Under the cover of darkness, they appear in groups of four and eight. Light from the moon and neighboring office buildings illuminate their path, providing a tranquil backdrop as the sound of water being pushed away fills the air.
It's 5 a.m. on Tempe Town Lake, and while the majority of students may still be hours away from starting their day, practice is underway for Arizona State University's rowing teams.
"You have to experience it firsthand to fully understand it," said senior Matthew Boysen, the men's team's vice president. "Getting up that early can be miserable sometimes, but you start to develop a close relationship with everyone on the team. It's one of those things that is forged through fire."
That fire is forged through 4 a.m. alarms and six-day-a-week practices for the men's and women's sides, which have operated as a competitive club at the university since 2002. The 15-year history in Tempe is but a blip on the radar for a sport that was developed back in the 1700s, but that doesn't mean the Sun Devils aren't making big strides.
After holding a roster of just nine rowers a few years ago, more than 30 students across four rosters — men's varsity and novice, and women's varsity and novice — are now on the team. And under the guidance of second-year head coach Imran Malik, the club is starting to see the results they've been working so hard for.
"I like what I'm seeing so far," Malik said ahead of the team's first collegiate competition of the year. "We had a great spring season and got the attention of some good clubs like Stanford and Washington. Technique-wise, the novices are picking it up really well and the varsity continues to get faster and faster."
Collegiate club rowing typically features about nine competitions each year, split into a fall and spring season. Most of these competitions are called regattas, which are a series of races, held on either Saturday or Sunday, against multiple schools.
To save money, ASU typically travels by bus to every regatta except the one or two that are held north of California. The preparation process includes showing up to town a day early, getting a light practice in on the water and eating a lot of healthy food prior to the race. After competing, the team usually takes two or three days off practice to recover and participate in team-building activities.
"Rowing is unique because it's one of the biggest team sports there is," said senior Kelsey Cring. "You need that special bond with your teammates to know they have your back and are going to go as hard as they can."
That bond is something preached time and again by each member of the team. And with pre-dawn practices and a young club looking to continually earn respect, it's easy to see why.
The Sun Devils are the only active collegiate team in the state, which "puts some pressure on us, but when we live up to that it feels great," Boysen said.
The club is hosting a regatta in Tempe this spring for the first time, against other Pac-12 schools. The date is still to be determined, but the idea for the Saguaro Sprints was first hatched in concert with Stanford's head coach. With many of their opponents having to row on cold or nearly frozen water throughout the first weeks of the year, the warm-weather race figures to be a popular one.
Slowly but surely, the team is earning the respect it has been working so hard toward in the recent years. A dedicated group of rowers and an ambitious leadership staff can be thanked for that.
"We're working towards building the momentum we found last season," men's president Nick Pederson said. "My goal when taking office was to advance the club both in both performance and sustainability. I'm trying to portray myself as someone who can handle any situation."
While Pederson and Boysen handle the leadership roles on the men's side, junior Michaela Matulewic and sophomore Kelsey Liss serve as the president and vice president, respectively, for the women's team. Their jobs include attending meetings with other club sport captains, lobbying for funding and planning regattas that both Sun Devil teams can travel to together.
It's a busy and often thankless job, but one that is definitely worth it.
"I love them so much," said Matulewic while holding back tears. "They are all like family to me."
Sometimes, you do get to pick your family. Even if it means being awake at five in the morning.
Update: ASU rowing competed in its first collegiate regatta of the season on Nov. 12 in San Diego. The team fared well in the Fall Classic, placing first in the Women's Novice 4+ and second in the Men's Novice 4+ races. A full list of regatta results can be seen here, and you can also find the club on Twitter and Instagram.
Top photo: The men's varsity team rows under the Mill Avenue Bridge that crosses Tempe Town Lake. The ASU club is self-funded and is also the only collegiate team in Arizona. Photo by Anya Magnuson/ASU Now
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