BELLINGHAM, Wash. -
A freakish mishap that defied all odds cost Western Washington University a national rowing championship in 2004. But it provided the catalyst that spurred the Vikings to crowns in each of the next seven years, a record that still stands for the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division II.
On the morning of May 30, the Vikings' eight-oared varsity shell, ranked No.1 all season in the USRowing/Collegiate Rowing Coaches Association NCAA II Poll, appeared on its way to victory and capturing the school's first NCAA II national title in any sport since the school became a full member of that organization in 1999.
However, while leading by half a boat length with just 600 meters left in the 2,000-meter race, misfortune struck. In the vernacular of the sport, a Western rower "caught a crab," her oar getting stuck in the water on the recovery portion of a stroke. The boat, which had to restart so it could get back in sync, finished fourth.
The dream was over. What was supposed to be a triumphant celebration of epic proportions became a combination of shock, disappointment and tears.
The coxswain of that Viking shell was senior Emily Davis, now married with the last name of Watrous, a two-time CRCA All-American.
Despite the incredibly gut-wrenching circumstances of that day, Davis kept her emotions in check and handled tough questions while giving interviews.
One of the answers Davis provided proved prophetic in a way even she could not have imagined.
"I think this will give the girls coming back even more fire, even more reason to take it next year," Davis said of the misfortune. "That's the one good thing, if anything good can come out of this, that's it."
Not only did Western win a national championship the following year, but began a string of seven straight national rowing titles, something never accomplished before at any NCAA level.
(Note: One year later Williams College MA broke that with eight in Division III from 2006 to 2013)
The last day of the 2004 rowing championships, which took place on Lake Natoma near Sacramento, Calif., began with WWU's varsity four placing third in its grand final behind Humboldt State CA and Mercyhurst PA.
"We knew that we had to get some points out of them to win the title and they were able to do that," said then sixth-year WWU coach John Fuchs after the race.
That meant to capture the national championship, the Vikings needed to win the eights race with Mercyhurst placing second.
And so 1,400 meters into the eights final, Western led by half a boat length over Mercyhurst, and those two schools had a significant advantage over the other two boats in the race.
"I don't think about it as much as I used to," recalled Davis. "That was my whole world for so long and then it just came to a screeching halt. And it didn't end the way that I thought it was going to."
Besides their No.1 rating nationally, the Vikings' top rival, UC Davis, which had won the first two NCAA II national titles in 2002 and 2003 with WWU the runner-up each time, was transitioning to Division I and no longer competing in Division II.
"We tried to be very good about not strutting around knowing that we were going to win," Davis said, "but we really felt very confident about it and the more we practiced down there the better we felt, like everything was just going so well."
What made the accident even more unbelievable was that it happened to Julia Gamache, the All-America stroke of the Vikings' eight, who sat right in front of Davis.
"Leading up to that we were doing so well and our start was the best we'd ever done," Davis continued. "It was just a one in a million chance, totally a fluke, for that to occur. So when she caught the crab, the oar hit her in the face and she was laying back on the seven seat and it was like a train wreck behind because people couldn't see what was going on. And they were still trying to row, which made it worse. So, we had to stop in mid-race, which is totally unheard of."
While the unthinkable was happening, Western showed its discipline under incredible pressure.
"I was thinking really hard about how I was going to get them started and they were so good about following every direction I gave, even though it was right in the middle of a crucial race," recalled Davis.
"We had to lean away really hard, so that we could push down on her (Gamache's) oar, so as to get it out of the water. Our seven seat had to get the oar over Julia's head to get it back in position ... I was making it up as we went and they just followed directions and we were off like a rocket and they probably rowed harder in those two minutes than they had in their entire lives."
"If we would have had a little more distance, we could have caught them again. But when the horn sounded at the finish line, we knew that we were done."
At the end of racing venue is a reservoir with a dam about 200 meters away.
"So we just couldn't stop and fall apart," said Davis. "I told them to hold it together until we got the boat back in the slings."
"That was the hardest part. If we had just lost, we could have said our performance just wasn't good enough, but up until that happened, it was our best effort of the season. I don't know what we could have done any better."
Even now, many years later, nobody is absolutely sure what caused the mishap, but there is a theory.
"I've gone through it so many times," said Gamache. "I still don't know how it happened. We were feeling so solid. We were clearly going to win. Coming into the last 500 meters, I could see the boats that we were walking away from."
"I've gone over it in my head. Did I get too cocky? Was I not paying attention? I don't think that was the case because I've always been one who always feels we're not ahead enough. So, to this day, I don't know how it happened."
Fuchs, who is beginning his 19th year as the Vikings' head coach, offered this assessment.
"They were going a little hot with the excitement mounting, and you have to remember that this was a young group. So, they were listing a little to port. When that happens, the stern takes the brunt of it, especially the stroke. So, she was the one who caught the crab, but it was really everyone's fault. I had them going out hot and they added to it with being a little too excited and then it blew up."
While Gamache agrees with that evaluation, she still has a hard time with it.
"Coach Fuchs has said the same thing to me and as a coach now myself that's the same thing I would have thought. But as the person who it actually happened to, I'll always want to know what I could have changed. I'm sure that we had been in that position before and I didn't catch a crab. It was probably the perfect storm where we got a little offset right near the finish. And the stroke seat is always a little more vulnerable and more apt to catch a crab because they have the coxswain's weights right next to them."
Coping with disappointment
As soon as the race ended, Davis leaned over and embraced a crestfallen Gamache.
"I knew that all she needed to hear right then was that it wasn't her fault," Davis said. "The whole thing is a team sport, and it's not one person's fault that their oar got stuck. And especially not her, she was the most experienced person on the team. She needed to be comforted, and that's all that I was worried about at that time."
Gamache will never forget Davis' reaction.
"I was just completely devastated and Emily was such a sweetheart," said Gamache. "The first thing she does is jump out of her seat and give me a hug," said Gamache. "It's a good picture, but I don't know if I can stand to look at it. In thinking about it, I still get that feeling of, "Oh my God, I let everyone down.'"
"The first thing that was going through my mind as we crossed the finish line was that Emily is a senior and two other rowers were seniors and I was thinking that the seniors don't get a medal. It was the first year where we were supposed to win, so that was definitely the hardest part of it ... It was a long row back to shore. She (Emily) didn't make me row at all because I was sobbing in my lap the whole time."
When the boat reached shore, all the rowers, parents and well-wishers hugged Gamache.
"There was never ever any blame," she said.
Coming back from adversity
During the summer, Gamache went to a sports psychologist and was able to "talk it out." But there was a brief period when she thought about not returning to the water.
"Then I woke up one morning and there was a voicemail on my answering machine from Coach (Fuchs) and in his way he was very supportive and comforting. At the very end of the message, he said, 'If you're thinking about quitting, I mean come on.' It would have been worse had I quit, and then when we got going in October, it was like why would I even consider quitting."
After Gamache made the decision to return, there was no stopping her.
"It was definitely the most dedicated year of my life for sure because it was all about making up for it and making sure that my teammates trusted me."
Making it as tough emotionally as possible for Gamache, the 2005 national venue was the same as the previous year -- the Cal State Sacramento Aquatic Center.
"When we got to the course, it was like "Rocky II" all over again," said Gamache. "So coach had us walk along the shore and had us go to the starting line and look at that, nobody else was there yet. We walked along the shore, and one of the girls had us pick up a rock and we put last year on the rock and we threw it into the water. It was corny, but it worked. Even the rowers who weren't in the boat the previous year were very emotional and I felt a lot better and we totally felt a lot better after that."
Though the race was tighter than the year before, Western won its first national title with a perfect score of 20, both the eight and four winning grand finals. After four years of knocking, the door had finally opened for the Vikings.
"My feelings afterwards were the complete opposite (of the year before)," said Gamache of her emotions. "I felt like the weight of the world was lifted off my shoulders. This time when we crossed the finish line, we were still crying, but it was so different."
And there was a special reward for Gamache.
"I slept with the big, big trophy the night after we got home," she said. "Coach Fuchs let me take the big trophy home and I think my roommates have a picture of me sleeping with it. It was amazing."
Although a year later than she intended, Gamache feels honored to have been a member of Western's first national champion rowing team.
"It's really neat to have been with the first group that did it (win a national title) and start such a legacy," she said. "That's really rewarding."
Gamache was in the No.7 seat of the WWU eight on the 2006 national championship team.
Over Western's seven-year stretch of national titles, seven Vikings were four-time champions, beginning with four in 2008 -- Metta Gilbert, Samantha Marikis, Staci Reynolds and Amelia Whitcomb. Completing that group were Hilary Gastwirth, Casey Mapes and Samantha Oberholzer.
"I have a hard time imagining being a member of Western's crew for four years and never having a year when you didn't win a national championship ring," said Gamache. "That blows my mind."
Where are they now?
Julia Gamache is in her third year as head men's rowing coach at San Diego State following a season directing the Aztec freshmen for a season. After graduating from Western in 2006 with a bachelor's degree in exercise science (now kinesiology), she was an intern coach at University of Washington. Before her stint at Washington, she was an assistant master's coach at the Conibear Rowing Club in Seattle and was as an assistant master's coach and women's novice coach at the Everett Rowing Association.
Gamache was the assistant women's coach at University of Miami for one season and the men's novice coach for three years at Washington State University. All three of her Cougar novice teams placed among the top 10 at the ACRA, the national club championships, with the 2009 crew finishing second. Gamache was named West Coast Coach of the Year for that performance. A native of Seattle where she attended Blanchet High School, Gamache was a first-team All-American for three years at WWU, helping the Vikings to back-to-back national titles in 2005 and 2006. A three-year team captain, she was the school's Female Athlete of the Year for the 2005-06 academic year.
"I am so glad that I get to row four years in the varsity program at Western," said Gamache. "I loved rowing under Coach Fuchs. He is one of the main reasons that I got into coaching. He didn't say much, but I really felt it was in his whole plan to make us function well as a team. I always felt he wanted us to do better, but there wasn't any yelling. He did not yell at us once, which is something that I aspire to do as a coach."
"If I didn't have rowing, I wouldn't have a college degree. I'm hoping to someday get a master's degree in sports psychology because for me it was real."
Emily (Davis) Watrous is in her seventh year as a primary school teacher in the Bellingham (Wash.) School District. A 2005 graduate of WWU with a bachelor's degree in environmental education, she worked at REI for two years before moving to Seattle. There she served one year as a preschool instructional assistant at St. Andrews School. Watrous returned to WWU to earn a post-baccalaureate degree in education. She and husband Joshua, an archeologist, have a daughter, Lyla, 3.
"At first I thought that it would be something fun to try," said Watrous of her decision to compete in rowing. "I didn't know that it would turn into this obsession ... Rowing gave me a lot of confidence. It showed me that I could be a leader given the right situation. There was a lot of pressure, but I also had a great coach who was super supportive and asked big questions that let me know that he really respected my opinion."
By Paul Madison who served 48 years as sports information director at WWU from 1966 to 2015
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