It was going to take a special proposal for the Big Ten Conference women’s rowing championships to leave Indianapolis.
The University of Wisconsin came up with one, and eight Big Ten rowing teams will dip their shells into the waters of Devil’s Lake State Park on Sunday in Baraboo.
“The lake is superb. ... The setting is magnificent,” UW coach Bebe Bryans said during a press conference last week. “Just the logistics of making that alone happen up at Devil’s Lake is amazing. ... This is going to be a first-class regatta built from scratch.”
Wisconsin’s largest and most-visited state park, Devil’s Lake offers a unique site for regattas. The 2,000-meter, eight-lane course will finish at the lake’s South Shore, while the course is surrounded by 500-foot bluffs on the east and west.
“They just rave about the venue,” Devil’s Lake State Park Superintendent Steve Schmelzer said May 8. “It’s very scenic obviously, and the bluff also protects the water from wind. ... It’s ideal even when there’s larger gusts. They can still race here because it’s somewhat protected.”
Devil’s Lake also provide a unique opportunity for spectators to see the seven races — which will began at 9 a.m. and go off every 20 minutes — from all vantage points.
“You have the steep bluffs that overlook,” Schmelzer said, noting visitors will be able to see the regatta while continuing to hike, climb and enjoy the park. “A lot of these races take place in large flat areas, so they don’t have that perspective.”
While UW officials are excited to host the Big Ten regatta for the third time — and first since 2007 when it was at Lake Wingra in Madison — it wasn’t easy to get the rest of the conference’s coaches to sign on.
“Thinking about changing venues was challenging them and it’s like, ‘Well, Wisconsin is the frozen tundra right?’ Not all the time,” Bryans said of some of the concerns she has heard in the leadup to the championships. “If we can make it south, then everybody else can make it north. Hopefully they’ll see it’s just like traveling anywhere else.”
It’ll save about six hours of travel for the Badgers, as the championships have been held in Indianapolis the past eight years. The UW has fond memories of the last time it was elsewhere, when the Badgers went to East Lansing, Michigan, in 2010 to win the only Big Ten title in program history.
This time, the UW also gets to show off its ability to put on a race, which includes transporting boats as well as building docks, a starting platform and a finish line. Bryans said the Badgers want to “make sure that Wisconsin shows what can happen when we put the weight of our will behind something.”
“I know the team’s going to show up, I know the department is showing up, I know the lake will shine, so we’re really excited to be able to participate in that regatta,” she said.
“The DNR has been awesome in just opening up the park for us. We’re basically taking our boathouse ... and we’re taking it an hour north to a state park. What I’m very fortunate to have is an infrastructure in place where I’m being told ‘Don’t worry about anything; coach your crew.’”
She’ll get to do so on a lake that is returning to its rowing history. The May 19 championships will be the fourth women’s rowing event at Devil’s Lake State Park since 2015. The largest event to date was the five-team Big Ten/Big 12 Invite on April 23, 2016.
Big Ten members Michigan State, Minnesota and Iowa have all competed at Devil’s Lake in recent years.
“Half the league has raced here, so they were the ones that really pushed to have it come here,” Bryans said. “So they know. ... The people that have been to the course and raced on the course know the course. I think everyone will be pleasantly surprised.”
Devil’s Lake has a long history as a rowing destination. The UW men’s team has also competed in several events there since 2012, while regattas have happened on the lake since at least 1877, well before the state park was established in 1911.
Schmelzer, who has been working with the UW on the project since the 2010-11 school year, suggests that regattas fit perfectly with the silent sport atmosphere on a lake that encourages paddling and doesn’t allow recreational internal combustion motors.
Schmelzer is expecting as many as 1,000 vehicles at the park May 19, while there will be nearby shuttles available to transport spectators. State park passes are available to be prepurchased online to give the DNR an idea of how many spectators to expect, although it shouldn’t be anything out of the ordinary.
“Equivalent to a busy summer day, so it’s not crowds we haven’t seen here before,” Schmelzer said, noting that before Memorial Day is the ideal time for a planned influx of people at the park. “It’s a good time because it’s spring, still not super busy. We’re always open to having more people come to Wisconsin and experience our parks.”
Outside of parking constraints, Schmelzer doesn’t envision the regatta bringing the park too many challenges.
“We’ve been prepping,” Schmelzer said, noting that an enhancement project over the last year included cleaning, updating bathrooms and painting buildings as well as providing extra parking. “It means better operations and facilities for regular park users as well as the regatta.”
The park has a history of hosting fitness-related events, with several more to come this year. The Big Swell Open Water Swim Race will be held July 7 on the lake, while the Dances with Dirt trail run will be July 13, and the Devil’s Challenge Triathlon will be held Sept. 15. All three events can bring as many as 1,000 people to the park.
“Not usually a huge impact to the resources, and the partners have been good with helping the park with maintenance,” Schmelzer said of hosting events. “They allow people to enjoy the outdoors and fitness enthusiasts to be on the trails, in the water and doing those kind of events. ... It allows people to get out and enjoy while also doing their recreational event.”
If the regatta goes off without a hitch, Devil’s Lake could continue to become a bigger part of the rowing community.
“The short answer to that is I hope so,” Bryans said of hosting more events at Devil’s Lake, noting that the attitude going in was that the championships were a one-time thing. “It’s going to be good enough that they’re going to want to showcase our talents again.
“Once people see what Wisconsin can do on a rowing standpoint, because we’ve seen it in so many other sports, I think that they may hopefully outweigh the expense and the effort that it took to put it on.”