A day in the life of Lindsey Cusack and the Illinois rowing team


Will Gerard

Two shell prepare to depart from the bubble dock, located on Clinton Lake.

By Will Gerard, Staff writer

Lindsey Cusack pulled up in her midsize car at 5 a.m. on a rainy morning.

The only other sign of life on Armory Avenue is a sanitation worker, who drove away just before Cusack’s prompt arrival.

It is Cusack’s fourth year with the Illinois rowing team, which sets her apart from the rest of her teammates.

Cusack is the only senior woman on the team, and thus was not surprised when she was chosen as team president last spring; she is the only returning student officer on the women’s roster.

Many of her teammates quit over the past two years when new head coach Cameron Carter began reworking the technique of rowers, who in his words, “were essentially self-taught,” and “just wrong” in their form.

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“She’s just a committed, hard worker,” Carter said. “She adjusted because she saw that she could advance her technique and the ability to go fast.”

Last year, Cusack served as the women’s team treasurer and was named an Amy Cade Female Athlete of the Year award recipient during the program’s end of the year banquet.

Cusack started “sculling,” or rowing with two oars in a single boat – or “shell” as they are called in the rowing community – back in March without any previous experience, yet still managed to place sixth at the American Collegiate Rowing Association National Championships.

Unfortunately, she will not compete in “the highlight of her rowing career” again this year because the previous coach took his single shell with him when he moved to Boston.

“It’s also kind of damaged right now, so it’s not row-able anyway,” Cusack said.

Carter is also prioritizing the eight-man group over the single. The last time Cusack competed with the varsity eight at nationals was her freshman year.

She was also the women’s team secretary her sophomore year and placed at nationals in a two-person shell.

Her role as team president comes with special responsibilities due to the team’s club status. According to rules set by the University, Cusack and senior Max McCarthy, the men’s team president, must manage administrative duties with the assistance of team’s officers since it is a student-run organization.

“I’m not even allowed to talk to anybody in the administration,” Carter said. “Everything has to go through an athlete.”

These responsibilities take up roughly 10 hours a week, as estimated by Carter and agreed upon by Cusack herself.

“I do all the room reservations, and for any events, I have to go to the RSO office and talk to them about it,” Cusack said. “We’re basically the mediators between the University and the team.”

Back in the car, there are two male passengers in the backseat, and everyone in the car seems far too alert, especially considering there are several hours until the sun will eventually rise this dreary morning.

Ioan Draganov, a sophomore who joined the team last spring, types away on a paper after only getting three hours of sleep. He jokes about only having “300 more words to go,” even though he has another paper to write in the afternoon.

Cusack makes one last stop near the corner of First and Gregory Street, opposite to a collection of University resident halls. She parks the car and attempts calling a freshman on the novice team. The girl doesn’t respond, so after a few minutes, Cusack proceeds to practice without her.

Before trying out for the rowing team her freshman year, Cusack briefly considering playing club volleyball. She played volleyball year-round competitively throughout her childhood, but even early in her high school days at Decatur Christian School, knew she wasn’t looking for any athletic scholarships as a five-foot-eleven middle blocker.

Cusack majors in Actuarial Science and plans to work in the insurance industry as an actuary for five years. She then plans to return to school for her master’s, and eventually, get in business management. Cusack initially chose her major based on the results of a career aptitude test.

At many other institutions, the novice team is restricted to just freshmen; however, the club team accepts anyone willing to commit to the team’s demanding training regimen.

“We have seniors that are novices,” Carter said.

This year, roughly 120 – predominately freshman – men and women attended tryouts at the ARC, but according to Carter, soon after that, most stop arriving after they become aware of the time commitment and the monetary dues of just over $2,000.

Recruiting starts during the first couple days of the school year.

“We had a pretty good turnout, but I think it was a little daunting for those who may have wanted to stay out because all of a sudden they’re doing a little bit of everything at once, as opposed to being able to acclimate themselves to school,” Carter said.

To alleviate the financial burden and raise funds to purchase new equipment, the team participates in programs such as “Rent-A-Rower,” where members of the community have the privilege of requesting rowers to perform home or business projects which require physical labor.

Along with practicing at 5:30 a.m. Monday through Friday, newcomers are expected to put in extra work once a week on the rowing machines at the ARC with a more experienced member of the team and are affectionately known as “Novice Buddies” by their veteran partners.

The Illini practice six days a week. On Saturdays, the team gets the privilege of “sleeping in.”

Practice isn’t until 7 a.m.

On top of the expected workload, Cusack does her own cross-training.  She tries to lift every other day, and always runs a mile beforehand, and occasionally, Cusack boxes during precious free-time.

“On the days I don’t lift, I try to at least run at least a couple miles (on a treadmill),” Cusack said. “Plus, it’s a nice study break for me, and my apartment has a gym, so that’s pretty convenient.”

Over the course of the half-hour drive, Cusack’s focus remains locked on the road, and she doesn’t appear remotely phased by the steady sheets of rain. She maintains a conversational attitude, even during moments of limited visibility due to the elements.

There’s little traffic on the road, and later on, even less traffic on the lake. The team practices early in the morning to avoid the presence of boats on the lake. The only other people on the lake are fishermen, who appear when training first begins at the start of the fall semester through early September.

Every once in a while, there is a “close call,” according to Noel Naughton, the men’s novice coach, and due to the darkness, the only way to recognize the shells are by the lights located on the front and rear.

Just two years ago, the club team started using Clinton Lake as a training facility. Previously, the team used Homer Lake. Clinton Lake is a superior location in that the members of the coaching staff are now allowed to launch their motor-powered boats out on the lake to supervise and provide immediate feedback to crew members.

Today, the practice plan is abbreviated, so that there is adequate time to “de-rig” the apparatuses attached to the shells, load the shells on a trailer and fully pack for the weekend’s upcoming races in Rockford, Illinois.

The 32nd annual Head of the Rock Regatta is the first race of the year for the young team, and many compete in their first-ever rowing event this Sunday. At the Rock, there is an event running every 10 minutes with shells racing against the clock. The 5,000-meter race draws, on average, more than 2,000 rowers and 5,000 spectators from across the country.

Launches are staggered every 20-30 seconds, causing a “steady stream” of boat traffic. Spectators at the finish line will sometimes mistake a side-by-side finish for a close race, according to Carter.

“The Rock is always tricky because it’s the first race of the season and we really don’t know what anyone else is doing,” Carter said. “Regardless of how they finish, I think it’s more about executing our technique the way we want to do it and staying in control.”

In two weeks, the Illini head to the east coast for the Head of the Charles Regatta – the world’s largest two-day rowing event – located on Charles River, which separates Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“Head of the Charles is one of the largest single-sport sporting events in the world,” Carter said. “There are thousands of competitors over two days, and the spectators line the Charles River for 3.5 miles, and it’s just packed. It’s a very prestigious race.”

Upon arriving at the lake, there are a few other cars in the parking lot. After Cusack throws on her rain jacket, the group makes its way down a gravel path, where team members scurry around to prepare the shells in the midst of the torrential downpour.

The only light comes from the high beam of a truck’s headlights.

Cusack’s eight-man varsity group is the first to depart on “The Queen of Darkness.”

One-by-one the Illini sit down on the shell, pushing off from the deck with their carbon fiber oars. The remaining groups depart in two groups of eight and two groups of four.

Most of the shells are no longer visible, but Naughton explains the basic concepts of rowing and the challenges of being a novice coach while the boat makes its way around the lake as the rain continues to fall.

Several times, he pulls nearby to a shell, providing instructions about the expected stroke rate while offering immediate feedback through his megaphone.

Before we make our way back to the dock, Naughton attaches another assistant’s boat to his own with a steel cord. The coach boards Naughton’s boat due to an issue with his boat’s motor.

After practice, Naughton, a graduate student pursuing a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, plans to head over to the office for a day’s worth of research.

At around 7 a.m., the shells begin making their way off the lake. Members of the team carry their shells up to the parking lot, where they are loaded in a large orange trailer, custom-made for the length of the shells.

But, before the shells are loaded, the team must detach an assortment of custom boat accessories, where they are being packed in the same storage locker from earlier.

The Illini frantically scramble around to finish packing for the weekend departure.

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