July 19, 2017

Making Incredible Progress in 5 Years of Crew, PHS Alum Walker to Row for U.S. at U23 Worlds

When Thomas Walker took up rowing in 2012 at the Princeton National Rowing Association’s Mercer Rowing Club (PNRA/Mercer), he was quickly inspired to someday make an impact in the sport on a national level.

“We shared that boathouse with the women’s national team and it was pretty awesome to look at the best people in the world,” said Walker, who was a junior at Princeton High when he joined PNRA/Mercer. “I always had that goal to be able to race for the U.S.A. in some capacity.”

Walker, who went on from PNRA/Mercer to row for the University of Wisconsin men’s crew program, achieved that goal last month as he and Luke Sendelbach of Cornell placed first in the Lightweight Men’s Pair in the U.S. trial on Mercer Lake to earn a spot in the upcoming 2017 World Rowing Under 23 Championships in Plovdiv, Bulgaria.

As he looks ahead to the competition in Bulgaria, which is slated for July 19-23, Walker acknowledges that it is a dream come true.

“It is really, really awesome that it has finally come to fruition,” said Walker, who will be joined at the competition by fellow PHS alum, PNRA/ Mercer and Wisconsin teammate Kyle James, a member of the U.S. Lightweight Men’s 4.

“It was really special to win trials on the same lake that I first started rowing and being from the area, my parents were able to watch.”

In reflecting on his meteoric rise in the rowing world, Walker said there was nothing complicated about his ascension.

“It has been quite a journey,” said Walker. “It is a sport that rewards hard work, the two go hand in hand.”

It didn’t take long for Walker to see the rewards of rowing. “I was playing basketball and golf before but I never really had a fall sport so I just tried it out for the fall,” said Walker, recalling his debut with PNRA/Mercer.

“It was mostly as a way to stay in shape for basketball in the winter but then I took a liking to it and stuck with it from there.”

By the end of his first year at PNRA/Mercer, Walker was contacting college coaches, looking to compete at the next level. He chose Wisconsin over Cornell and Dartmouth but acknowledges that it wasn’t easy sticking things out in the early stages of his college career.

“It was a tough transition being surrounded by such big kids, we had at least five or six guys over 6’6, the tallest guy topped out at 6’11,” said Walker, noting that he is 6’1, 160 pounds.

“Height is not everything in the sport but it is definitely a pretty big thing.”

After rowing in the fourth varsity 8 and the lightweight varsity 4 over his first two years with the Badgers, Walker was determined to make a breakthrough coming into his junior season this spring.

“At the end of the sophomore year, it is like a turning point in college careers, for better or worse,” said Walker.

“I was really focused last summer on making sure that was a turning point for the better. This past year I was in the second 4 on the fall, the 9 through 12 guys. There were big, big improvements for me this winter. I finally cracked through our coaches. They set certain benchmarks and once you prove you have a certain level of strength, it opens a lot more doors. You get a lot more opportunities to prove yourself on the water.”

This spring, Walker seized  the opportunity, starting in the second varsity 8 before moving up to the varsity 8 for the Intercollegiate Rowing Association (IRA) national championship regatta.

For Walker, competing at the IRA regatta was an eye-opening experience.

“It was a little intimidating for that first race,” said Walker, who helped the top boat take 11th, the program’s best finish since 2013.

“The first time you line up out there, the coaches tell you it is just a bunch of other guys out there, don’t let them intimidate you. There are guys out there who you are lined up next to who were competing at the 2016 games.”

Days after the end of the IRAs, Walker headed home to take part in a training camp on Mercer Lake organized by Hobart assistant coach Skip Kielt to form crews to race in the U.S. U23 trials in late June.

“It was part selection, part training; he wanted to select a four and a pair to race at trials,” said Walker.

“He created a really good team atmosphere where everyone is working to that goal, not so much doing whatever they could to help themselves. I refocused after the national championships. I was thinking that my one goal for the summer was to make it to the world championships.”

Walker and Sendelbach, a rising Cornell junior, emerged as the top pair in the group.

“We had four great guys who worked really well together and then me and my pair partner, Luke, became our best matchup,” said Walker.

“We had been working really well together and our coach had a lot of confidence that we could keep going there. We made some pretty big strides in the next two weeks after that. We got some racing experience at a regatta in Philadelphia and worked the kinks out. Everything just kind of came together for us at trials, we put down three really good races.”

Noting that the goal is to reach the ‘A’ final, or top six, at the U23 worlds, Walker believes that the pair has the capacity to race even better on the world stage.

“We feel like we are in a pretty good position,” said Walker. “We have put in the work and made a lot of progress. I think we saw a lot more progress over the last week and a half. We feel confident; it is not going to take some heroic effort. It is go out there and really stick to it. We know what we have and what is takes to do it. We have just got to go out there and do it now.”

After putting in his best effort in Bulgaria, Walker will turn his focus to helping Wisconsin position itself for more success in his senior campaign.

“Seven of the eight guys in our varsity 8 are coming back, we are really looking forward to that,” said Walker.

“Of those seven guys, five of us qualified for the U.S. with different spots in the U23. The rest of our team is in Madison right now training hard. I am really excited to to get back to that.”