CHAMPAIGN — Illini Rowing crew members are used to 4 a.m. alarms, daily practices, extra workouts and weekend races. At first, the team was not sure if they would have a season due to COVID-19, but after gaining clearance from the University, they have been able to continue rowing.
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Six days a week before dawn, the team meets at the undergraduate library on the University of Illinois campus. Then, they pack eight to 12 cars and drive 45-minutes to Clinton Lake in DeWitt County.
Clinton Lake is a man-made cooling lake for the nearby Exelon Nuclear Power Plant.
Team captain Vaughn Parker said it is beautiful.
“It sounds bad and dingy and ‘uh-oh am I going to grow 11 toes by going on the lake?’ No. It’s a really really unique place,” he said. “You can see the sunrise over the water in the morning and it is just a beautiful experience.”
However, the team did not know if being out on the lake would be possible during a global pandemic. For many athletes, their seasons were canceled or postponed due to COVID-19.
The Illini Rowing presidents said they submitted a five-page document to the University in order to gain clearance to row. This allowed them to have a season, but with many safety precautions.
In the cars, they said, masks are required and no one sits in the middle seat. Before the team leaves for practice, the captains check “Safer Illinois” apps to make sure everyone has a recent negative COVID test.
In the fall, masks were mandatory at all times. They are still mandatory when the team is practicing inside but, they are now allowed to take them off while actively rowing outside, as long as the people around them are comfortable with it.
Over 50% of the team is fully vaccinated and they have not had a member test positive this school year.
Even though the athletes sit far apart in the 60-foot boats, their seats move forward and backward. This means that at times, they are close together.
“My boat specifically is 100% vaccinated, so I feel very safe,” Parker said.
Head coach Michael Siravo started rowing at age 11 in London. Although he started in rugby, his parents wanted him in another sport with fewer injuries. He found his passion for coaching when he rowed with national clubs and worked with many coaches in the U.K.
He said he wanted to come to America for the sporting culture.
“Rowing in the U.S. is so much better. Just the funding, the opportunities,” he said. After messaging coaches across the nation, Siravo found the Illinois position on the Row 2K website. Now, he has been with Illinois since January.
Although he has only been here a few months, he has already seen a change within the team environment. He has found that the best way to get through to athletes is to be a personable coach.
“It means that if they are really struggling at home or if they are just having a hard time at university, I have the trust and belief in them. I try to be personable so that they can come and talk to me,” he said.
His goal is to continue to build a collaborative and welcoming environment. “College, you’re there to have fun with friends, and we’re just an environment where you can have fun with your friends,” Siravo said.
But, while the athletes have fun, there is also a strong emphasis on winning.
When Siravo interviewed for the coaching position, he told the students, “Ultimately I serve you as the athletes, so what do you want to do?” They said, “We want to win and we want to perform.” He said, “okay, then that’s what we will do.”
This year, the team is nearly undefeated. In their respective events, the women remain undefeated and the men have consistently placed first, except when they got second place once to the Milwaukee School of Engineering.
The team usually ends the school year competing in a national race held by the American Collegiate Rowing Association (ACRA). The formal event is canceled this year due to COVID-19.
However, at the end of May, Illini Rowing is competing in an informal version of the race in Tennessee. Many athletes are calling it “FACRA,” or “fake” ACRA.