Richland senior Vanessa Whattam plans to continue her aquatic pursuits in college, though not in the way she initially thought.
While competing at the WIAA Girls State Swimming and Diving Championships in November in Federal Way, Whattam caught the attention of University of Washington women’s crew coach Bob Ernst, who attends the meet every year to spot potential recruits.
“He’s always recruited from the west side, but he’s making the push over here,” said Whattam’s father, Kevin. “He’s seen a lot of the east-side schools, like Richland and Kennewick, come up in terms of their quality and strength.”
Whattam finished seventh at state in the Class 4A 100-yard freestyle and 11th in the 50 free. She was on the second-place 400 free relay team with junior Lisa Bratton and Division I swimming commits Sarah Olsen (Vermont) and Nicole Weinman (Idaho), and the Bombers were second overall in the team standings.
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When Ernst approached her about competing for UW’s crew team, Whattam was open to the idea. Her mother, Maxine, is from England, where crew is a popular sport.
“My mom has really wanted me to do crew since freshman year in high school,” Whattam said. “It was always on the back burner. I thought if I could swim, it would take over crew.”
Whattam had planned to swim for Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y., but after visiting UW, she knew she didn’t want to compete for a smaller D-I school.
“UW is one of the best crew programs in the country,” Whattam said. “It was just a different caliber of athletics, I guess.”
Whattam also was swayed by the social and academic opportunities at UW. She would like to study linguistics, international studies or English in college.
Whattam’s lack of rowing experience isn’t an issue for Ernst, her father said.
“He picks four to five top rowers in the world from Australia, New Zealand and England, and then he really looks for top athletes in the area from swimming and volleyball — folks that are obviously strong, big and have the athletic discipline — and trains them to be rowers,” Kevin Whattam said.
Richland/Hanford assistant coach Randy Willis said he was surprised when he heard Vanessa might go for crew, but he does not doubt she will succeed.
“She’s got a fierce competitive drive in her,” Willis said. “She came out as a freshman for Richland High swimming and had some summer team experience, but very little beyond that. She had a lot of potential, but what really impressed me over the years was her desire to be in a contest. She’s just very determined. In a rowing contest — I look at that, and the only time I see it, too, is in an Olympic year on television — but you can see the faces of the competitors on there, and physically, it obviously takes some stamina. They’re in a race, and they’re side by side, and that’s where she gets the passing gear, and her determination becomes visible.”
Whattam will sign with UW this spring. In the meantime, she is preparing for her new sport by continuing to work out with the Tri-City Channel Cats.
“I swim, but I also go to the gym, and I run, which I didn’t do as much before,” she said.
As for the crew team’s rigorous practice schedule, Whattam’s time with the Channel Cats has done a lot to make that less intimidating.
“Swimming and crew have very similar schedules, getting up early and coming back in the afternoon, so I’m pretty much already used to that,” Whattam said.