Peter Steenstra & Bates College Rowing

By Sparks Editorial Staff | December 23, 2012

You have to want to go to Bates College if you want to go row for Bates College. Seems obvious, but Head Coach of the Women's and Men's varsity rowing teams Peter Steenstra doesn't think so. "We don't want to have a kid who doesn't want to be at Bates," he says. And the truth is, the process is remarkably self-selective, because "if you're not applying early [and clearly committed to the college], your chances of getting accepted are rather small."

"One thing we talk a lot about is how varsity athletics is incorporated with the explicit intention of enhancing your education. No classes are offered between 4 and 7pm for that purpose. 1/3 of the campus is on a varsity sport but, more impressively, over 70% is active in intramural, recreational or varsity sports combined."

Bates is a shining example of the American liberal arts college, nestled in Lewiston, which feels like a small-town despite being the second-largest city in Maine. The school only enrolls around 1,800 students a year, with 300 studying abroad. The classes are small with a 10-1 student-to-teacher ratio, encouraging one-on-one relationships between students and faculty. "The campus is very tiny, the one-on -one aspect of learning is uniform throughout….One thing we talk a lot about is how varsity athletics is incorporated with the explicit intention of enhancing your education. No classes are offered between 4 and 7pm for that purpose. 1/3 of the campus is on a varsity sport but, more impressively, over 70% is active in intramural, recreational or varsity sports combined."

"We don't start every fall with 20-30 walk-on novices and end up with 4 at the end. By attracting competitively minded individuals on a very personal level the odds of that individual leaving the team are quite low."

And indeed, Steenstra's talk has caught on. Transitioned to varsity in 1998, the program has doubled in size over the last four years to around 85 athletes (more than 5% of the total on-campus student population). "We've been emphasizing the inclusiveness of the sport," he explains. "If you were an athlete [in high school] but no longer focused on that sport, you're still a competitive person, and rowing is a great outlet for that need for competition. Ironically, Bates doesn't blanket the campus looking for walk-ons…often times the current rowers meet these potential athletes and they are invited to practice….the first phase of self-selection." More than that, he continues, Bates rowers don't quit. "We don't start every fall with 20-30 walk-on novices and end up with 4 at the end. By attracting competitively minded individuals on a very personal level the odds of that individual leaving the team are quite low."

"I never lose sight of the fact that we're providing an experience as much as winning races, and I want to give everybody a chance [to travel and compete]."

Success breeds success, and Bates has become a Division III force to be reckoned with, with the Women's team a perennial podium finisher, and recently the Men's team as well, with both finishing runners up at last year's ECAC/NIRC Regatta. The culture that has been created here has been built largely on the fact that Steenstra is the head coach of both programs. "It's about finding a way to capitalize on our greatest disadvantages." In stark contrast to the high faculty-to-student ratio, Steenstra is head coach to both programs, splitting his time equally between the teams, with only one assistant per-team. Steenstra feeds this into his philosophy. "Maturity here is huge. One good thing about being the only head coach for the two teams, is that they don't fight over the equipment. No varsity team gets more than 50% of my time, each team has me half of the time, and the coxswains take on that role [of player-coach]." Like all D-III programs, Bates only gets 7 weeks in the Fall and 11 weeks in the Spring to practice with their coaches, so oarsmen and women need to be on it themselves to stay fit and hungry. Plus, the environment itself drives the team to knuckle down and take responsibility for themselves, and each other. "If we get a bad a winter, we get on the water late; our second major disadvantage… Since the coaching staff is spread very thin, that necessity for maturity is huge, even on the water, as the coxswains are running the show, Senior or Freshman, that coxswain is now acting as a coach, and first and foremost coxswains have to keep people safe. [The Androscoggin River]is a terrific rowing venue but very rural and very wilderness; last week we had a bear swim out in front of a women's novice eight." Perhaps not a conventional training tool, but it certainly serves to keep attentions rapt.

"We do some big trips. We go to San Diego [Crew Classic] every other year, we're taking 6 eights out there this Spring."

Looking forward, Steenstra will keep building on their momentum. "We do some big trips. We go to San Diego [Crew Classic] every other year, we're taking 6 eights out there this Spring, we do quite a bit of fundraising to make that happen—I take a much larger group than most other schools would. I never lose sight of the fact that we're providing an experience as much as winning races, and I want to give everybody a chance [to travel and compete]." As for performance, both teams are well positioned for a standout year. "Our Women's varsity eight finished 6th at the Charles, with 11 women abroad, so this spring will likely be a very different crew, but I'm really impressed with how they did. With only one Senior and one Junior on campus this fall, it was a very young group. On the men's side, Jesse Foglia is my assistant…and he's brought in a large class this year, about 15-16 experienced oarsmen, and these guys are feeding off of each other, seeing that they have an opportunity and trying to capitalize on it."

Bates heads into their mandatory Winter off-season. Look to see both teams in force in the Spring at the San Diego Crew Classic in Mission Bay, CA.

- Donny Simkin