University of Wisconsin Rowers 'Weather' the Austin Cold on Lady Bird Lake

Jan 6, 2017

It’s a cloudy, cold Friday. It’s midday on Lady Bird Lake and the air above it is just about 32 degrees Fahrenheit. And the north wind isn't making it feel any warmer for the 90 or so rowers – most of whom are wearing shorts.

They are members of University of Wisconsin Men’s Rowing team. More than 60 varsity rowers, 30-plus freshman, along with coaches and support staff are out – in this weather – for their second of three workouts today. Because as cold as it is, it’s not Wisconsin.

“Everything’s frozen back in Madison,” said senior rower Graham Mink. “We’re not going to be able to – my freshman and sophomore year, so that was spring of 2014 and 2015, the lake was frozen until April.”

University of Wisconsin team members load shells into Lady Bird Lake at the Fiesta Gardens boathouse.
Credit Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon / KUT News

Right, so our lake’s not frozen.

The Wisconsin men’s team has made an annual pilgrimage to Austin for their winter training. In fact, head coach Chris Clark has rung in the New Year in Austin every year since 1996. The team’s annual trips to Austin even predate him, going back to 1990 or so – or as the coach jokes – after they got kicked out of Florida.

“They realized they weren’t welcome back to wherever that was and he came to Austin for some reason and he saw this beautiful Town Lake, at the time, and it was absolutely empty," Clark said. "Even compared to what it is today, obviously, it’s more utilized, but he thought that’d be an amazing place for rowing.”

For many of those years, the boathouse at Fiesta Gardens has been Wisconsin’s second home. Joe Diaz of Austin's Parks and Recreation Department  says they’re the ideal tenant.

“They come in. They take care of business,” Diaz said. “When they leave, it’s pristine. Everything is clean, we don’t even know they were here.”

And they’re not the only team that comes to town. Kansas State women’s crew also is training on Lady Bird Lake. But this is no vacation. The teams are here to train, two or three times a day, no matter the conditions. And, today, the Wisconsin armada pretty much has the lake to themselves, allowing them to do something a little different – like line up eight boats across, taking up most of the right-of-way on the lake.

Wisconsin head coach Chris Clark surveys his varsity squad on Lady Bird Lake.
Credit Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon / KUT News

“Part of it is just variety,” said Clark. “When you’ve gone through your 20th practice over a fairly short period, you’re looking for anything to get you out of the doldrums, because self-pity is always knocking at the door. ‘Oh my god, why am I doing this?’ You know that kind of thing. 'This sucks, I’d rather be back in my bed.’”

The same could be said by many of us.

“That’s why we’re doing three today. This is optimal – 30 degrees, cloudy. I mean, when the sun comes out, then the people come out. Yeah, we look for cloudy days, rainy days, miserable days. I mean, it’s rowing, right? Might as well be miserable, while you’re on a miserable day.”

The University of Wisconsin’s 60-plus varsity rowers – along with 30-some odd freshmen, plus coaches and staff wrap up their winter training early next week, just in time for temperatures to return to the mid-60's and 70's.

Wisconsin's varsity rowers get through the second of three practices on a blustery Friday in Austin.
Credit Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon / KUT News