This season marked Ben Schreiner, coxswain of the Cascades men’s rowing team and graduating bachelor of business administration student’s final year with the team.
The team had a strong exhibition season, finishing second in their first race and first in their last. In their regular season, UFV made an appearance at the western championships and Head of the Lake, a competition hosted by the University of Washington. The team also hosted Head of the Fort, their annual home regatta, as well as a challenge cup race against the University of Washington, in which they beat the team by a two-second margin.
Why did you start rowing?
I started as a novice with no prior experience in 2011 and I’ve been with the team ever since. I just thought it was something totally different. It was one of the only sports teams at school where you weren’t selected prior to the season — they had open tryouts. It was just prior to the London 2012 Olympics, so there was a lot of hype around the sport at the time. I’d seen some advertisements throughout the school and I thought I’d check it out.
You’re the team’s coxswain. What’s that like?
It’s like the taskmaster of the boat that he or she is in. I got into it in my first year.
Rowing is a sport of very tall guys — most of them are over six feet tall. Being 5’7, I was at a very substantial disadvantage there. Just before one of our big spring regattas in Victoria, some of the older varsity guys tried to say, “Hey, you’re the smallest guy on the team, you’re probably not going to go very far in your rowing, you should be our coxswain.”
It was a hard subject for them to approach, but they did it well and they asked if I’d be interested in taking command of the eight at this race. I said yes; I didn’t want to disappoint anybody. And it was a lot of fun, actually.
It was interesting because the guy who was running the race was a former Olympic rower who had raced in Athens (2004) and he’d also raced for Oxford. He came up to us after and he said the way I handled it was brilliant. I thought that’s kind of cool — I had an Olympic champion tell me in my first race, which I thought was a disaster, that it was brilliant the way I handled it. Having that confidence early on kept me staying in that position.
It’s a really different position than everyone else gets. The whole team is out there at six in the morning every day, and they’re out there sweating and working hard, and I’m sitting and putting in the mental work. It’s not a position people are easily sold on. I was tasked at the end of my career with finding a replacement for the men’s team. It is a bit of a hard sell, and it isn’t an easy position. It’s been a long five years, but it’s been a good choice. It’s something I’ve enjoyed doing and I’ll definitely miss.
How do you feel about how this past season went?
I think it went pretty well. Coming into it seemed a little disheartening because we’re small in numbers this year. In previous years we’ve been able to field a men’s eight, so we’d have nine guys rowing in one boat, where in this year we fielded a men’s four, so there’s only five of us total. But it was a really good group of guys and we were fortunate to be training together since last season coming into the fall — we’d already had a lot of experience with each other, whereas in some seasons you come back in the fall and nobody’s rowed in that lineup, and you spend a few weeks building it. It was a little disheartening to not be able to race in the open eight category because that’s a pretty fun race — very competitive — but I think it was a good season for having a small crew.
Does the rowing team have a hard time recruiting athletes?
A lot of people don’t understand what rowing is, and not a lot know that we have a rowing team at this school because we don’t train here.
You may just see us on the rowing machines in the gym, but most of it takes place out in Fort Langley at 6:00 in the morning, five days a week. Most people aren’t going to see that, and the amount of opportunities we get to race are also quite small. We maybe have five or six races each season that we’ll compete in, and those races can be anywhere from Seattle to Nova Scotia (this year for nationals). And we only have one home game, if you can put it that way.
So the opportunities for people to see the rowing team are very small — when you try and recruit people and say, “Hey, we have a rowing team,” people don’t really understand that we have a team, and what rowing is. It’s hard because UFV is a commuter school, it’s hard to say, “Hey, you’re commuting to school from Chilliwack or Mission, but that’s not where we train. We train out in Fort Langley.”
It is hard in that sense to draw people in, but we find those that do get drawn in and stay with the sport are ones that do very well because they have a desire to perform better and really push themselves mentally and physically. So when we get that and we find those people, they stick with it and they do well, but it’s finding those people that’s hard. The people we’ve picked up, probably 90 per cent of the team, has all been walk-ons, no prior experience.
6:00 a.m., five days a week in Fort Langley sounds pretty awful.
It’s not as bad as it sounds. It’s actually nice to be out on the water at that time and it’s nice to start your day that way, with a good two hours of physical activity. The reason we do it is because the boat traffic is very minimal at that time, and it allows us to get out and train before our classes. We’re all in different fields of study, different programs on different campuses. It’s hard to find two hours during the day where we can have the entire team together. It’s always been that way.
You start to get accustomed — if you’re off the water by 8:00 a.m. and you have a class at 10:00 a.m., you’re up and you’re refreshed and able to get a few hours of studying in before your class. It is a good way to build structure into your schedule, but at first glance, it is tough to get used to getting up at 5:00 a.m. But that’s all I know for university. I get up at 5:00 a.m. and that’s that.
How does rowing so early even work during the winter?
If you’ve started in September, by the time you get to that point, it just becomes second nature, and it’s probably no different rowing in the pitch black than it is in the sun. It’s the same movement time and time again. I think the only difference is, in my position, being the guy that’s got to steer the boat and drive the boat, when it’s dark, it does get a little more challenging, especially because being on the river, there’s a lot of logging mills up the way, and with all the rain things start loosening up and coming down the river. I definitely don’t like that on dark or foggy mornings.
Our biggest boat is 60 feet long, and you’ve got to know what’s ahead of you before you actually get there. It comes with time, but every day is a little nerve-wracking when you get out on the water and you’re not sure what’s out there.
Have you ever had any close calls?
I had one where we were training out on the river in Richmond. It was our first time rowing out there on some back arms of the river, and there were some logs that were sticking out, but I couldn’t really see how far they were coming out. We didn’t hit anything, we just had a close call. We had to stop the boat. Each environment you go in is totally different.
I’ve been fortunate to not have any disasters out on the water. You hear some horror stories from other crews and other clubs and you see it too sometimes. When we host our regatta, we’re out there a couple days prior with ropes and hooks pulling logs off the course or marking logs that could be hazardous when we’re racing.
These boats are made of carbon glass and carbon fibre and when you’re travelling at racing speeds, even a small log can do some serious damage to your boat. It is different from most sports because there is that element of nature that you really can’t control.
How do you find time to balance school and rowing?
In a weird way, it helps with balancing your time because you start to realize how valuable your time is; you don’t waste it as much. I find if I have too much free time, it’s easy to get sidetracked and watch that extra episode on Netflix. Some of the people on the team work part-time, others don’t. It is easier if you’re not working part-time because you’ve got to maintain good academic standing to be eligible for the team. I find it’s daunting at first, especially with more classes. It’s advised to only take four classes and a lighter course load, just because every weekend into November we’re away at regattas. It’s hard, your weekends are eaten up by racing time, so you’ve got to find time to study elsewhere. A lot of people will bring their study materials with them to regattas if they can and squeeze in a little bit of studying in between racing, but I find it’s more of a positive in terms of your time management. You really learn how to make good use of your time.
What are you going to miss about rowing?
It’s interesting, the other day we had our new men’s coxswain out in the eight, and I was sitting in the coach boat with our coach and coaching him through some things, and it was weird to see. I’d never been in the position where I’d seen my men’s eight row without me in it. To watch it from the side and see our new coxswain in it was kind of a weird feeling. I thought, “I already miss this.” I’ll definitely miss those early mornings. As crazy as it sounds, I’ll miss getting up at 5:00. You start to develop good friendships because you’re up that early and you’re all going through the same thing. I’m going to miss those mornings, and racing too. Racing’s so much fun. You work so hard to put it all on the line for 2000 metres, or 6000 metres. It’s a lot of fun to see the results you get after all that hard work.
Do you have any plans after graduation?
I’m probably going to get right into work. I’ve been working for a family-run company in sales since I graduated high school. I started there with some work experience and I started coming back each summer after, and now they’re wanting me to start full-time with them once I graduate. It’s been a lot of fun. It’s been my job going through university, and I’m very much looking forward to doing that full time. I’ve gotten to the point where I enjoy it so much, it doesn’t feel like work. It’s something you go out and do, and you enjoy and have fun.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.