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'Success breeds success': Rowing team tries to deliver third NCAA title for UT this spring

Texas rower Alexandra Watson, right, high-fives teammate Francesca Raggi during a practice at Lake Walter E. Long in 2019. Both will play key roles as the Longhorns compete in the NCAA championships in Sarasota, Fla.

Texas is headed to Sarasota, Fla., this weekend for a trip to the national rowing championship that’s been more than a year in the making.

Head coach Dave O’Neill said the Longhorns started training for the moment in the aftermath of the pandemic lockdown in March 2020. Since then, Texas won its sixth consecutive Big 12 championship earlier this month en route to a No.1 ranking — the first in program history.

The 22-team championships begin Friday at Nathan Benderson Park in Sarasota and conclude Sunday. The Longhorns finished second at the NCAA championships in 2019 and third in 2018.

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If Texas wins it all Sunday, it’ll be the third national championship a Longhorns program earns this spring. The men’s swimming and diving team won its 15th national title in March and the women’s tennis team brought home its third championship in program history last weekend.

“There’s definitely some good momentum,” said O’Neill, the Big 12 coach of the year. “... There’s definitely a good vibe within the athletic department. … I think success breeds success.”

Texas' Alexandra Watson, center, was this year's Big 12 rower of the year. She's from Great Britain and was forced to spend months overseas last year during the pandemic. She said she trained every day back home during her time away.

Unlike swimming or tennis, rowing is the ultimate team sport because if just one person is off, everything falls out of rhythm, O’Neill said. That’s why it’s important for a rower to have strong legs — not necessarily arms — and endurance.

O’Neill has that and more in senior Alexandra Watson, the Big 12 rower of the year. Hailing from Leicester, Great Britain, the 6-foot-2 athlete spent months away from the team due to COVID-19 travel restrictions. So she trained at home with her team, which consisted of about five people — far fewer than the 64 people on the Texas roster.

“The atmosphere within our team is electric, pretty much every day,” Watson said. “And I really missed that.”

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Watson didn’t meet many of the team’s freshmen until she returned to campus. Despite the distance between herself and her teammates, she said weekly meetings helped her feel connected to them.

Along with a strong team culture, O’Neill said it's the people in the program that are paramount to the Longhorns’ success.

“I’ve got a terrific staff … We’ve recruited some really wonderful women who are on our team,” he said. “And they’ve really bought into what we’re looking to do.”

Texas rowing coach Dave O'Neill is in his sixth season with the Longhorns after leading Cal to two NCAA national championships. The Longhorns can deliver UT its third NCAA championship this spring, following men's swimming and diving and women's tennis. “There’s definitely some good momentum,” O’Neill said. “... I think success breeds success.”

The women on the team didn’t just sit around during the pandemic year. O’Neill’s staff handed them the workouts and it was all on the athletes to carry them out. They did exactly that and embraced the many months of difficulty, the head coach said.

“They were holding themselves accountable,” O’Neill said. “And they really wanted to do well and they were self-motivated.”

Watson, who started rowing when she was 16, said these NCAAs will be special. Last year’s championship, like many things, was taken away from the team amid the pandemic. Watson and four other teammates returned for an additional year just for an opportunity to race again. This weekend will be the fifth-year senior’s last race as a Longhorn.

Read more: Watson's toughness indicative of rowing program's toughness

What has stood out to her most during her time at UT, she said, is the amount of school spirit on campus. It’s unlike anything she encountered growing up in the United Kingdom.

“Here, everybody has some form of Texas gear,” Watson said. “I’ve been in my hometown and I’ve been wearing my backpack and somebody will know ... that’s Texas. I love that.”

Something about UT appeals to O’Neill, too. The coach, in his seventh season at Texas, moved to Austin after 16 years at California, where he led the Golden Bears to two NCAA team titles.

O'Neill, Watson and the rest of the rowing crew will look to deliver Texas an additional championship this spring.

“When this opportunity at Texas opened up, I was like, ‘You know what, the grass is pretty green in Texas,’” O’Neill said. “... Quite literally, the only thing I think we’re limited by here at UT is our imagination and how hard we want to work.”