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Crew-sing Along

Kyle Wilkins plays a game in which he must earn his seat.

No, it's not musical chairs.

The former Crater High football player and swimmer discovered another sport once he entered college and is now a mainstay on an Oregon State crew team that is making waves figuratively as well as literally.

Wilkins, a junior, is one of the eight rowers in the Beavers' elite varsity 8 boat that is ranked in the top 20 nationally and has some noticeable achievements, including a dominating victory of more than seven seconds over 12th-ranked Wisconsin.

The Beavers have four levels of boats — varsity 8, junior varsity 8, varsity 4 and freshman 8 — but only the varsity 8's performance is used to determine national rankings. OSU has climbed to No. 14 and will compete in the Pac-12 Conference championships next week.

"The last time our varsity beat Wisconsin was in 2005," says Wilkins. "It was a good thing for us. We're really looking forward to the Pac-12s and nationals. It's going to be a good year."

For the uninitiated — and there are many, given the obscurity in which crew operates — the sport is largely an acquired taste. It's been around at OSU for decades, since the California Rowing Club sent two shells with its football team to Corvallis as a gift in 1926. Soon after, a club sport was born.

But because crew is not a traditional high school sport, many rowers aren't introduced to it until they arrive at college and take it as an elective course. There are no prep crew teams in Oregon, but there are a half-dozen clubs, including Ashland Rowing Club, that provide the opportunity.

Two of Oregon State's most accomplished rowers in recent times, Josh Inman and Joey Hansen, didn't take up crew until they got to Corvallis. Inman was the U.S. male rower of the year in 2005 and earned a bronze medal in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and Hansen won a gold medal in the 2004 Athens Olympics.

Wilkins, too, tried crew on a whim. He came across a booth during freshman orientation and picked up a flyer, discovering he could try out for the team and earn class credit.

"I kind of looked at it like, you know, this would be a good thing to try," he says. "It'll get me fit. I was an offensive lineman at Crater and pretty big. I tried out, and I turned out being one of the top freshmen."

In the fitness realm, he got more than he expected.

When Wilkins signed up, he was 6 feet, 220 pounds. After training through the fall and winter, he was down to 180 pounds for the competitive spring season.

"My body was not used to that type of cardio," he laughs.

Training included lifting weights, running and working on the dreaded rowing machine. The apparatus, he found, is a necessary evil.

His initial thought was, rowing is "kind of dumb," he said. "I didn't care for the rowing machine. But as soon as we got in the water, I thought, this is great, this is why you do it."

He'd been around water since he was a kid, he says, and found crew to be a natural fit.

In his first year, Wilkins was one of three walk-ons in the freshman 8 shell.

"Because of football," says Wilkins, who started for two years and earned three letters with the Comets, "I had explosive power that you need to race 2,000 meters."

His first year, he won all his seat races and helped the freshman 8 win a bronze medal in the Pac-12 championships. The following summer, he stayed in Corvallis and often rowed in a single on the Willamette River.

He has since bought a rowing machine and keeps it at his parents' house. He works in the summer at Jackson pool and doesn't have rowing options other than the machine.

"As much as I hate it," he says of the machine, "I still have to work at it."

The eight positions in a boat have specific duties, and Wilkins has manned a variety of them.

In the Beavers' shell, the coxswain — the crew member without an oar who is responsible for steering and calling out instructions — is at the back, or stern. Directly in front of the cox is the No. 8 seat, and behind him, the 7 seat. Called "strokers," they are the most technically gifted rowers and set the rhythm and pace of the boat.

At the front, or bow, are seats 1 and 2. Those rowers have strong technique as well, and they stabilize the boat (called "setting") and maintain direction.

The four rowers in seats 3-6 are the bigger, stronger oarsmen whose task is simply to pull hard and move the boat.

"That's the engine room," says Wilkins.

As a freshman, he was at the bow in the 2 seat. Last year, in the JV 8 boat, he was in the 7 seat, helping set the rhythm.

This season, he's in the engine room occupying the 3 seat in the varsity 8.

In the boat pecking order, the varsity 8 is the primary boat, and the JV 8s — there can be more than one — are occupied by backups. Next down the list is the varsity 4, and the freshman 8 is solely for rookies.

Two others from the Rogue Valley are on the OSU men's roster: rower Henry Stout, a junior from St. Mary's, and coxswain Heather Thomas, a freshman from Eagle Point.

Junior Eric Sumner, from Yreka, Calif., is the varsity 8 cox.

Wilkins enjoyed the stroker role he had last year in the 7 seat.

"I like it because you can determine the pace and rhythm," he says. "I'm the kind of person who likes to go 110 percent the whole time. If someone (at the stern) is doing that, it motivates everyone in the boat to do the same thing."

But he's content to be a power source, particularly with OSU's strong strokers.

Sophomore Bobby Vernazza is in the 8 seat and junior Martin Forde is in the 7. Vernazza was second in the junior nationals in a single, and Forde made the lightweight under-23 national team.

They will be key figures as the Beavers try to make it to nationals at the Pac-12 regatta in Gold River, Calif., next Saturday.

Only four Pac-12 schools have NCAA crew teams — No. 1 Washington, No. 2 Cal and No. 11 Stanford are the others. Other schools have club teams that typically aren't invited to nationals.

The top three Pac-12 teams earn berths to nationals. At-large bids are also available to fill out the 24-team competition.

Washington is "comprised of Olympians and soon-to-be Olympians," says Wilkins, and Cal is coached by Mike Teti, who has been both a head coach and an assistant for the U.S. national team.

The Beavers stack up well against Stanford, says Wilkins. They lost to the Cardinal by only two seconds and came closer in races against top competition.

"On paper, we're looking faster than Stanford," he says. "We have to put it together at the Pac-12s and beat them."

The Beavers' varsity 8 hasn't medaled in the conference in five years, he says.

A strong finish to season would set Wilkins up for his final year. There are only two seniors in the boat, so he expects to be in the engine room again next year.

That would be fitting for a student whose double major is in manufacturing and industrial engineering. He'd like to design engines for an automobile manufacturer, he says, and find a house by a lake so he can row whenever he wants.

"It's one of my passions now," he says.

So long as he's not in a seat on the machine.

Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479, or email ttrower@mailtribune.com

Former Crater High football player and swimmer Kyle Wilkins has helped the Oregon State crew team to a No. 14 ranking. - Photo courtesy of Scobel Wiggins