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May 28, 2015

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — About 70 women make up the University of Virginia rowing program that, this weekend in Gold River, Calif., will try to win its third NCAA team title.

But those are only the current members of the program Kevin Sauer built. Hundreds more, scattered across the United States, will be pulling for the Cavaliers this weekend.

“We’re all bonded together for life,” said Madeline Engel, a Seattle-based attorney who lettered for the Wahoos in 1999, 2000, ’01 and ’02.

The NCAA championships start Friday and conclude Sunday on Lake Natoma at the Sacramento State Aquatic Center. That’s the same site where, in 2010, Virginia won its first NCAA team title in this sport, after which Sauer received an outpouring of support.

“I have it on my computer,” Sauer said recently. “I probably got 300 congratulatory emails, and a lot of them were from either the parents of or the kids from the beginning, and they talked about how much they’d been following it and pulling for us from the beginning.”

For Sauer, the beginning at UVa was in 1988. That’s when he came to Charlottesville to oversee the Virginia men’s and women’s club teams. The likelihood then that he’d still at the University nearly 30 years later?

“Zero chance,” Sauer said, laughing. “But in ’95, once we had varsity status, it was like, wow, maybe this is an opportunity now. This is something you could see yourself sinking your teeth into long-term.”

When the University decided to upgrade women’s rowing to a varsity sport, starting in the fall of 1995, Sauer was the natural choice to lead the program. That summer, though, Cornell offered him a job as its director of rowing, and the benefits at the Ivy League school were considerably more attractive than those he would receive at UVa.

“I looked at my wife and said, `When you add this all up, it’s a couple hundred grand difference, because of the college tuition and stuff,’ ” Sauer recalled. “But in the end, my head and my heart said, `Wait a minute. You just said yes to this [at Virginia]. You can’t do this.’ So I said no to [Cornell] and stayed here.’ “

As a varsity program, UVa made an immediate impact nationally from the start. In 1997, at the inaugural NCAA regatta, the Wahoos placed fourth. They finished third in 1998 and second in ’99, when their standouts included Michelle Giller.

Now Michelle Giller Clark, she lives in Seattle, where she owns and coaches at a CrossFit gym for children.

In the early years of UVa’s varsity program, Giller Clark recalled, “We used to call ourselves junkyard dogs, going against these Ivy League [powers].”

Even then, the Cavaliers conceded nothing to more pedigreed teams.

“I knew chronologically speaking that we were a newer program, but I never felt it, because the coaches, from moment I arrived as a first-year, the coaches made us realize how important what we were doing was,” Engel said.

“So it was never, `It doesn’t matter what we do, because these are just the formative years of the program.’ No. It was, `This is our mission. Our mission is to win NCAAs, every single year. I don’t care if we’re in our first year or our 20th year, this is our mission.’ “

She laughed. “And so it never felt like we were less important than the football team.”

Engel and Giller Clark were among the former UVa rowers who welcomed members of the current team to Seattle early this month. On the famed Montlake Cut, with tens of thousands of fans in full voice, Virginia’s Varsity Eight lost a close race to host Washington in the prestigious Windermere Cup.

“There was a huge crowd,” UVa rower Lizzy Youngling said this week. “It was nuts. I wish everybody could experience it.”

In 1998, Giller Clark rowed on the first Virginia boat to compete in the Windermere Cup. The spectators at that race included Engel, then a high school student in Seattle.

“Watching them this year,” the 35-year-old Engel said, laughing, “I think my first feeling was that I was very old.”

After the race, Engel hosted a dinner for the team at her home, where she met rowers such as Youngling, a senior from Westport, Conn.

“Madeline made a huge impact on me,” Youngling said. “She was amazing. She was really inspirational.”

Engel said: “Kevin always has a great group of girls. They’re really great, really kind, so gracious. They probably said, `Thank you,’ more than I could count. It was wonderful.”

Sauer’s rowers played with Engel’s 1-year-old daughter, Virginia, and the family dog, Victory.

“It was a surreal thing,” Engel said. “My daughter is very shy, and Kevin just picked her up, and she just put her head on his shoulder and just let him carry her around for the whole evening.”

At the gathering, Youngling said, UVa rowers current and former delighted in needling Sauer, many of whose mannerisms and favorite sayings have not changed over the past two decades.

“It was fun to give him a little grief about that,” Youngling said. “He’s an old salt.”

When they arrived at Engel’s home, Youngling said, Virginia’s rowers were still disappointed about losing to the Huskies. The sting faded, though, as they talked with some of the women who preceded them in Sauer’s program.

“It was just like, yes, we row as a sport, but there’s so much more to rowing behind the scenes, and the connections and bonds you make last a lifetime,” Youngling said.

At the heart of that bond is Sauer, who periodically emails updates on his program to about 500 people, many of them former UVa rowers and their parents.

“I think every athlete carries a part of him in their lives,” Giller Clark said. “It’s amazing every time you see him. He immediately introduces you to the [current] team. It’s important for him to have this huge rowing community through all the generations.”

Engel said: “I could not be more proud to be an alumna of that program. I even get emotional talking about it.”

Before the team headed home May 2, Engel said, “I told each of the girls that if they ever want to come out to Seattle or train in Seattle, to call me. You can stay at my house. And I genuinely mean that, because we’re all bonded together by UVa rowing and we’re all bonded together by being one of Kevin’s athletes, and that is something that makes us special to each other.”

Another former UVa rower, Melanie Kok, who in 2008 won an Olympic bronze medal for Canada, spoke to the team Tuesday before it headed west.

In 2010, the long-awaited breakthrough came for the Cavaliers at the NCAA regatta. Two years later, the `Hoos were crowned again, this time near Giller Clark’s hometown of Princeton, N.J.

Virginia, which placed fifth at last year’s NCAA regatta, will be among the favorites this weekend in California. Two weeks ago, the Cavaliers won the ACC regatta for the 15th time in the event’s 16 years. The Varsity Eight suffered several close losses during the regular season, but “it’s what happens at the end” that counts most, Sauer noted.

“The direction we’re headed, we’re getting better and better,” he said. “Nobody’s going to care about what happened in the middle of the year.”

UVa is ranked fourth nationally. In the three races that will determine the NCAA team championship — the Varsity Eight, Second Varsity Eight and Varsity Four — Virginia is seeded sixth, second and third, respectively.

The scoring breakdown for each race is as follows:

VARSITY EIGHT: 66 points for first place, 63 for second, 60 for third, 57 for fourth and so on. Twenty-second place is worth three points.

SECOND VARSITY EIGHT: 44 points for first, 42 for second, 40 for third, 38 for fourth and so on. Twenty-second place is worth two points.

VARSITY FOUR: 22 points for first, 21 for second, 20 for third, 19 for fourth and so on. Twenty-second place is worth one point.

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