Carrying on a family legacy, Coach Jennifer Wendry has been the force behind UConn’s Division I women’s rowing team since it was established.
Early spring mornings on Coventry Lake come with a certain beauty – the fog blanketing the water and the sun peeking through the surrounding trees as it rises. The picturesque setting almost makes one momentarily forget the icy chill that accompanies a springtime dawn in Connecticut.
This is where Jennifer Wendry, head coach for the UConn women’s Division I rowing team, feels most at home. Coaching rowing is her family business: Wendry grew up in a home above a boathouse in upstate New York, where her father, Bill Sanford, served as the rowing coach at Syracuse University for 37 years. Two of her uncles, her sister, and a cousin have all been college rowing coaches.
Wendry came to Storrs in 1997, ready to lead UConn’s first varsity women’s rowing program and take advantage of the growing opportunities that the Title IX ruling had created in the sport.
Testing the Waters
When passed into law, Title IX of the United States Education Amendments of 1972 wasn’t immediately viewed in the context of intercollegiate athletics. But after numerous legal interpretations and court rulings over the subsequent 25 years, one of the outcomes was that Title IX stipulated that all federally-funded colleges and universities were required to provide athletic opportunities to both men and women on a “substantially proportional basis.” This prompted the UConn administration to establish a women’s rowing program to achieve the required proportionality of men’s and women’s varsity athletic teams offered by the University.
“While the University was mandated to start the program,” Wendry says, “they didn’t do it begrudgingly. They embraced it and supported it.”
However, that didn’t mean that it was smooth sailing from the start. Initially, there wasn’t a full understanding of what establishing a varsity rowing program entailed, including the unique equipment requirements that went with it.
“I was hired a week before classes started,” says Wendry, “and when I arrived, I asked, ‘Where’s the erg [ergometer, or rowing machine] room?’” Discovering that there was no equipment in place, she had 10 ergometers purchased and installed in a repurposed storage room in the Greer Field House, a new boat purchased, and a truck rented for trips to races.
With the stresses of getting a new varsity team off the ground, Wendry says “there was no place to go but up” that first year. And regardless of the hiccups, her newly minted student-athletes were appreciative of everything they had, having come from a club sports team where the students had handled all of the organizational duties and personally covered many of the costs, including travel and uniforms, while sharing most other gear with the men’s crew club.
‘An Easy Sell’
Since those early days, the team’s results under Wendry have steadily improved. Most recently, the team finished third at last year’s inaugural American Athletic Conference Championship and won the Frosh/Novice 8 race at the Head of the Schuylkill Regatta in Philadelphia this past fall. Those results, coupled with the recent addition of 10 scholarships on top of the four that were already available, bring a palpable sense of excitement about the future of the program.
“UConn is the easiest place in the world to recruit,” Wendry says. “We have a beautiful campus, and the academic offerings are fantastic. Our team dynamic is great, prospective students see the athletic success we’ve had in other sports, and it’s exciting for them. But in the past, when it came to offering a scholarship, I couldn’t say ‘We’re going to pay for your education.’ UConn may have been their first choice, but if the next school offered them a full scholarship, we’d lose them. Now, being able to offer a full scholarship, it’s such an easy sell.”
In the first years of the program, many of the team members were walk-on athletes who found out about the team while on campus and had competed in other sports in high school, but saw an opportunity to compete in an NCAA Division I athletic competition.
While about half of the team’s rowers are still walk-ons, the team is now able to recruit more experienced rowers, something the coach partially attributes to the effects of Title IX.
“I think Title IX had really helped the sport of women’s rowing take off nationally,” Wendry says. “In the late ’90s, high schools were seeing the scholarship opportunities for their student-athletes and wanted to take advantage of the opportunity. So there were many more women’s rowing programs starting up at the high school level, and we’re seeing more experienced rowers coming through.”
Her Growing Legacy
Over the past 18 years, Wendry has been quietly building more than a rowing team: she’s been building a UConn rowing family, watching student-athletes come in as freshmen and working to help them develop both as athletes and as people.
“Our philosophy is this: Obviously, we want to win,” she says. “But it’s really about working with the student-athletes and helping them grow, from the time they get here until the time they graduate. They have a family at home, but we try to create an environment of a second family here in Storrs and provide them with a support system for the good times and the bad. By their senior year, they can go out and become whatever they want to be. That’s what makes it fun, seeing that growth.”
Since coming to UConn, Wendry has seen her own rowing legacy grow even beyond Storrs; at last count, eight of her former rowers are now coaching at the intercollegiate level. “There have been so many opportunities through this sport over the last 18 years, not only for athletes, but for coaches as well,” she says.
Historically, the origin of the UConn varsity women’s rowing program may be forever linked to Title IX, and Wendry summarizes the effect of Title IX in one word – opportunity.
“Because of our program, the opportunity arises for athletes who wouldn’t have otherwise had … the experience of competing at a Division I level,” she says. “It really does change their life – it really changes everything about their college experience, and it changes who they become in life because of what they’ve accomplished.”
At the same time, she realizes that opportunities can go unrealized without hard work. With the growth of the program, “I feel like I have a new job,” Wendry says. “The focus has changed, because now we are confident that we can win a conference championship. Realistically, in the past, that would have been much more of a challenge. Everything is starting to fall into place.”