BY ANDY BAGGOT
Erit Yellen spent just one year as a member of the University of Wisconsin women’s rowing program, but it was enough to change her life forever.
She was a basketball player and a college-worthy track athlete growing up in Southern California in the early 1990s, unaware that a sport like crew existed until she got a call out of the blue from a coach at UW.
The way Yellen remembers it, she had been initially contacted by someone representing the Wisconsin track and field staff. When she explained that she didn’t plan on putting the shot or throwing the discus in college, Yellen guessed that her contact info was shared with someone in the crew office because her athletic, 5-foot-10 frame fit the rowing profile.
Curious, Yellen visited the Madison campus with her mother and was smitten by its vibe and beauty. She wound up joining 200 or so other women trying out for crew in the fall of 1995. Sixty wound up sticking it out.
“I was hooked,” she said.
Yellen eventually returned to California after two years at UW, finished her degree work at Cal State-Northridge and embarked on a series of sports-related jobs in public relations and video production.
Along the way she stayed in close touch with the rowing teammates she met in Madison, a sisterhood that endures to this day.
So when Yellen was approached by Wisconsin alums about producing a documentary about the fabled rowing program, she didn’t hesitate. Her reasoning was powerful.
“It continues to be one of the most significant, positive experiences of my life,” Yellen said of her time with the Badgers on Lake Mendota. “It changed the trajectory of my life in such a positive way.”
A project 2½ years in the making will be unveiled to the public May 8 at 7 p.m. when “Row On Wisconsin” airs on the Big Ten Network.
The documentary was first screened last September during the 50th anniversary celebration of women’s rowing at UW. The reunion drew 600 alums – the largest gathering of its kind at Wisconsin – underscoring the program’s legendary status.
The film depicts what means to row on the women’s crew at Wisconsin while shining a light on how the program came to life in the early 1970s and all that went into its first national championship in 1975.
Yellen and two UW rowing alums, Cindy Rusher and Julie Van Cleave, served as executive producers for the film. Steven Oritt, another Wisconsin grad, and Benjamin Scott produced the 22-minute piece.
Current members of the UW women’s crew will have a watch party of their own. Bebe Bryans, who has coached the Badgers since 2004, expects a specific reaction.
“They’re going to be psyched,” she said.
One of the prominent voices in the film belongs to Sue Ela, who rowed in the national title-winning varsity eight boat in 1975 before serving as Wisconsin coach during two stints between 1979 and 2004.
“It takes you back because it really focuses primarily on the earliest years,” she said.
“There’s a lot more to the program than what shows in this documentary. It’s a really good start. I think the intention was to highlight the years up to the ’75 national championship team and I think it did that. It captured the spirit of the program and how that’s carried through to today.”
Yellen, now a professor of sports communication at Southern California, got a measure of the film’s power when she showed it to members of the women’s beach volleyball and lacrosse teams at USC last fall.
There were tears.
“They said, ‘It’s not our school. It’s not our sport. But you captured the way that we feel as collegiate female athletes,'” Yellen said.
Wisconsin women’s rowing – which includes a national title-winning lightweight program that debuted in 1995 – has long been a feeder to the American teams for the Olympics and World Championships.
Carie Graves, a three-time U.S. Olympian and arguably the greatest rower in American women’s history, was part of that national title in ’75. She’s a charter member of the UW Athletic Hall of Fame.
Ela appreciates the fact the BTN has embraced the project. Those watching will see how crew went from a club team at UW to a model program with layers of character and history.
“In a lot of cases, people still don’t know much about the rowing, so it’s great to have that exposure for the sport,” Ela said, adding that the piece provides “a key hole into what it was like back then.”
Yellen said the culture for Wisconsin women’s rowing is “unique and special” and credits Ela, a UW Athletic Hall of Famer, for that. She described numerous instances where teammates reached out to offer support when her mother and brother passed away.
What does Yellen hope viewers will take away from the documentary?
“An appreciation of when you have an experience in your life that is truly unique and special and once-in-a-lifetime, try and understand the history behind it,” she said.
Bryans said having a production crew chronical every aspect of her operation took some getting used to.
“It was a little uncomfortable to be honest,” she said. “The scope of the project changed as we went along because the filmmakers fell in love with our program, which happens a lot with people who don’t know anything about it, but want to document it.”
How did team members react?
“None of us knew what we were getting into, really,” Bryans said. “The women really embraced it. It was challenging a little bit because it was so different, but I think they appreciated the attention to begin with and then they just appreciated the fact that someone really cared about what they were doing.”
Bryans said the primary takeaway for viewers is fairly simple.
“That these student-athletes are just as committed, just as physical, just as academically gifted as any other sport,” she said.
Yellen said the documentary is partly a love letter to Madison. It’s also a tribute to relationships and the power of commitment.
“It’s an unbelievable family we’re a part of,” she said. “You take it with you the rest of your life.”