Cuban national rowing team to compete in Windermere Cup in May

By:  Stefanie Loh
Source: Seattle Times

The first edition of the Windermere Cup in 1987 brought the Soviet National Rowing Team to compete in the United States in the midst of Cold War tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

Now, three decades later, the Windermere Cup and home team UW Rowing will host the Cuban National Rowing Team on May 7, marking one of the first times a Cuban national sports team has traveled to compete in the U.S. since the two countries re-established diplomatic relations on July 20,2015.

“The Windermere Cup has a storied past of looking beyond politics to bring the best rowers to Seattle,” OB Jacobi, president of the racing event’s title sponsor, Windermere Real Estate, said in a press release.

Michael Callahan, coach of the UW men’s rowing team, said bringing the Cubans to Seattle was a project years in the making. But because of how closed off Cuba has been from the U.S. since 1961, getting in touch with the Cuban team proved more challenging than anyone might have imagined.

“I feel like we’ve been brainstorming it for years,” Callahan said. “Bob (Ernst, the former UW women’s rowing coach) and I have been talking about it for at least five years. We tried but stalled out a bunch of times. We have never been able to make contact with the Cubans or feel like we could make enough headway with the state department to make it a realistic possibility.”

But after the book “The Boys in the Boat” became popular last year, Senator Maria Cantwell came by to tour the UW boathouse. While acting as tour guide, Ernst mentioned to Cantwell that the UW rowing coaches were trying to bring the Cuban national rowing team to Seattle and asked for her help.

Callahan also enlisted the help of one of his former athletes to approach the Cuban rowing team while it was at the Pan-American Games last summer to inquire about their interest in coming to Seattle for the Windermere Cup, and to ask for a phone number.

“It’s not like they have a website where you can get contact info,” Callahan said, adding that the International Rowing Federation also helped get the Huskies in contact with the Cubans. “So we finally got a phone number and it went from there.

The Cuban head coach emailed the Huskies expressing interest, the two sides corresponded through translated emails and planning picked up from there.

“Sport is a place where we can come together to compete and put politics aside. This is a great opportunity for us to build relationships and get to the heart of what sports are all about,” Callahan said. “Historically, the Windermere Cup started with the Soviet Union’s (participation) and they hadn’t competed a lot in the United States before that. So we were looking for another nation with that appeal.

“Cuba is a great sporting nation with a history of rowing. Angel Rodriguez finished top six (at the World Championships) last year. He’s one of the best scullers in the world.”

Rodriguez, the most decorated athlete in Cuban rowing history, will lead the Cuban men’s boat against the Huskies and Stanford, a perennial rowing heavyweight. He’s a two-time Olympian who has represented Cuba in the single scull at the 2012 London Olympics and in the quadruple scull at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Six of the eight rowers in the Cuban men’s eight for the Windermere Cup medalled at the 2015 Pan American Games.

The UW men’s boat goes into the Windermere Cup coming off a record fifth-straight Intercollegiate Rowing Association National Championship in 2015.

The Husky women, who finished fourth in the 2015 NCAA Championships, will compete against a similar level of Cuban talent. The Cuban women are led by Yariulvis Cobas Garcia, who medalled in the last two Pan American Games and competed in the 2012 London Olympics. Three of the eight rowers in the Cuban women’s boat medaled at last year’s Pan Am Games.

A boat from the University of San Diego will round out the women’s field for the Windermere cup. The Toreros tied for first at the 2015 WCC Championships.

The Windermere Cup is a 2,000-meter Olympic distance strip race in which all three boats will compete side-by-side on the Montlake Cut. It’s held prior to the Seattle Yacht Club’s Opening Day festivities, which signals the beginning of boating season in Seattle.

“The energy of the day is really exciting for a rower. It’s maybe the only time that they’re performing in a stadium-like atmosphere,” Callahan said. “All competitors come out of it buzzing, and the Seattle community really comes out too. It’s an amazing rowing experience for a collegiate oarsman.”

Callahan said he’s looking forward to pitting his team against a world-class squad and that the level of competition in the Windermere Cup has historically helped to prep the Huskies for a run at the national championship.

But he also wants this to be a cultural experience for his athletes, who will get to spend some time getting to know the Cuban team before and after the event.