Wisconsin coxswain Mark Sniderman stood outside a room at the Holiday Inn-Eastgate in Cincinnati last Thursday, waiting to have his picture taken for an ID card for the Men's Collegiate Nationals, known as the Cincinnati Regatta. Sniderman scanned the walls and noticed the regatta's promotional poster, a sculler finishing his stroke. Sniderman didn't like it. The rower had a large crimson H across his chest.
"Can you believe that?" he said.
Never mind that Harvard had won the heavyweight eight title at the previous three Cincinnati regattas, and five of eight national championships since its inception in 1982.
"Maybe they won't win this year," said Sniderman. "Maybe we will."
Two days later, Wisconsin did just that. The Badger eight won its second national championship (the first came in 1986), making it the only crew other than you-know-who to win more than one national title in the eight years since the championship became official.
Last Saturday afternoon, as the temperature pushed 90°, Wisconsin coach Randy Jablonic paced the shore of Harsha Lake, giving race prophecy to anyone who cared to listen. "If we're near the action at 1,000 meters, we've got a shot," he said.
Traditionally a slow-starting crew, Wisconsin came off the line quickly this time, and at the 1,000 mark, halfway through the race, the Badgers weren't just near the action, they were ahead of it.
"At 600 meters all the crews were together, so I called for a Rude Red 20 [20 all-out power strokes]," said Sniderman. "After that, we caught the lead and kept moving."
The Badgers finished 4.34 seconds ahead of second-place Harvard, which in crewspeak is like being in another zip code. But what was even more remarkable than Harvard's losing was Wisconsin's winning—in fact, Wisconsin's having the gall to be competitive at all. People expect the Badgers to be good in hockey (they are national champs this year), cross-country skiing and the cheddar cheese toss. But crew? How do you row on ice?
"We don't get nearly the amount of water time that the East and West Coast schools get," says freshman coach Dan Gehn. "We're usually off the water for about five months. This year, the ice broke early." Early in Madison is the last week in March.
"I don't know how they do it," says University of Washington senior five seat Gordon Gruendell. "We're only off the water for about three weeks, during Christmas break."
Wisconsin pounds through the long winter months to the rhythm of a creative training schedule devised by Jablonic. Jabo (as he is called) has been involved with Badger rowing since 1954, first as an oarsman and then as a coach. He knows how to keep things from getting tedious.
"I like to change the program around so that it's interesting," says Jabo. "Every year I pull out something new."
Jabo knows winter training. His "something new" has included: rope runs, with the entire team (about 50 people) hanging onto a rope and trudging across frozen Lake Mendota, often in waist-high snow; the Hour of Power, 60 minutes of running up and down the steps of Camp Randall Stadium while Jabo plays polkas on his boom box; and deer tails, where as part of a weight training circuit, a sock attached to a rope hangs from the boat-house ceiling, nine feet off the floor, and for one to three minutes at a stretch the oarsmen have to jump high enough to touch it.
"We go out and run when it's 40 degrees below zero," says captain Todd (Moose) Hinrichs, whose nickname comes from Moose in the Archie comics—not that someone who's 6'8", 220 pounds needs another reason to be nicknamed Moose. "The first time we were pretty apprehensive. But Jabo just told us that as long as we dressed for it, we'd be O.K."
"He also said that if we were worried about frostbite on a certain part of our anatomy, we should stuff newspaper down our pants," says stroke Fitz Dunn.
Sometimes the training gets interesting for spectators as well. A few weeks ago, just before the team left Madison for the Intercollegiate Rowing Association championships in Syracuse, N.Y., the Badgers celebrated with a ceremony they call the Grand Row. In it the crews, most of them naked, row past the boat-house while Jabo stands on the bow of his launch, a John Philip Sousa march rumbling from the boom box, and a man playing bagpipes stands on the dock as fireworks go off overhead.
"In his Wisconsin country-boy style, he'll get you to dream about things," says former Badger oarsman Earl Anderson. "He can get you to do things you didn't think you could do. It builds a relaxed kind of confidence."
It is Jablonic's intention to let that relaxed attitude carry over into other aspects of his athletes' lives. Last week, when Hinrichs suffered an upset stomach after eating at a Mexican restaurant in Cincinnati, he received some Jabo Medicine: a box of toasted oats, a bag of puffed rice, several apples and a bottle of Kaopectate. Jabo knows first aid.
"It worked," says Hinrichs. "Although I'm not sure which part did the trick."
A self-proclaimed jack of all trades, Jablonic is a brilliant salesman. He has worked at everything from bee-keeping ("selling honey from eight-ounce jars and 55-gallon drums") to real estate to negotiating for the Badgers' racing jerseys (99¬¨¬®¬¨¢ apiece at the Champion outlet store). The side jobs have allowed him to coach.
"Coaching is one of the few things I thought I could be a pro at and be good," says Jabo.
"Wisco [Wisconsin] was just too fast," said UCLA's Brad Marquardt, after the Badgers had beaten not just Harvard but also UCLA, Syracuse and Washington, who finished in that order.
Most of the prerace talk concerned the animosity that exists between Harvard and Washington. At an April regatta the Huskies had won the race, then lost it to Harvard after a protest led to a re-row, then won it back when the decision to re-row was reversed.
"At least we beat Washington," said Harvard's George Henry.
After the race, Jabo wandered by as the Wisconsin boat was being loaded onto a trailer and whispered to Sniderman: "It was all those Mary Lou Retton 10's." For the uninitiated, a Mary Lou Retton 10 is 10 strokes with perfect form. Jabo knows rowing.