There is no doubt she plays a big role in our success.

Jamie is flat out the best second assistant in the country. He has more rowing knowledge than most head coaches and I am lucky to have him as part of my staff. He has made the most of his athletes and they know it and love him. The funny thing about Jamie is very few coaches throughout the league think he is a coach. They all think he is our boatman. They never remember him! It cracks me up.

SPO: You had two former rowers - Ashley Brzozowicz and Rachel Jeffers – at the 2008 Olympics representing their countries (Canada and the United States). What did that mean to you?

WP: That is awesome. I love to see our former athletes take it to the next level. Both Kate and I rowed for the U.S. Team and we know how hard it is to perform at that level. Whenever a former Yale athlete makes it, I smile because I know she must love rowing at some level and that means we did our job right.

There are plenty of great athletes who never make it to the next level because they get burned out rowing in college. It is not a physical burn out, they just loose the joy and rowing becomes work. To me the Olympics is still the ultimate peak for our sport, but it is a very different experience than being part of a collegiate team. Rowing on the national team is an individual pursuit and rowing on a collegiate team is all about the team. I know Ashley is still training as well as Jamie Redman, Taylor Ritzel and Tess Gerrand. If they all make it to London [for the 2012 Olympics] it would be amazing.
SPO: What is the outlook for the future of Yale women's crew?

WP: More of the same. I know our results lately have been pretty amazing but the day-to-day running of the program is no different than it has been for the past 10 years. The athletes make all the difference. If you are asking what is next as far as results, I have no idea. If you are asking what is next as far as what we do on the water every day, it will be the same. Do we want to win? Absolutely, win every race, every event, but that is not the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal is to do a "little Yale rowing" and go as fast as we can.