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Engineering a rowing team

Engineering a rowing team

Engineering is a popular and useful major for members of Stanford's rowing team.
March 4, 2015

On morning drives from campus to the Stanford Rowing and Sailing Center, the topic of conversation among rowers is often about how to use fluid dynamics to make the blade of an oar move faster through the water and improve boat speed.

It may be surprising to some that 18- to 22-year-olds spend this time talking about fluid dynamics or discussing internship experience with doing impact testing on glass for tablets and the process of making renewable medical devices, as opposed to talking about pop culture.

“We are all pretty big nerds,” said senior Kaess Smit. “We spend a lot of time talking about what could be faster. There are so many different things on the boat that you can tweak from a biomechanical standpoint. You realize you are always thinking about that when you are adjusting positions in the boat.”

Engineering is a popular choice among the major options for the Cardinal rowers. Of the 11 juniors and seniors who have declared, seven are in the engineering school. The list includes seniors Smit (mechanical engineering) and Andrew Terajewicz (mechanical engineering) as well as juniors Nico Cserepy (computer science), Kendall Fagan (mechanical engineering), Grant Means (electrical engineering), Robbie Ostrow (computer science) and Karl Wessendorf (chemical engineering).

“It is really cool to see a lot of engineers on this team,” Terajewicz said. “You don’t see a lot of engineering majors at other schools we race against. We are all on the same page and have intelligent conversations on drives to practice. It is something I appreciate.”

Engineering majors on Stanford's rowing team talk about their work in the Product Realization Lab. (Video: Courtesy of Stanford Athletics)

The large number of engineers is not a new thing for Stanford men’s rowing. It is something that has been a regular occurrence under head coach Craig Amerkhanian.

“Since I have been here in 2000, a good amount of our team has been engineering majors,” Amerkhanian said. “Academics come first for Stanford men’s crew. Our guys are comfortable taking on rigorous majors because of that.”

Stanford rowing has a history of producing individuals who have revolutionized the sport of rowing. Peter Dreissigacker, along with his brother Dick, founded Concept2 in 1976. Concept2 is one of the industry leaders in making oars and ergs. The Dreissigacker brothers came up with the idea for Concept2 while in a graduate course together at Stanford. Using carbon fiber and fiberglass in their kitchen, the brothers developed the first viable, affordable composite racing oar.

The Dreissigackers would later invent the erg when they nailed the rear wheel of a bicycle to the floor in a barn, built a frame and added a sliding seat, according to a Stanford Magazine article by Barbara Davenport in 2007.

“It doesn’t go any further than Pete Dreissigacker,” Amerkhanian said. “Fluid dynamics and hydro engineering is right in their face on a daily basis. It is collaborative. Our sport is technical with equipment, and it is no coincidence that our rowers love engineering.”

On the women’s team, Joline Esparza founded JL Racing after designing a racing uniform on a sewing machine given to her for graduation. The company has turned into one of the top rowing apparel companies in the world.

Seniors Smit and Terajewicz are currently serving as role models for the freshmen and sophomores who are interested in declaring engineering as a major. The two of them looked up to Oivind Lorentzen when they were first starting out at Stanford. Lorentzen was a mechanical engineering major who is now an analyst at Morgan Stanley in New York City.

“My freshman and sophomore year I was unsure about my major,” Smit said. “I was planning on architecture, and that drifted to product design. Talking to Oivend and seeing the projects he was working on that were only offered to mechanical engineering majors made me want to go that route.”

Being a student in the engineering school at Stanford requires a big time commitment to work on designing and building projects along with regular course work. With 20 hours a week dedicated to rowing-related workouts, the regular class load and the roughly 20 hours a week spent working in the labs on projects, rowers with engineering degrees learn how to make the most of their time in any given day.

“We all understand each other’s commitments outside of rowing,” Wessendorf said. “We all know how much we care about rowing because of the time we have to set aside for both our majors and practice. Rowing is a sport that attracts a lot of very dedicated people.”

One of the distinct advantages to having future engineers on the roster comes when equipment is broken. When normally it would take several days or longer to ship the equipment to be fixed, the rowers will take it to the product realization lab and fix it that night so it can be used the next day in practice.

Fixing the equipment would also give them something interesting to talk about the next day on the drive to practice.