World champions typically aren’t former D-III athletes. Steve Whelpley ’05 has willfully ignored that.
Whelpley spent the past eight years working to become one of the best rowers in the world, an effort that culminated in August at the world championships in Chungju, South Korea, where he placed 13th in the men’s heavyweight single category.
That followed a season of strong races for the former Mule. Rowing for the Craftsbury (Vermont) Sculling Center, Whelpley won the men’s single final at the USRowing National Championships in June, after second-place finishes in national events, including the Head of the Charles Regatta in 2012.
“My original goal was simply to make a national team,” Whelpley said. “Making the team in the men’s heavyweight single, of all the boat classes, meant even more. The men’s heavyweight single is a Holy Grail for a lot of people.”
Finding that Holy Grail was especially sweet for Whelpley, who missed making the U.S. Olympic team in 2012 by a single slot. “The fact that I was nearly there kind of drove me crazy—in a good way,” he said.
“Crazy, but not discouraged.”
Whelpley’s rowing career has been a long climb through the sport’s ranks, beginning when he helped start a rowing program in high school in Milwaukee, Wis. At Colby he found a rowing home. “His class was a really wonderful group of kids, both on the women’s and the men’s side,” said crew coach Stew Stokes. “The 2005 guys formed a special bond with each other that started at the beginning of their freshman year.”
Whelpley was a classical civilization–English major and a philosophy and creative writing double minor, worked as an admissions tour guide, and volunteered at the Alfond Youth Center. As a student athlete, it was difficult for him to focus solely on his athletic goal. And there is only one way to get better in rowing—to go faster. “There’s no defense in rowing,” Stokes said. “We can’t slow anyone else down; we can only be as fast as we can be.” That’s what Whelpley set out to do.
After graduation Whelpley moved to Philadelphia to train at Penn AC with Ted Farwell ’05, a friend and teammate. The transition from D-III to an elite rowing club was a shock, he said, but “they welcomed us with open arms. … They gave us a chance to develop.”
Whelpley pursued law, insurance, and pharmaceutical sales, but the scull remained the center of his life. “It’s hard to explain [to employers] that there’s this thing in my life called rowing,” said Whelpley, who now works for his rowing club when he isn’t training.
Increased training time and opportunities to race against other elite rowers were just what Whelpley and Farwell needed. “Both Ted and I improved exponentially, even in our first year there,” Whelpley said. Farwell made the national team in 2006 and 2008. Pete Morelli ’02 made the team in 2006 and 2010.
The goal, though getting closer, was still several levels away for Whelpley. “What always kept me going was the fact that I never stopped improving,” he said. “I was just so disciplined about hitting this goal that I set up, and I didn’t want to fall short of it.”
The near-miss for the 2012 Olympics was a disappointment. “I spent the last quadrennial being the guy on the cusp, being second in a lot of situations,” he told USRowing. “It’s good to finally reap the benefits of what I’ve been doing.”
His relentless pursuit sets him apart, but it doesn’t faze him. “To me, it wasn’t a supernatural trait,” he said. “It boiled down to my dedication and my work ethic.”
So it came as a surprise for him that the Colby team would dedicate a boat in his honor. While visiting campus this September, he christened it with members of the current team. “It was really cool to get to row with him,” said Ryan Newell ’14. “It was great to get a different perspective from clearly a world-class rower.”
While at Colby Whelpley had advice for the younger rowers—and for anyone who sets out to achieve what some might say is impossible.
“Set a goal that might be dreamlike, but approach it with as much realism as possible,” he said. “You have to set insane goals but approach them with complete sanity.”