Gabe Winkler & Oregon State Men's Rowing

By Sparks Editorial Staff | October 23, 2012

The Pacific Northwest. A small town that loves its football (and with good reason: the team is good). A large research university, with over 200 majors ranging from Forestry and Agriculture to Bio engineering to Interior Design and Theater Arts. And a Men's Heavyweight rowing program on the verge of breaking out as a regional and national powerhouse. This is Oregon State University.

"If a guy that pulls a 6:35 says to me that he wants to break 6:00, I will do everything I can to get him to achieve that goal. This could take time and some programs aren't willing to give that athlete the time."

Competing in the PAC-12 conference in 17 varsity sports, Beaver Nation is no joke. "It's awesome! I love it," says Asst. Coach Gabe Winkler. "I didn't go to a big football school in college (Cornell '99) so this was an eye-opener when I got here. Every weekend, there are 50,000 people wearing orange screaming 'Go Beavs!' It is very fun to be a part of that. Also, the people in town really respect any Beaver athlete and look up to them as if they are studs [and the rowing team is no exception]. I love this place. The spirit is pretty infectious. You CANNOT wear any green or yellow to practice (team colors for arch-rival University of Oregon Ducks), that is for sure."

"Every weekend, there are 50,000 people wearing orange screaming 'Go Beavs!' It is very fun to be a part of that."

And being part of such a successful and respected athletics department has its perks. With the newly completed $2.5 million dollar addition to their Willamette River boathouse only a 10 minute easy bike ride from the campus center and regular workouts in the $6 million Sports Performance Center, a Beaver oarsman has access to the world-class facilities commensurate with the caliber of OSU's AD. And with miles of traffic-free river for distance training, an alternate training site for racing work only 2 miles distant from the boathouse, and West Coast water that never freezes, Corvallis is an ideal place to develop athletes into big-time competitors.

"We are looking for athletes that want to row at the highest level collegiately who want to race in the top boats at the big races. We want guys who don't want to be passed over just because they aren't from a foreign country," referring to the tendency for some nationally-ranked competitors to recruit from overseas. "We want committed rowers who will row and develop over the four years that they are in school. I love guys who are hard-working and are leaders."

I want to bring something from each one of those coaches that I've had over the years. I try to keep things positive because I've been coached with some negative words. That didn't make it fun.

A seven-time US National Team member in both sweep and scull, a former coach at Rutgers University, and now in his fifth season for the Beavs, Winkler acknowledges the myriad coaching styles he has experienced but has strong opinions for his own philosophy. "I've tried to count the number of coaches that I've had over the years. I always lose count since it is way too many to get through. I want to bring something from each one of those coaches that I've had over the years. I try to keep things positive because I've been coached with some negative words. That didn't make it fun. It might have worked but there is probably another way to go about it."

When asked about the unique challenges the team faces, what would seem like obstacles to others Winkler believes are the defining characteristics of the program. "We don't have any scholarships to offer here and we are in a league where the bigger programs (like Cal, Washington and Stanford) do offer a fair bit of them. We've been successful in competing with the best by getting a lot of on-campus, inexperienced walk-ons who are very good athletes but without any experience… scholarships would be great but I like the athletes who are rowing because they love it and really want to be there." This goes along with the focus on athlete development and maximizing the potential out of each rower. "I also don't see guys as "lightweight or heavyweight," he says. "We don't have a lightweight team here so I just see them as 'Fast or Not fast.' Yes, erg scores are very important and we want some good power. However, if a guy that pulls a 6:35 says to me that he wants to break 6:00, I will do everything I can to get him to achieve that goal. This could take time and some programs aren't willing to give that athlete the time."

"I also don't see guys as "lightweight or heavyweight," he says. "We don't have a lightweight team here so I just see them as 'Fast or Not fast.'"

So how is the Beaver Navy going to reach that next level of national dominance? Winkler places his faith in the culture of the team. "[We want] a team of guys who love to train and push each other to get ahead. You will get a tight knit group who will lay it down for their friends on race day. All I ask for the guys on the team is to be better than you were yesterday. Always improving and never settling." Oregon State finishes its Fall racing at the Head of the Lake in Seattle this weekend and look forward to knuckling down to a solid Winter of training for the coming Spring sprint season.

- Donny Simkin