Under the radar but over the top growth and grit: UNC Men’s rowing

UNC Men’s Rowing Boathouse at University Lake. Photo Credits Thomas Hicks.


By Thomas Hicks

CHAPEL HILL – UNC-Chapel Hill’s sports programs are prominent, to say the least. Basketball is the most notable sport at UNC, but football, field hockey and women’s soccer are also huge.

One under-the-radar sport has had some great development this past season. UNC boasts its rowing Heels, the Men’s Crew team. This club rowing team competes in ACRA, the American Collegiate Rowing Association, a league for rowing teams that are not fully funded by varsity sports. Rowing teams have continued to lose full funding, creating a need for this league. Carolina’s 1st team boat offered a top ten time this year in their national end-of-year championships.

“So we did very well in the varsity event, rising from 19th last year to 14th (out of 31) this year,” Work said, ”In the second varsity, it rose from 11th of 12 to 11th of 20.”

UNC Men’s Rowing Coach Austin Work. Photo Credits Thomas Hicks.

This may not sound like winning a gold medal, but the team exceeded expectations despite receiving much less funding than other schools. Some programs, like Washington University or Bucknell’s team, receive significantly more funds for equipment and training materials. But UNC goes out to compete regardless. Coach Work says the team doesn’t worry about circumstances they can’t control and they compete for the love of the sport and the process: “Our guys come down here because they love it. They love what they’re doing. They love being down here and working out. They love training with the team and competing as Tar Heels, regardless of what are their varsity statuses. It takes a really special mindset to be able to do that.”

Unlike their female counterparts on the Women’s Rowing team, the Men’s team is not a fully funded varsity sport. The team gets funding from an endowment fund set up five years ago that alumni contribute to. Campus recreation at UNC also contributes funding to the team. Coach Work expresses great appreciation for them saying, “Campus Rec has been instrumental in us staying, let’s put it this way – keeping our heads above water through COVID. They did a really good job of supporting us.” They also do a fundraising program called Rent-A-Rower so that rowers can pay their dues. Rent-A-Rower has rowers do all kinds of manual labor tasks such as yard care, assisting in moving furniture, painting, and much more.

Due to the lack of funding, rowers must pay $1800 a year to compete on the team to cover the cost of equipment and other expenses.

But no one should be deceived by their club designation. This team puts in varsity-level work and has really learned how to execute. The team practices at 6 a.m. four days of the school week out on the water of University Lake, with a Saturday practice. In addition, they have multiple individual workouts a week.

Team President Evan Hohl, an outgoing senior and 1st team academic All-American, spoke of his team’s growth and effort, saying, “The guys that are rowing are putting a lot more effort into it and taking it a little more seriously than I think I saw when I first joined the team, where it was more of ’oh, I’m on the team. I’ll show up to practices, but I can just get through it’ versus more of the aspect of now we want to be competitive. We want to push ourselves and really work to make the best of it that we can.”

Senior Team President Evan Hohl rowing. Photo Credits: Lisa Worthy.

Coach Work concurred with that sentiment and went as far as to say,

“In 20 years of coaching, I have never been so proud of a group of athletes who have responded as well as they have to the challenges that this program had to deal with, whether it was transition or COVID or new coaches or whatever.” Work continued, “I think to see how well they’ve done has been an inspiration and it makes this worth it. On those cold mornings in February, it makes it worth it to watch these guys and to watch them do what they do. It’s been an incredible year to be a coach for this program.”

This program is not just about rowing for Work and his athletes. It’s about personal growth and instilling good habits. This is evident in many of the students being named ACRA Academic All-Americans. The team had six total Academic All-Americans. They snagged three nods on the first team and 3 more on the second team. The habits built shape the athlete’s lives and Hohl testifies to that:

“I already had a bit of that drive of, oh, I always want to be active, be doing different things and rowing really set that up again, when you have to wake up at 5:15 in the morning for 6 a.m. practice.” He says that it helps him manage his time outside of rowing as well. He says it helps with him, “taking time for whatever you find important.”

So far, the habits built have stayed in Hohl’s programming and he says it will translate to his future:

“It’s that idea of having something to fall back on and knowing, ‘Oh, I did that for three years.’ I know I can do it now. It really helps to sort of instill that mindset and makes it, I’d say easier to hold yourself accountable.”

This team has big hopes for the future after the strides they took this year. Senior rower Paul Ahearn reflected on the recent performance of the team he is leaving and said,

“I think that’s the momentum we’ll carry into next season, especially with the guys that we have coming back and the work they plan to do over the summer.”

This team looks ahead to a bright future and has a lot of good for those leaving to look back on. The experience has meant a lot to these rowers, and Ahearn may have said it best when he said,

“The friends, the places, the lifestyle– it was all really special.”

Thomas Hicks is a journalist with video, PR, and writing experience who studied at UNC and the Hussman School of Journalism and Media. Thomas is always looking for work and the next story! He loves working with his camera or with his pen. This reporter can be contacted at thomasjhicks55@gmail.com, LinkedIn: Thomas Hicks and X: ThomasJ_H

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