July 18, 2012
BY CHARLIE HEALY
UW Athletic Communications
When Erik Miller was named Wisconsin's women's lightweight rowing head coach in 2006, the team had just won its third-straight national championship.
Needless to say, expectations were high for Miller and the Badgers, who had never finished below fifth at the Intercollegiate Rowing Association (IRA) national championship regatta. The team won three national titles and medaled at the national championships seven times - all of this in just the team's first 10 years as a varsity program.
As Miller steps down as Wisconsin's head coach this summer to move to California along with his family, his legacy includes much more than just turning Wisconsin lightweight rowing into a consistent national powerhouse.
He leaves the team much like he found it, winning two national championships and having a varsity eight boat medal at five IRA championships. Additionally, Miller helped guide Wisconsin to its first lightweight four national championship in 2011 while repeating the feat in 2012. Add six team championships and five varsity eight titles at the EARC conference championships, and Miller has helped bring plenty of hardware to the Porter Boathouse.
"Erik came in and worked really hard to elevate the lightweight program," UW women's head coach Bebe Bryans said. "We were strong for a while and he came in and worked hard to keep that tradition going and continue to elevate the program."
While adding to an already-full trophy case on the shores of Lake Mendota is nice, what puts Miller among the best in Wisconsin's rich rowing history is more than just winning races and trophies. His ability to develop his student-athletes into great people, both on and off the water, while fostering the growth of the sport is what separates Miller as one of the all-time greats at UW.
When Miller took over in 2006, the team consisted of just 13 returning rowers, coming off a third-straight national championship. With two of the returners being coxswains, he didn't even have enough to field an eight and a four of experienced rowers.
Six years later, the roster consists of more than 40 women.
The larger squad represents a commitment to grow the sport of rowing and allow as many people as possible the opportunity to be a part of a championship-caliber team.
"He built up a tradition of having more people, while making sure everyone was still important, even if they weren't in the top boat," assistant coach Heidi Hunsberger said. "This season we had 43 people on the team, which is a testament to the team atmosphere that Erik wanted to have."
Hunsberger, a sophomore coxswain on Miller's first team and novice coach the past two seasons, saw how Miller was trying to implant the team philosophies that have become so important as he pushes rowers to bring their best.
"He instilled the good value of having a team and having the team support one another. He pushed people to limits they didn't know were possible beforehand and he pushed me further than anyone else has in my life. Those are qualities that are invaluable as a coach."
Miller's coaching influence will extend to London for the 2012 Olympic Summer Games, as Kristin Hedstrom becomes Wisconsin's first lightweight rower to compete in the Olympics.
She was a junior on Miller's first team and his impact has been influential to Hedstrom's success on an international level well after her Wisconsin career was over.
"Erik has been a critical part of my success as an athlete," Hedstrom said. "He believed in me from day one and encouraged me to keep setting my goals higher. When I graduated, I chose to continue training at Wisconsin because I knew I'd have the best chance of representing the US internationally if I continued training with Erik."
For Hedstrom, along with many others, Miller's support wasn't limited to just on-the-water training. His experience as an eight-year member of the U.S. national team brings an added component to his skills as a teacher and advisor.
"There have been ups and downs in the past four years leading up to the Olympics, but Erik has been a mentor and sounding board for me through all of it," Hedstrom said. "I wouldn't be where I am today without Erik and the Wisconsin lightweight team."
Miller stressed the importance of technique and hard work, added Hedstrom. "Erik's approach and training plan taught us how to work really hard and really smart."
The work ethic Miller infused into the team led not only to success on the water, but to successes in the classroom and beyond. While he had a quiet approach in practice, rowers were pushed to their full potential.
"He was someone who pushed people to their limits," Hunsberger said. "That's something that we all can carry with us past graduation, which is important."
As the Erik Miller era of Wisconsin women's lightweight rowing comes to a close, expectations remain just as high as they were when he arrived. Two team national championships, two varsity four titles and six-straight team conference championships indicate expectations might be even higher.
Conference and national championships, an Olympian and the team's growth under Miller's leadership helped place him among the best in Wisconsin's rich rowing history. The foundation set in the lightweight team's first ten years was extended by Miller as he established a powerhouse not only in women's lightweight rowing, but in the entire rowing community.
For that, Miller cements himself as one of the best.