- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 15, 2000

Ed Bowers rolls out of bed at 4 a.m., not to study for a full day of business classes at the University of Notre Dame, but to make a two-mile trek to St. Joseph's River in South Bend, Ind., for rowing practice.

In a time when college students are reputed to do little but guzzle beer, students like Mr. Bowers, a senior, are dedicating their time and energy to club sports in record numbers.

According to the National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association, 80 percent of America's 15 million college students are participating in various recreational sports. Only 2 percent compete in varsity sports.

Those involved say their activities help, not hurt, their academic performance.

Mr. Bowers, 21, a business major, spends 15 hours per week on the water as one of eight in a boat sporting gold shamrocks on its large navy oars.

On land, Mr. Bowers is president of the men's rowing club overseeing the club's budget, schedule and fund-raisers.

"As president, I run all the workings of the team," the Bensalem, Pa., native says. "We run like a corporation, like a small business."

Other officers aid the president in managing the club's $100,000 budget and meeting all the athletic department mandates. While the club receives funds from the university, the 75 rowers pay $1,300 in annual out-of-pocket expenses and have many fund-raisers.

Yet, the rower claims the benefits of the experience outweigh all the sacrifices.

"Club sports give all individuals the chance to participate in intercollegiate sports aside from having to make a varsity team," Mr. Bowers says. "[People] get to represent their university on the national level … maintain physical shape and become more responsible and ordered in their lives."

An estimated 800 students participate in the other 24 club sports at Notre Dame ranging from boxing clubs for both men and women to water polo and cricket clubs. The university is adding more clubs next year.

Dave Brown, the assistant director of club sports at Notre Dame, estimated that they attracted an additional 100 students this year.

"I really believe it's growing dramatically in terms of the numbers of club sports nationally," he says.

In club sports, there are no tryouts and no one is "cut" from the team.

"One of the main points of club sports is it affords students a leadership capacity and allows them to grow by giving them responsibilities," Mr. Brown says.

In most cases, the organization and management of the club falls completely on the shoulders of elected officers. Club presidents, such as Mr. Bowers, dedicate an additional 15 hours of behind-the-scenes work each week.

Officers put in "tons of time," Mr. Bowers says.

The United States Rugby Football Union, based in Colorado Springs, Colo., deems rugby the fastest growing club sport on college campuses. Clint Henderson, program manager of USA Rugby, attributes this popularity to the uniqueness of the sport.

"I think a lot of it has to do with the same reason that extreme sports are becoming so popular," Mr. Henderson says. Athletes seek an experience different from popular sports such as basketball and baseball, he adds.

Unlike other sports, rugby places more emphasis on camaraderie and less on individual performance. It also gives women a rare opportunity to participate in a contact sport, Mr. Henderson says.

The sport's origins date back to 1823 in England when William Webb Ellis, "with a fine disregard for the rules" of soccer, first picked up the ball and ran with it, USA Rugby says.

Since then, the game has spread to foreign shores and even made appearances in four Olympic games between 1900 and 1924. The International Rugby Board has applied to make rugby an Olympic sport once again in the 2004 games in Athens.

On the college level, there are 500 clubs for men and women across the United States.

The rugby teams are notorious for intense action during two 40-minute time periods and afterward, when players from both teams roll out kegs and socialize.

"I think the one thing that's sort of special with rugby is that it's a real social sport," Mr. Henderson says. "Every single player gets to play and contribute to the game. That's different from other sports."

Maureen Reardon could not agree more.

The senior biology major of Hazlet, N.J., is the president and captain of the University of Delaware's women's rugby club.

The 45 Fightin' Blue Hens, as they are known to their fans, endure some broken collarbones and dislocated elbows playing the full contact sport with no padding. But they have no complaints about the pain.

"People start rugby and immediately fall in love with it," says Miss Reardon, 21. "We have some juniors who will never play on the 'A Team,' but they still come out."

Most of Delaware's rugby team played varsity sports in high school, but they sought a new athletic experience when they went to college, Miss Reardon says. Rugby caught her eye as a freshman, and she has been tackling opponents ever since.

All of Delaware's rugby players joined with no prior experience, although high school teams do exist. This presents the team with an added challenge at the start of each season.

With only two weeks before the first match each year, returning "veterans" give the "rookies" a crash-course in rugby fundamentals.

"It's pretty easy to pick up once you get the basic idea of how to play," Miss Reardon says.

Picking up the sport was one move she will never regret. In fact, she says, all of her best friends are current or former rugby players.

"For me, it made the school so much smaller," she says. "We are our own group of friends, like a sorority without the expensive dues."

With only $25 in dues each year, rugby is an inexpensive club sport that offers a wealth of athletic challenges and fun, both Mr. Henderson and Miss Reardon say.

In the midst of hectic class schedules and full social calendars, students play club sports to balance their college experience, says Maryann Rapposelli, assistant director of recreation services at the University of Delaware, which has 21 clubs.

"They are definitely athletic, but they don't want to have the time commitment and demands of a varsity sport," Miss Rapposelli says. "They're students who like to be active and competitive."

Above all, club athletes say the strong bond they form with their teammates is motivation enough to dedicate 10 to 20 hours a week to rowing, ice hockey or volleyball.

"Individuals get to travel all over the country to compete in regattas and hang out with a great group of people," Mr. Bowers says. "We compete as a team and also have fun as a team."

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