How hard is it to win a national championship? That’s probably the operative question on the lips of every coach in every country that practices rowing. It’s the ultimate goal – the holy grail of achievement and justification of a program that usually demands so much from both athlete and coach.
When Mike Wallin, a former national champion himself at St Joseph’s Prep as a schoolboy and then again as a collegiate athlete at the University of California, Berkeley, joined the coaching staff at Chicago Rowing Foundation, his aim was clear – to win a national championship. During his 15-year tenure as head coach, Chicago Rowing Foundation has won more than 40 Midwest Regional Championships in the eights, fours, and pairs. His varsity women’s eight has reached the final at eight consecutive USRowing Youth Regional Championships, earning bronze medals in 2018 and 2021 and a virtual gold in 2020. The on-water gold has eluded them – until the 2022 Youth National Championships at Nathan Benderson Park, Sarasota, Florida. There, on the last day of racing, Wallin and his nine girls finally climbed that last step to top the podium in the Women’s Youth Eights.
“I started full-time as a coach in rowing after trying to balance that plus my actual job,” remembered Wallin as we spoke a few weeks after his girl’s eight secured the national title. “In the end, I loved coaching so much that it felt like my full-time role was interfering with trying to get this novice boy’s boat I was working with up to scratch in California. So, I quit”.
It was a bold move but one that has paid off. Wallin was named to the 2021 Under 19 National Team coaching staff and helped support the female crews, an area in which the USA has significant Olympic pedigree. “It all happened pretty fast in the beginning,” explained Wallin. “I left my job and was pretty content to stay on a couch if it meant I could keep coaching. I was on the lookout for full-time roles though and then I heard about a small team in Chicago who were looking for a head coach”.
With 40 kids on a team stretching in its infancy but with big plans for future growth, Wallin flew out, met the board and by the time he landed back in California had a voicemail telling him he’d got the job. Fast forward 17 years and Wallin leads a team of 17, all of whom are former collegiate athletes, including national champions and former national team members. Under Wallin’s stewardship, Chicago Rowing Foundation has become a leading domestic program, offering opportunities to children from multiple age groups and skill levels: learn-to-row summer camps for teens; introductory after-school programs for middle schoolers; and competitive high school and adult programs.
2022 and an unbeaten season in the Varsity Girl’s Eight represents the zenith of Wallin’s tenure and clear evidence that the program he has built – which led them to numerous finals and minor medals – has paid dividends. Racing in a brand-new King shell, provided by our US reps, Wallin’s crew secured victory by just over a second, beating stalwarts including Greenwich, RowAmerica Rye and Marin. “Just getting into that final was incredibly hard,” said Wallin. “There were several crews who didn’t make it into the top six who could have beaten us on any given day. The fact that we’d had consecutive boats in national finals meant we were one of the most comfortable on that start-line but there was huge anxiety getting into that position”.
Approaching the national championships, Wallin began to realise that the boats Chicago had in their fleet were not going to be suitable for the crew he was building. It was at that point he turned to Wintech. “In terms of weight, we ended up landing between the two shells we already had in our boathouse which meant we were kind of stuck,” explained Wallin. “King had reached out to us, saying they had a boat that could work for my crew. From the first practice, it was obvious that it was a fit – you could see the way the shell was running and the way the crew were rowing”.
Wallin and his crew committed to King, buoyed by the fact that they’d seen numerous other outfits go fast in our shells, and found huge comfort in the stability and security of both our offering and aftercare. “Brent is at pretty much every race in the Midwest, which is a very noticeable perk of rowing in a King,” said Wallin. “This was our only boat of this style so having him there puts your mind at ease. We went out to the Saratoga Invitational, an event we’d never been to before, and Wintech were there to help too. Their coverage and presence was fantastic and a huge support”.
With King’s support, Chicago Rowing Foundation have reached the summit. “We absolutely want to defend our title” said Wallin. “We want to be as open and inviting to as many different people as possible and that is the fundamental aspect that has allowed us to build fast crews year on year. We’ve been one of the best programs in the world for the better part of a decade but that isn’t down to one crew – these girls broke through and won but they were the boat that was substantiated by years of progress and persistence”.
So where next? “It’s no longer a question – can you win the national championship from the Chicago river?” said Wallin. “These girls answered that – now the goal is to continue building a truly great and inclusive program”.
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