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'We’re not playing patty cake': UNC men's crew looks for recognition as club team

UNC Men's Crew members practice on University Lake.

UNC men’s crew is looking to make a name for itself both in the collegiate rowing world and on UNC’s campus. 

While the UNC women's crew is an NCAA Division I program, men's crew is considered a club team. The difference between the two teams comes down to Title IX – a federal law that prohibits discrimination under any education program receiving federal financial assistance on the basis of sex. 

UNC men's crew president Cameron Gumbel said although there are varsity-funded men’s rowing programs, such as in the Ivy Leagues, they are not recognized by the NCAA. 

The lack of funding does not detract from his teammates’ hard work, Gumbel said. 

“We’re working just as hard as any of the other varsity teams out here,” he said.  

Assistant coach Justin Serovich, a junior studying economics and sports administration, said the team races against the best. The head varsity coach is Lisa Schlenker, a former U.S. rowing Olympian. 

Schlenker said she will take anyone onto the team, despite their experience, and teach them the necessary skills needed to be an exceptional rower.

“We always train them as a D-I program even though they’re a club,” Schlenker said. “We’re not playing patty cake.” 

Jackson Hollingsworth, a first-year studying business administration, joined the team after signing up at FallFest. While Hollingsworth had no rowing experience, he said his competitive nature pushed him to give the sport a try. Although there was a learning curve, Hollingsworth said he sees improvement.

“It’s very surprising to see how much our times have dropped from just when we first started,” Hollingsworth said. 

Being a rower entails attending two practices a day, including one at 6:15 a.m. Serovich emphasized the difficulty of practices. 

“You have to physically push yourself as far as you can go,” Serovich said. 

The rowers rely heavily on the coxswain, the person responsible for steering and getting the rowers in a rhythm. The coxswains on the UNC Men’s Rowing team are all women. 

“To be a coxswain, it’s very mentally tough because you’re steering the boat,” Serovich said. “You’re responsible for those eight guys.”

This hard work and dedication has paid off in recent years, Gumbel said, as the team placed 11th at last year's nationals and fourth at the previous two. Some rowers said this is especially impressive for a team in the South, where rowing is not as popular.

“As far as the ACRA (American Collegiate Rowing Association) goes, since I’ve been here for the most part, we’ve kind of been an ACRA powerhouse,” Gumbel said.

Schlenker said she has big hopes for the team this year and hopes to maximize their talent.

“My goal for the year is to get these guys to realize that they have greater potential than what they know they have,” Schlenker said. 

The rowing team wants to sustain and foster this success by recruiting new rowers. The team is trying to reach as many male students as they can, regardless of their experience level. 

Sam Sands, a sophomore studying history and business administration, is in charge of recruitment. 

“Throughout the whole recruiting process, our goal was to make sure that people know there’s a rowing team, make sure that people know they can join the rowing team and then the third step of that is to get them to come try it out,” Sands said. 

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Sands said he has worked diligently this fall to promote the team by handing out flyers, Pit-sitting and attending FallFest. 

“Come give it a try,” Sands said. “You never know if you’re going to be a good rower until you sit down in the boat and try it for the first time.”

The team will celebrate 50 years of rowing at UNC on the weekend of April 3 to April 5, 2020. Gumbel said the team is using the weekend as an opportunity to raise funds for the Men’s Crew Boathouse Project, which includes plans to build a new boathouse. 

The UNC Men’s Rowing team extends beyond the boathouse. For many of them, their teammates are like their family.

“Those are the guys that if you need help in a class, they’re always going to help you,” Serovich said. “If you need help in some type of social setting, with family, with anything, they’re always there.”

For many of the rowers on the team, their love for the sport and its people is indescribable. 

“It’s really just this intangible feeling,” Sands said.