Club 'Cats

Northwestern’s nonvarsity club athletes find friendship and learn life lessons while participating in the sports they love.

by Sean Hargadon

The alarm goes off at 5:10 a.m. every weekday.

Northwestern rower Will Defliese rolls out of bed and dons full-body spandex, pants, fleece jacket, gloves and hat. It’s chilly on the water in late October.

By 5:45 he and his crew teammates are on the banks of the North Shore Channel in west Evanston. Stripped down to his spandex, Defliese hops in the shell just as the sun starts to rise. After almost two hours of practice, up and down the channel, the rowers rush back to campus for class.

“Last quarter I had a 9 o’clock,” says Defliese, a sophomore in the Integrated Science Program who is also majoring in mathematics. “It happened more than once that I showed up for class still wearing my spandex, smelling like the river.”

Despite the early mornings and skipped showers, Defliese can’t imagine college any other way. “I can tell you I wouldn’t be here at Northwestern right now if it weren’t for rowing,” he says. “It has taught me a lot about motivation and getting organized. It has helped keep me on a straight path.”

Defliese is one of approximately 820 students — more than 10 percent of the undergraduate population — who devote themselves to club sports at Northwestern. These athletes play and participate with little outside recognition and often at great personal investment and financial expense. Almost all say that the team camaraderie and lasting friendships make it all worthwhile.

“It’s sports at its purest,” says Peter Parcell, Northwestern’s director of intramurals, sport clubs and Wildcat Camp.

Northwestern boasts 34 club sports, including championship programs such as men’s fencing, as well as clubs that bring together students with common interests such as martial arts, alpine ski racing or running. There is a club for everyone — opportunities that help build community.

Many clubs spend several weekends on the road, playing in tournaments around the Midwest and across the country. Former water polo president Amalia Aleck (WCAS04) says some of her favorite memories include a rousing rendition of “Eye of the Tiger” during rounds of NU Idol to pass the time while touring California for a spring training trip.

Road trips also spur occasional extracurricular activities. Baseball club president Matt Wojtowicz and his teammates played pretty well in a fall 2005 tournament in Toledo, but the highlight of the trip came when club members crashed a wedding at the team hotel.

Life on the road has its risks, too. Members of the co-ed crew club do their best bonding during spring break on the annual training trip to Camp Bob Cooper in Summerton, S.C., but the 2006 journey brought unexpected challenges.

After almost a week of three-a-day practices, the team prepared for the 200-mile trek to the Clemson Sprints Regatta in Clemson, S.C., the team’s first race of the season. Crew coaches Aaron Zdawczk, an assistant director of admission and financial aid at Northwestern, and Anthony Brock left a few hours ahead of the team bus in the team’s truck, hauling the 60-foot boats. On Interstate 26, just north of Columbia, the boat trailer swayed, then jackknifed and rolled onto its side.

Fortunately, no one was injured, but all nine of the team’s boats, including the newly christened Marjorie Catherine and Derrick & Joan Grava, were destroyed. The bows snapped when they hit the trees. Seats and pieces of the shells littered the woods.

“But Northwestern crew is not nine boats and a trailer,” women’s captain Sarah Riggs, a School of Communication senior from Tampa, wrote to crew alumni. “It is the 58 men and women who stepped off that bus in uniform without boats, with nothing but their resolve to keep racing. It is the 300-plus alumni who rowed before us — the people whose names marked those bows. As seniors, our last season might not be what we had imagined — but it will be spent giving back, rebuilding the team that gave us so much.”

The rowing community reached out immediately after the accident. At Clemson, Northwestern raced — and medaled — in borrowed boats. Back in Evanston, nearby North Park University, New Trier High School and Lincoln Park Boat Club offered shells and other equipment. Four days after the accident the team was back on the water for practice, and equipment loans allowed Northwestern to race throughout the season.

The team is working to replace the shells, which are owned and insured by the University. The club sports department insures most of the equipment for almost all of the club programs. It’s one of the many costs covered by the University’s club sports budget. The organizations are partially funded by the University, but the costs of equipment, transportation and facility fees or ice time can add up. Team members pay annual dues that range from a few hundred dollars for most sports to $900 per year for synchronized skating.

To help make ends meet, club members clean Ryan Field or sell concessions at Welsh-Ryan Arena. Baseball club members host an annual hit-a-thon at their home field in Northbrook, Ill. Northwestern fencers offer lessons to members of the Northwestern community.

When the sailing team hosted the Midwest Collegiate Sailing Association Team Race Championships in May 2005, a Northwestern commodore called on her 50-some sailors to provide supplies for the Saturday sack lunch during the weekend regatta. Their bounty included fast-food condiment packets and a few pieces of fresh fruit from the dormitory cafeterias.

When cost-cutting measures, fundraisers and dues fail to cover budget shortfalls, the club presidents are forced to make tough decisions.

“It’s like running a small business,” says Parcell. “The kids get the real, tangible learning experience of administering a program. That includes dealing with the consequences of their failures at times, which is part of what I think college is all about. And on the back end, when they graduate, these kids leave a legacy for the next generation of students.”

For most students, Parcell says, the clubs represent a positive, lasting link to the University.

For six sailing team alumni, the Northwestern club experience has inspired a round-the-world adventure. Jake Byl (WCAS05), Aaron Lasher (WCAS05), Ashley Metz (WCAS05), Brian Sabina (McC05), Ryan Whisner (SESP05) and computer engineering senior Eric Stuck hatched the educational nonprofit now known as Reach the World – Chicago with the goal of developing curriculum material related to the voyage of their sailboat around the globe.

Beginning this fall, Chicago-area elementary school students will learn lessons in science, math, social studies and literacy as they follow via the Internet the real-life progress of the Reach the World – Chicago crew, which will include several of the Northwestern alumni who will submit journals, field notes and other interactive streaming content on the educational web site. The aim is to give the kids a broader worldview beyond their own block, says Metz, who lives with her colleagues and former sailing teammates in Chicago.

Metz, who transferred to Northwestern after two years at Colby College, remembers the sailing team as a “really neat sampling of college students,” a co-ed collection of people with varied interests from all over the world.

“It was my family,” says Metz. “For everyone who sails, it’s their No. 1 best thing about college. When I think about Northwestern, I think about sailing. When I think about myself as an alum, I think of myself as a sailing alum. And one day when I give money back to the University, I’ll give it to the sailing team.”

Katherine Wunderink (SESP01), a former crew team captain, says rowing prepared her for life. When prospective employers asked about leadership or time management, “I could answer every one of these questions with a story about crew,” says Wunderink, now a public health researcher for the American Legacy Foundation in Washington, D.C., and a member of the board of directors of the Chicago-based Bubbly Creek Rowing Foundation, the crew alumni network. “It makes me feel like the internships I had weren’t that helpful! Crew taught me more about working and life in general.”

John Pontius (SESP74), a member of Northwestern’s first rugby team in 1972–73, remembers the rookie season. Four Northwestern graduate students who had played rugby previously taught the team the game. “We had very poor technique,” Pontius admits. “We won a few games, lost a lot and were completely embarrassed at the Big Ten tournament at Michigan State. … Those were the best of times.

“I have been a high school English teacher for the past 30 years,” says Pontius, who now teaches in Beaufort, S.C. “My students know that they can occasionally get me off track if they ask about Northwestern or rugby.”

Rugby alumni board member Daniel Kinsella (WCAS96) says rugby rounded out his Northwestern experience. “The sport had a way of bringing all walks of life together,” he says. “Rugby would attract guys from places like Navy ROTC and Evans Scholars to Sigma Chi and Beta. … And it has proven to be cross-generational as well. Some of my best rugby buddies today can be found in class pictures from 1985 to 2000. Rugby has proven to be a special fraternity in itself.”

For club athletes, the fun and games, the competition and commitment completes their college experience, complementing their academic endeavors, providing a much-needed outlet and fostering lasting friendships while fulfilling a competitive fire.

“I play ultimate because I love it,” says women’s ultimate Frisbee president Ness Fajardo, a senior industrial engineering and economics major from New York City. “Really there’s no other reason to play. It’s not at all glamorous, and it definitely takes a big chunk out of my spending money. Still, I don’t think I could imagine my life without it.”

Sean Hargadon is senior editor of Northwestern magazine.