Ohio State cheerleaders and rowers hold a punch pose after they raced on the Scioto River in September. Credit: Courtesy of Kyler Holland

The race was close — but only for a moment. Not long after it began, the Ohio State rowing team glided past the other boat in the water, building a lead with each harmonious sweep of the oar.

In the other boat, with less harmony, were members of the Ohio State cheer team. As the distance between the two vessels on the Scioto River grew wider, the obvious became, well, even more obvious: the rowing team was not going to lose this race against the cheer team.

Then again, the reason the cheerleaders — one wearing a wrestling singlet, another wearing a Cleveland Browns’ Johnny Manziel jersey and yellow football pants with one knee pad — found themselves in a boat at 7:45 a.m. on Sept. 1 was never really about who would win. As senior cheerleader Axel Halvarson put it, it’s about “inter-team bonding.”

“You always walk around campus and you see the book bags of athletes, but you don’t really want to say ‘Hi’ to them, because it’s like, ‘I don’t know you, but I’m an athlete too. You’re an athlete and we’re not talking,’ so this kind of bridges that gap,” said Carter Marsch, a senior cheerleader.

There aren’t any deep fissures within the athletic department, but, as senior rower Chelsea Harpool said, “We all have our own practices and everything. We don’t really interact much,” so athletes often look forward to chances to hang out across teams.

And so far, the race has accomplished what it sought to do.

“It’s been super fun since then because a lot of people on our team and the cheer team that were part of it know each other now,” Harpool said. “We see each other all the time in French [Fieldhouse] or just around the different athletic facilities just to catch up.”  

The stage for the race was set over the summer when Harpool talked with cheerleader Kyler Holland while hanging out with a fellow members of Athletes In Action, a campus ministry group. Holland mentioned a video he made of his teammates competing against the Ohio State women’s volleyball team in the spring — the first time the cheerleaders competed against other Buckeye athletes — to Harpool, and told her how fun it would be to do something similar against the rowing team.

Harpool mentioned the idea to her coach, Andy Teitelbaum, the next day, and he was on board with the idea.

The race was the morning after the Ohio State football team’s first game against Indiana, and, because it had to happen before speed boats began creating wakes on the river, it meant three things.

One, the four cheerleaders who were at the game in Bloomington, Indiana, the night before were running on little sleep.

Two, the rowing team had to move its regularly scheduled warmups from about 6:20 a.m. to 5 a.m., so it was also running on little sleep.

And three, there wasn’t a lot of time for the cheerleaders to learn how to actually row the boat. Learning to make sure the oar enters the water perpendicular is hardly the problem (though that’s nothing to sneeze at, either). The real difficulty comes when all eight people get in the boat and have to row in harmony, a fact the cheerleaders learned quickly.

“They’re all in sync moving, and then you see us and everybody is all over the place,” Halvarson said laughing. “If we’d gone again, like another day after everybody learned, I think we might’ve done better. We still wouldn’t have won, but we would’ve at least looked better.”

Harpool didn’t dispute that. She said the cheerleaders had about 15 minutes in the boat before the race started. Usually, Harpool said, “most people that are actually being taught to row have weeks of building up with different skillsets before they actually row with all eight people in the boat.”  

“We’ve never really thrown someone in a boat with very minimal explanation and been like, ‘You just have a few minutes. Figure it out,’” she said. “I don’t think any of us knew what to expect, but they got the boat moving pretty well there by the end.”

The race likely isn’t the end of the cheerleaders challenging other teams in their sports. Of course, it always depends on logistics, and Halvarson said it is easiest to arrange when teams aren’t amid their competitive season, which was the case with volleyball and rowing.

Currently, Halvarson said the cheerleaders are trying to set something up with the rifle team. And after men’s soccer senior defender Niall Logue overheard Marsch talking about the rowing race in a class they have together, Logue asked to exchange phone numbers so they could try to organize a competition between teams.

Plus, Harpool said the cheerleaders’ two cross-sport adventures were brought up at a Student-Athlete Advisory Committee meeting, and “it seemed like everybody across the board loved the concept of switching sports for a day or trying to compete against other teams.”

“Everybody is really pumped about the idea and wants to see more of it,” she said, which means, despite the gaps between the rowers and cheerleaders on the water, the cheerleaders appear to be on their way to getting their wish — seeing any remaining social gaps continue to close.