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Virginia men’s rowing: The club team that sacrifices more than D1 squads

Diving deep into what motivates 60+ student athletes to wake up at 5:00 AM every morning to practice for a club sport.

Photo courtesy of Julian Smith
Photo courtesy of Julian Smith

On the weekend of the University of Virginia’s 2023 spring graduation, the Virginia Cavaliers Men’s Club Rowing team was in Oak Ridge, Tennessee competing in the American College Rowing Association (ACRA) National Championships. Rather than being in Charlottesville walking the prestigious Lawn in caps and gowns, the team’s fourth years graduated on the water.

As fourth year Robbie Taylor and his three teammates edged their quad boat away from the competition in the 2,000 meter championship race that weekend, he shouted out one line:

“Boys, let’s graduate!”

Photo courtesy of Julian Smith

That night, the team buses rolled back into the driveway of the Virginia Rowing Association boathouse. The dreary eyed rowers filed out of the bus and past the orange and blue sign above the boathouse’s front door that reads “Entitled to nothing, grateful for everything.” They trudged up the stairs and into a white-lit room populated by dozens of indoor rowing machines and a number of ACRA National Championship banners.

With some sitting on the machines and others standing, focus turned to the rusted bell hanging on the room’s front wall. It’s the bell that rowers ring when they’re either quitting the team or, on that occasion, graduating.

One by one, the team’s fourth years stepped up to the front of the room to recount their favorite memories on the team, thank their teammates and coaches, and finally ring out with tears streaming down their faces. For those student-athletes who dedicated their four years to the team around them, it was the tradition that represented the end of their time at UVA.

Although the men’s team is a club program today, rowing was the first intercollegiate athletic competition that a UVA team participated in — all the way back in 1877. The school’s orange and blue colors were inspired by dual athlete Allen Potts who played for the football team and rowed crew in the 19th century. While the university disregards Potts’ rowing background and claims that his orange and blue scarf was “acquired during a summer boating expedition at Oxford University,” he actually got it while competing as a rower in England.

Virginia’s women’s rowing team has been a Division I program since 1997 and has been one of the most successful in the country having won two NCAA Championships and 22 of the 23 ACC Championships. However, the university hasn’t prioritized the men’s program. While the team understands that and isn’t bitter about their club designation, they also don’t let it limit them.

The club is the second largest athletic team at Virginia, only behind the football team. It takes a special type of individual to play Division I football, and it takes a similarly high degree of commitment to row for the VRA. Six days a week, every rower wakes up at 5:00 in the morning for practice from 6:00-8:00 AM and then follows it up with a second individual workout in the afternoon.

While they’re fortunate to have an endowment and fundraising led by a board of former Virginia rowers which allows them to cover the costs of equipment, the rowers still have dues to pay and travel to cover. So, on Sundays, their one day off, the team works manual labor jobs through their “Rent-A-Rower” program to pay off their dues.

They spend at least 20 hours per week on an extracurricular activity that, to many, would be a fruitless endeavor. In fact, limiting the attrition rate has been the most impactful factor of success for the three-time ACRA National Champion club because of how difficult it is to stay on the team and to keep guys on the team.

“I don’t think there’s a single person who can say that [quitting] is not even in consideration,” says third year rower Noah Amato.

The early mornings, the packed weekends, the dues, the lack of university support, and the sheer grind that competing for this club sports team entails have left few who are willing to stick around. Quitting the team has been a daily consideration for these students who have school, social lives, and career development opportunities overflowing jam-packed schedules. It’s a team of student athletes whose top boat in 2023 recorded a 3.85 GPA while studying engineering, computer science, and medicine.

While 2016 Olympian and 2011 UVA alum Matt Miller had his God-given athletic gifts and perfect health to keep him motivated, even he says that “if I didn’t have those two things going for me, I probably would’ve quit.”

This fall, the team’s top rowers competed in the biggest multi-day rowing race in the world: the Head of the Charles Regatta in Boston. After a weekend of competition, the team had dinner at one of the rowers’ family’s home in Boston. Following a typically boisterous meal, Amato slid onto the bench in front of the piano in the living room, and the team gradually broke into song as he strummed the keys. Off-tune, often garbled song. But song nonetheless.

For the better part of an hour, dozens of rowers and their coaches enjoyed each other’s company, belting out lyrics to the songs that Amato played, and furthering their indescribable bond. It’s those moments which make quitting an unconscionable decision for these student athletes no matter the circumstances.

“I know I would regret it forever,” concluded Amato. “I know it’s worth the temporary pains and the inconvenience of waking up early because it’s for each other that we keep showing up.”

Photo courtesy of Carl Cheng

While everyone around the team has contributed to that sense of community and the close knit environment that is its foundation, one man is fundamentally responsible for the success of the club and its rowers: Head Coach Frank Biller.

“I attribute my run to the Rio Olympics to Frank,” says Miller. “He’s the reason I even had a shot.”

Biller, a Swiss-German, has trained world champions and olympians. He could realistically pursue any D-I head coaching job out there and is no stranger to coaching the best rowers in the world. But, since taking the job at Virginia in 2010, he has remained steadfast in his commitment to these club athletes.

“Even though there are bigger jobs out there, more prestigious jobs than coaching a club program, in this position here, I am really capable of effecting a dramatic amount of change,” Biller says. “Physically, obviously. Mentally, how they learn and mature. And just overall as people, how they carry it forward is what gets me out of bed in the morning.”

What stands out about Biller is the balance he strikes as a leader between being an old school drill sergeant (he was once a Sergeant Major in the Swiss Armed Forces) and a new age mentor. He pushes his team to their physical and mental limits, but he also understands that they’re human beings and treats them accordingly.

He is unrelenting in his expectations for them on the water and tells the blunt, difficult truths without a second thought. Yet he can do that because, above all else, he cares about each and every one of them and how he can prepare them to lead successful lives.

“Frank is there for you as a person,” adds Amato. “There’s not a single person he wouldn’t talk with for two hours at 2:00 AM if they needed him.”

Photo courtesy of Carl Cheng

On a misty Saturday morning in November, Biller followed his team on the water in a small motorboat, shouting pointers from a green megaphone as each rower pierced the previously untouched water in nearly perfect synchrony. After observing three eight-man boats race up the river, Biller provided more specific feedback for each of his rowers as he glided alongside each boat, his accent punctuating each word.

“Stop feathering the oar, Noah.”

“Brett, your right hand should be a table.”

“Alex, relax, let go of the tension in your neck.”

And, lastly with a wry smile and a chuckle, “You’re just sexy, Kevin. You’re just sexy.”

“The essential part of Frank is that he’s just a little bit crazy,” says top fourth year rower Brett Hogan. “He’ll always throw something in at practice that you have to adapt to. Over time you get used to it and expect the unexpected.”

Biller’s unique combination of technical genius with an understanding of how to motivate athletes and mold young people sets him apart as a leader. It’s also how the club has consistently produced incredibly successful individuals, like Miller. Individuals who have found success both in rowing and in their professional lives and come back to Charlottesville to reinforce that message to the team.

In November, Miller stood in the erg room, in front of the bell, and spoke on the difference between the pursuit of success and the pursuit of excellence. Success, he said, is compared to others, whereas excellence is relative to oneself.

“You’re learning the pursuit of excellence which translates to whatever you’re working on in the future,” he said to the team. “Your generation and my generation is full of so many soft wimps that if you apply half of what you’re learning now in what you do next, you’ll steamroll them.”

That’s the theory that Biller has instilled in his teams for more than a decade at Virginia. Whereas in the classroom students gain the tools to be successful in life, he stresses that it’s on the water where they learn how to apply themselves and perform to the best of their abilities. That’s where they learn to put all the pieces together.

“In the end, that’s where your home is, and that’s where you’re graduating,” adds Taylor’s boat-mate Grayson Miller. That’s why, according to Miller, “the thought of missing ACRAs for graduation isn’t even a consideration. That’s graduation for people on the team.”