Explaining The Allure of The Punishing Sport of Rowing
I'm standing on a bathroom scale on top of a picnic table in a waterside park in Columbus, Ohio. It's early May, 1996, but feels like late November: It's somewhere around half past 7 in the morning, the air feels like it wants to freeze, and it's raining so hard the park has become a muddy soup, making it hard to walk among the orderly rows of narrow white rowing shells propped up on stands--most with other living-dead rowers sheltered underneath them--without slipping. The reservoir behind me has turned from docile pond to torrent.
And all of this is OK, really. It was close, but I fell under the 145-pound weight limit to compete as a lightweight. And so did the three other rowers in my boat--if any one of us had been over, the entire boat would be disqualified. The race, the Midwest Scholastic Championship Regatta, would have been thrown, and, with it, the starvation, the four-odd hours a day of training, and the almost-creepy connection gained between teammates via time spent together--probably more than with parents and friends combined--and shared misery. (In the end, the reservoir flooded even more and the entire competition was canceled, resulting in a great many adolescent white kid hissy fits.)
In the 12 years since, the regatta scene hasn't changed much. On the south shore of the Middle Branch in early May, at the Baltimore High School Championships Regatta, it was still lines and lines of waiting rowing shells, water- and food-stocked tents, absurdly fit teenagers hanging around in unisuits, and doting parents with cameras. Every 20 minutes an announcer would come over the PA reading the results of the latest race and from some team encampment spread over the grass waterfront there'd be a chorus of cheers.
In the latter part of the morning, those cheers were mostly coming from Baltimore Rowing Club's yellow and black tent occupied by the club's juniors program, a mix of inner-city students and wealthier, whiter rowing standard-bearers, all bonded by an intense camaraderie, an absolute necessity in rowing. Of all sports, this is perhaps the one that involves the most synchronicity and teamwork.
"When you become part of a team, you can't screw up," assistant coach Alyson Covino explains. "Hours, every week, every month, in the same boat with the same people--you get to a point where if you're not there, you're not just hurting yourself."
Rowing is also understood to be one of the most intense, heavy-impact workouts yet devised--like running, but with absolutely every muscle in your body. According to governing body USRowing, a 2,000-meter race, roughly eight minutes of rowing, is equivalent to back-to-back basketball games So, theoretically, it's good for you. (Though any sport aerobic enough to make vomiting, at least at races, commonplace might go a bit past "good.")
For the sport's surprising prevalence--the invite-only Baltimore High School Championships involved 13 teams, all from Maryland--it remains somewhat underground. It's an Olympic sport, yes, and a major one at that, but for plenty of folks it's an Olympic sport like archery is an Olympic sport, a quirky vestige of days gone by--the first rowing club in the U.S., the Detroit Boat Club (whom I raced for as a teen), was established in 1839.
So, many people just don't get what it even is, or that it exists outside of Ivy League schools. A quick rundown: In the sport, a boat isn't called a boat, but a shell. Why? Maybe because it doesn't work quite like a boat; sure, it floats, but only with someone or someones in it balancing the shell, which is only a little wider than your hips--as little as 10 inches across--on the surface of the water with oars roughly 12 feet in length. If you let go of the oars, the boat flips. In the Detroit River or the Baltimore Harbor, there's absolutely nothing cool about going into the water.
In the shell, you're strapped into shoes ("foot stretchers" in rowing parlance) that are attached to the boat, while you pull the oar through a combination of arms and legs--your ass is on a sliding seat that allows the latter. Everyone in the shell--they come in one-, two-, four-, and eight-person varieties--has to move in exactly the same way at the same time using the same effort or else the whole thing just goes to hell. Getting an oar handle in the back is on par with getting a wooden baseball bat straight to the spine. Trying to keep everything together is the crew's coxswain, generally a really small person, who sits in the back of the boat shouting commands to the team and operating a little cable-controlled fin--not quite a rudder--at the back of the boat with nominal steering power. And, no, they're not shouting "stroke, stroke, stroke"--more like all of the different ways you can condense "you're not working hard enough" into one word. It often comes out less an order than a plea.
And this is all very fun, or at least addictive. Unfortunately, rowing has a well-earned reputation as very rich and very white sport. The costs associated with rowing even just on a recreational level are prohibitive. At Baltimore Rowing Club, for example, a basic annual membership runs $250 and doesn't include training or instruction; for that it goes up to $250-$650 a season, $260 for the juniors program. (At the competitive level, add in the costs of travel and entry fees.) Fees for the novice program go down to a more manageable $200 for six weeks of training/instruction.
The reason the prices are so high is that the equipment itself is pricey--a brand-new eight-man rowing shell (known simply as an "eight") costs in the neighborhood of $35,000. Baltimore Rowing Club owns 27 shells of all different varieties, and club Vice President Mike Chin says that almost all of them are in use from the predawn hours until dark. Add in the costs of coaches, maintenance, waterfront property, and liability, and rowing's upper-crust reputation begins to make more sense.
However, it's by no means stagnant, in size or culture. "It's a growing sport," Chin says. "Our novice class is typically sold out." On Sunday, the club christened three new shells, donations from the Honeywell Corp. and Pat Turner, the Richard Branson-esque developer who's redeveloping Westport, the stretch of abandoned industry lining the west side of the Middle Branch and adjacent to the Cherry Hill environs of the Baltimore Rowing Club.
The christening itself had a sort of corporate ick to it; people were walking around with Waterfront "brand" water bottles with an artist's rendering of the new development, and as Turner introduced the boats he pointed at his name stenciled onto the bow and exclaimed, "We want to see this name across the finish line every time." And, save for the kids, it was hard to get over the country-club vibe of the organization's royalty. I'm pretty sure we drank real Champagne.
As a kid, I'm not sure how my single-parent family pulled off the finances of the sport. Not very easily and with the help of credit cards, I suspect, but plenty of kids in Baltimore don't even have that option. In the immediate Baltimore area, rowing programs simply don't exist in public schools--private schools Roland Park Country, Bryn Mar, and Notre Dame Prep all have programs, but parents also have money to afford them. Obviously, in inner-city Baltimore, parents generally don't.
Yet a good chunk of Baltimore Rowing Club's juniors program is made up of black, inner-city students, giving Baltimore the run on multiculturalism in Maryland rowing--at least, that's how it felt at the regatta--if not the East Coast. The program was introduced to member James Freeman as something that will "`take us to a new world and see different things'" he explains. "That's how it came to be."
The rowing club has Turner and Honeywell to thank for this, too. They kick in 25 scholarships a year to the club's juniors program. "It's been really amazing," Covino says of watching kids take to rowing. "[They] have just grown by leaps and bounds, as people and rowers, and as students. I love each of them tremendously."
A big part of rowing's appeal is that it opens up college doors. While more popular sports like football and basketball are so often targeted for scholarships, the competitiveness means the chances of getting needed money is slim. In contrast, a considerable amount of money is available in rowing scholarships, but there isn't nearly the competition for them. At Baltimore Rowing Club, James Freeman is being courted by both Cornell and Stanford, while Akeen Smith was nominated for entrance to the Naval Academy.
After the boats are out of the water, the awards are handed out, and the coxswains have all been tossed into the harbor (a tradition for winning teams), I'm surrounded by a small crowd of giddy, distracted Baltimore Rowing Club rowers. I want to know what the appeal is, for them, of rowing. "It's getting to know your teammates like they're family," Smith pipes up. "[We] never got into a fight, never got into a disagreement about nothin'. We agree as a team, we row as a team. We stay focused as a team."
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