By James Geerdes
Just five years ago, Iowa’s rowing program routinely finished last in the Big Ten. The team had consistently struggled since its conception in 1994, being invited to just one National Championship, in 2001.
The Iowa Athletics Department was then faced with the challenge of turning the program around. Years of effort, plenty of funding, and one crucial hiring changed a program that had struck rock bottom into what is slowly becoming one of the most credited teams on campus and in the nation.
Laying the foundation
There was no instantaneous solution. Iowa’s rowing program did not catapult to the national stage in one day.
In 2006, Iowa rowing was the lone sports program on campus without a true home — football had Kinnick, softball had Pearl Field, basketball had Carver, and so on. That’s when the Athletic Department fully realized how underdeveloped the rowing program was.
Paula Jantz, the senior associate athletics director, alongside Mandi Kowal, rowing’s then-head coach, hatched a plan to fully develop the team into a powerhouse.
That plan started with a boathouse — rowing needed place to call home. And Jantz, as well as the rest of the administration, was set on making it perfect.
“State of the art was something we were really concerned about,” she said. “We wanted to make sure that we designed a building that was going to continue to assist in the success in the program.”
Iowa athletics, working alongside the University of Iowa Hydraulics Lab, designed one of the best facilities in the nation. A moving water rowing tank, 20,000 square feet of space, and an army of ergometer machines ensured the team could practice year-round and be one of the most well-equipped squads in the nation.
Groundbreaking for what would become the Sue P. Beckwith Boathouse began in March 2008 right next to the Iowa River. The $7.2 million project was quickly halted, however, when the 2008 flood hit in June, yet Jantz says this strengthened the building. The facility was quickly redesigned — the bays open to allow for flooding and all machinery was placed on the second floor.
The state-of-the-art building opened in 2009, and expectations for the struggling program were at an all-time high.
“A lot of thought went into the whole design of it,” Jantz said. “We had a really good feeling that if we had a good facility, then we would be able to build a successful program.”
That expectation would be seen as far-fetched in the following years. The program was formed in 1994 under Kowal, who had built the program from scratch during 18 years. Then, to the administration’s surprise, she faced scrutiny and a lawsuit over how intensely she pushed athletes during her workouts. Her resignation came swiftly following the suit in May 2012.
That July, Steve Pritzker was named the newest head coach. Pritzker was charged with the task of changing a program that had placed last in the Big Ten the previous two years and had failed to qualify for a national competition since 2001.
Then, as quickly as he was hired, Pritzker announced he was leaving the program. Iowa rowing suddenly found itself in need of another coach, just three years after building one of the best facilities in the nation.
A simple addition to shattering records
Jantz was tasked with finding the new coach — one who could follow the vision of the administration and place the Hawkeyes on the national stage.
“I got ahold of rowing coaches across the country — particularly in the Big Ten,” Jantz said. “I talked to the coach at Ohio State, who had just won a national championship, and said we ’re looking for someone at Iowa who’s going to help us succeed.”
Ohio State’s head coach passed along the name of a man who was making waves at the University of Miami: Andrew Carter. Carter had just turned Miami into a nationally ranked program in just four years.
Following Jantz’s invitation, Carter toured Iowa’s facilities, which now included one of the best boathouses in the nation and agreed to take the position as head coach in July 2013, after Pritzker’s quick exit.
Pritzker’s time at Iowa was not wasted, however. Carter’s predecessor held a reputation for training teams hard. His brief stay at Iowa exposed Carter’s rowers to the work ethic needed to be — and excel — at the national level.
With Carter at the helm, the groundwork was in place, and work began immediately.
“They didn’t have the culture, the expectation of success,” Carter said. “That’s what I needed to work on. To empower them to understand. I needed to move them from people who were given fish to people who knew how to fish.”
In his first season at the helm, Carter’s progress could be seen. The Hawkeyes received votes in the Collegiate Rowing Coaches Association /USRowing Coaches Poll throughout the season. That year, freshman Morgan Grastorf, who began the season as a novice, was named to the Pocock All-America Second Team.
The 2015 season was another step forward for the program. It tallied 79 points in the Big Ten Championships, its second-highest total in program history (the Hawkeyes earned 99 in 2003).
In 2016, Carter added to that mark; he and the team earned 95 points at the Big Ten Championships. The next year, Carter shattered that mark with 116 points at the conference meet. His team’s performance that season earned it a spot in the National Championships, the first appearance for Iowa since 2001.
“Going to NCAAs for the first time since 2001 was a pretty big step for our program,” senior Kaelynn Heiberg said. “We’re hoping to prove to everyone that Iowa has arrived.”
Creating extraordinary moments
Fielding a rowing team isn’t easy. The Hawkeyes — as well as most rowing programs in the United States — rely heavily on a talent-transfer program. Because high-school rowing is far and in between, coaches need to develop talent.
Novice development quickly became the pride of the program. Assistant coach Megan Fitzpatrick has taken the reins of the talent-transfer program. Novice training has repeatedly made varsity athletes. Creating new rowers is the crux of Iowa rowing — but that is a credit to the team’s leaders, not necessarily the coaches.
“They see that there are athletes above them who were first-year walk-ons to a Big-Ten Co-Athlete of the Year in Contessa Herald,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s not a dream that we’re selling them on, it’s real. When they buy in and put in the work, it happens.”
That expectation has driven the team to new heights every year. Some stints in novice boats are longer than others, but all are equally rewarding. Varsity crews have become historically dominant during Carter’s tenure.
“They’ve been nonstop achieving firsts,” he said. “In the past five years, every record has been broken. I don’t know of anything that’s been left standing.”
This season was yet another step forward for Carter’s squad. A strong season landed the Hawkeyes in the National Championships, where they finished a record-high 11th, improving upon their 13th place just one year ago, but they were close to shattering even more records.
The First Varsity 8, Iowa’s premier boat, reached as high as the No. 7 seed in the nation, drew Washington, California, and Ohio State in the semifinals of the National Championships — with only three boats advancing to the finals. Cal and Washington were in first and second throughout the regatta, leaving Ohio State and Iowa in a race for third.
Iowa had led Ohio State, which had won the previous six Big Ten titles, through nearly the entire race, but a final sprint from the Buckeyes knocked Iowa out of the finals by under 0.5 seconds. Winning that race would have landed Iowa in the top 10, a goal for Carter and his squad this coming season.
In an almost testament to the program, six of the First Varsity 8’s rowers came to Iowa with no rowing experience.
“To know that we had five women and a coxswain with no rowing experience in the first 8 this year — that’s not terribly ordinary across the country,” Carter said. “That’s a testament to the culture that we’ve built.”
Carter has shifted rowing at Iowa. Not only have his rowers bought into the daily practice regime, they go above and beyond to achieve the success they desire.
“The athletes who love it begin to thrive,” Fitzpatrick said. “The athletes who love the challenge of the day, love the team aspect, the ones who push themselves to get better, they really thrive in the environment, and they do really well.”
Carter started scheduling tougher and tougher opponents. Nearly every race is against a top-15 foe — and Iowa beat many of them this past season.
“It’s pretty satisfying,” said Ashley Duda, a 2018 rowing alum. “It’s crazy to see how far it’s come from my freshman year to where I am now. I know in the future, it’s going to keep going. I know a lot of people on this team have the motivation to keep it going into the future.”
Duda and the rest of her rowing graduating class is leaving the program exponentially better than when they came in. From Carter’s first season, to where it’s at now, Iowa rowing is quickly gaining steam.
“One of the best things I’ve ever done was the hiring of Andrew Carter,” Jantz said. “He was a great hiring — someone who has just been phenomenal. I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to bring him.
“It certainly is everything I hoped for. Every time you’re building a program, it’s going to take some time. I am just so happy with how quickly Carter was able to create and develop this program to the national program it is right now.”