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After juggling an electrical engineering major and a major commitment on the UW crew team got too difficult in his sophomore year, senior Sam Dommer put his rowing career on hold. Now he’s back looking for his second-straight national championship with the varsity eight boat.

Photo by Andrew Tat

Not many athletes could have made the same decision as Sam Dommer. 

Few could have left their sport while at the very top after an undefeated season at the best program in the entire nation. But that’s exactly what Dommer did in 2011.

Facing the challenges of the electrical engineering major, Dommer, a senior on the UW men’s crew team, decided to leave the team during his sophomore year to focus on academics. After some convincing by a teammate and a lot of hard training, Dommer returned to the team last season and is now flourishing more than ever as a member of the varsity eight boat. 

Dommer experienced the same problem as many freshmen entering the UW. The necessary study habits to survive in college aren’t quite the same as those of high school. Coupled with the rigorous demands of the UW crew program, Dommer understandably thought his freshman year was a lot to handle.  

“I felt a little overwhelmed,” Dommer said. “I wasn’t getting the grades I wanted, so I took the year off. It was a tough decision, but one of the best ones I’ve made in college.”

Dommer came to the UW for two reasons. One of those was its rowing program, so giving up crew was giving up a big part of the reason he came to Seattle.

The other reason was for engineering and the great academics the university offers. Influence from his parents, both engineers, and a love of math led him to settle on electrical engineering. So while he had to give up rowing, he still had his work in the classroom. 

He wasn’t the first athlete to leave the team. Head coach Michael Callahan has seen more than one athlete leave for similar reasons. He felt it was best to let Dommer make the decision on his own.

“I’ve found the more freedom you give someone, the more likely they are to come back,” Callahan said. “When Sam left, we weren’t sure if he would return. It felt like a loss. He brings a lot of chemistry to the team.”

Dommer’s commitment to academics is seen throughout the crew program. Callahan has helped create a culture of academic excellence, as he makes it one of his goals to ensure each athlete can partake in any major they choose while rowing for the UW. A team GPA hovering around 3.2 the last two seasons and numerous selections to the dean’s list make academics an important part of life at Conibear Shellhouse. The class of 2013 is actively working to continue that trend. 

“We want to show that we are not just a bunch of dumb jocks,” said senior coxswain Seamus Labrum, a member of the 2012 Pac-12 All-Academic first team. “It’s definitely a source of pride for us at the boathouse.”

The team’s commitment to academics as well as to its sport puts added strain on an incoming freshman’s transition to college, making the first year the hardest for student athletes. But Callahan considers the sophomore season a close second. UW freshmen are specially handled by a separate group of coaches with a different practice time, a contrast to the final three years of a rower’s career. 

“[Sophomore year] you learn to be an adult on the team, and no one holds your hand through it,” Callahan said. “What [Dommer] did was really tough.”

During his time off, Dommer learned the proper study habits to raise his grades and be successful within his major. With his feet under him, the option of returning to the crew team was available, but Dommer was still unsure if he would take it. Late teammate Peter Allen, who left the team for similar reasons, ultimately convinced Dommer to return. The two began working out together to be ready for the 2012 season. 

It wasn’t an easy task for Dommer to regain his endurance and strength. The key for Dommer’s physical preparation was the ergometer, or rowing machine, commonly found in gyms. As any member of the crew will say, the machine is key for the UW’s off-water preparation to train muscles that don’t get much use through other workouts. 

It was a long process for Dommer, who recalls being exhausted after 10 minutes on the ergometer the first time he and Allen went to train during their time off.

“I was not expecting to do as well,” Dommer said. “I really just had to grind it out day by day.”

After putting on 15 pounds of muscle, he not only successfully returned to the team feeling confident that he could balance school and athletics, but also made the varsity eight in the spring season. 

With Dommer sitting in the three seat in the varsity eight, the 2012 Huskies captured the program’s 15th national championship at the IRA Championship regatta last May. The UW became the first team ever to sweep all five races at IRAs, an experience Dommer, who missed the team’s title run in 2011, described as “surreal.”

The class of 2013 is back in competition, on a quest for its third straight national championship. With Dommer in a varsity seat again, the Huskies are undefeated through three regattas. Many of the UW seniors remained motivated to properly close out the career of teammate Alex Bunkers, who has been in the UW’s top boat all four seasons and not lost a single race. 

That type of camaraderie made Dommer sure his choice was the right one. 

“The reason I ultimately came back was to be with those guys more,” Dommer said. “This is a selfless team, and we’ve grown together like a fraternity.”

Even though the team is close-knit, an intense amount of competition for seats on the varsity boat takes place each week. Through all the different combinations of lineups, Dommer has managed to keep his spot on the varsity boat. 

After all, not many athletes would give up something they worked so hard for.

Reach reporter Nathaniel Reeves at sports@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @njr3701 

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