Coach Spotlight

Gary Hill

21.Feb.2007

How'd you get involved with sculling or rowing?

It was one of those chance things; back in 2000 one of my first dates with an ex-girlfriend was sculling on the Milwaukee River. I was plunked into a wide single for my first time, which I survived, after that we rowed a double a few times. She had actually just been to Craftsbury that year - we had planned for her to come and see one of my Australian football games but I got an email at the last minute saying, "Sorry, I got a last minute place at this camp which I've always wanted to go to, I'm off to Vermont!" Such is the lure of Craftsbury!

The following summer I did a sweep learn to row class in Madison, WI at the Mendota Rowing Club and moved to the adult novice and then adult sweep groups. Wanting to get quicker progress in sculling, I went to Craftsbury in 2002, then came back in 2003. Those were very fun weeks - with Ric, Norm, Marlene and Tim Whitney.

Are you still involved with Aussie Football? Are there any lessons for rowing from football that we should know?

Yes, I still play and assist coaching (mainly skills) with the Milwaukee Bombers team in the United States Australian Football League. The competition is about 10 years old now and still expanding. There are about 40 really developed teams across the country and each year there's a national championship weekend where you get a chance to really test yourself. For the last three years, we have qualified for Division 1 (the top 8 in the country) and in 2005 played off in the final, going down to Denver. The teams these days are made up mostly of younger American players with fewer of the older Aussies like myself still getting a game.

In footy, there's a place for everyone - all body types and sizes can succeed. You can never tell if your opponent is going to kick your butt just from sizing them up. In rowing, often there's thinking that taller and bigger is automatically better - but always allow that the smaller person might in fact have some other advantage over your bigger rowers (e.g. better fitness, technique, less wetted surface area). Judge their rowing by what they do on the water!

What brought an Aussie over to the states?

I was finishing up my Ph. D in neutrino astrophysics at the University of Adelaide when I saw an advertisement for a job at the South Pole station, Antarctica, offered by the University of Wisconsin, Madison. I got the job and after I finished a year at the pole, I went to Madison to continue on the project.

Can you compare rowing cultures between the states and Australia briefly for us?

Since I learnt to row here in the states, and had never done it back home, I suppose I'm actually an "American rower." However, one year I was off home for a month in the southern summer, contacted a local club in Adelaide and they were happy to let me row there while visiting. I remember the first time I went out with the sweep crew - I instantly had no idea what the cox was talking about - it wasn't the accent obviously, but the terminology was completely different! I guess it's the British system - they talk about bow-side and stroke-side for starboard and port (even if the boat is starboard stroked), top-six instead of stern-six, sitting forward for sit ready at the catch, easy-all instead of weigh-enough, etc. I had never thought that I'd have to learn a whole new language back in my own country. Other than that, I would say the rowing culture is similar to here. It's just injected with the "she'll be right, no worries mate," work hard, then play hard Aussie ethic. Oh, and of course, those hot pink Croker oars are everywhere!

What keeps you rowing?

Unfortunately, I don't get a lot of time to row or coach these days. When I do, I like the challenge of moving more efficiently, or seeing someone respond to some tip that I've given them - one of those "ah-ha!" moments!

How did you start coaching?

Again, one of those chance things. I have coached in several other sports, mainly Australian football, both back in Australia and in the US, where at one time I was the coach of the US national team, the "American Revolution." After my first full adult year at Mendota, I became the adult novice sweep program coach, a position I held through 2005. Last year, my partner Leila (a long time rower and coxswain) was finishing up medical school and had some rare free time, so I suggested we go to Craftsbury for a week-long camp. That was a lot of fun for us both, and a conversation after dinner one night with Ric led me back to the camp as a coach in September of last year. What a tiring but entirely worthwhile experience that was!

What's the most common error you see people making?

I think the biggest error is trying to pull harder than your skill level allows. People want to feel like they're putting in a lot of effort and end up rowing with a very bad style, especially seen by deeply buried blades. That certainly creates a feeling of effort, but most of that effort goes into things other than moving the boat. I always make the analogy of tennis or golf - how does a good tennis or golf player approach their shots? Do they sacrifice technique for all-out power every time they hit the ball? Of course not. Rowing is just the same - it's all about technique, and the power can't be fully utilized until the technique is there. I try to pretend that my blades are like tennis racquets and every stroke should be a controlled shot into the opponent's court, hopefully for a winner!

Best moment in rowing (either as a coach or participant)

There's a lot of those, for example seeing students finally figure out what I'm saying and seeing them improve. Personally, it was the realization after a couple of years that I was taking my own rowing progress all too seriously. Once I realized that, I was able to relax, have more fun, and actually started performing better!

Tell us about your Antarctica work.

I work for the University of Wisconsin, Madison, on the "IceCube" project, which will be the world's largest high-energy neutrino telescope, with an instrumented-volume of one cubic kilometer. This detector is located at the South Pole, Antarctica. It's not your usual telescope - we drill 60 centimeter holes in the ice down to 2500 meters and place long strings of light sensors into them. There are currently about 40 holes and will be about 100 once we're done in a few years. We're looking for neutrinos - elementary particles which we think are produced in some of the most bizarre and energetic objects in the universe such as black holes, quasars and gamma-ray bursts. Some of the neutrinos will crash into the earth or the ice producing another high energy particle, the muon, which we see with the sensor array in the ice. We hope to solve some of the long-standing mysteries in the field of high-energy astrophysics (for more info, see our website - icecube.wisc.edu).

How long do you spend or have you spent in Antarctica?

I first went to Antarctica in late 1996 and stayed through an entire year, including the six months of the sun below the horizon. That was one very interesting experience, not seeing the sun for all that time but the stars and the aurorae were just amazing. Since that year, I have been back six times during the southern summer for anything from two weeks to two months.

While there, are you in the lab all the time, or do you get to enjoy the outdoors much? If so, what's it like?

The South Pole in summer is a very busy place with about 250 people there. Still lots of construction work on the new station and on new projects like IceCube and the South Pole Telescope - a large microware telescope for studying the origins of the universe, the big bang, dark energy, etc. The station is way out in the middle of the ice plateau so there's not much to see but that isolation in itself is somewhat humbling. With the drilling and deployment work I do at the moment there, I'm outside a lot, which is great, if you dress warmly enough! Some people cross country ski and I have gone running outside a few times on the warmer days...where warmer means sneaking up toward minus 20 Fahrenheit instead of minus 40-60. In winter it can get to 100 below - and sit there for weeks...brrr.

Are there any ergs in Antarctica, or do people feel that the cold is suffering enough?

During my winter there was an old C2 model B in the gym, though at that stage I didn't know how to use it and could only last a couple of minutes. Nowadays there's a model C, which gets some use - there was at least one other rower down there last summer when I was there. The South Pole is actually high up on the plateau at about 12000 feet physiological altitude so a 2000m erg piece is rather painful to say the least. Nonetheless, I try to do one when I'm there though the result isn't anywhere what I can do at sea level.

Is the Antarctic seeing the same sort of retreat of ice as we read about above Canada, and if so, is it impacting your work?

Retreating ice, I don't know - I haven't really noticed much difference over the years near the coast, though I'm not really in a position to say. We are so far inland at the pole that I don't think we'd ever see our ice melt! We are actually on a huge glacier, moving about 10 meters a year and in about 100000 years the ice, and our detectors frozen deep within it, will reach the coast and fall off in to the ocean!