- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 12, 2002

Dawn spreads a rosy haze over the Potomac River on this mid-August morning. Though cool, the air hints at the sweltering heat to come. The river is peaceful, save for the gentle splash of oars in the water as four novice rowers learn to pull together in a racing shell.
They have joined the two-week "Learn to Row" program at Thompson's Boat Center on the Georgetown waterfront. For many, it is the first step in learning to row crew.
Long moored in collegiate waters, crew now appeals to a broader crowd. One reason is the development of an international masters program, open to anyone 27 years old or older. Another is that it offers a great way to work out outdoors.
During the past five years, the number of clubs belonging to the U.S. Rowing Association, the sport's national governing body, ballooned 50 percent, to 840, said Brett Johnson, communications director of the organization. And women are taking up this traditionally male-dominated sport like never before. Mr. Johnson says the number of NCAA women's teams doubled over the period to 140. Locally, rowers are clamoring for more boathouses on the Potomac and Anacostia rivers.
Beth Garcia, one of three women in the crew at Thompson's, decided to try the sport after a friend told her that "living in Washington and not rowing is like working here and not being a lawyer."
The D.C. resident loves sports, having tried swimming, softball, basketball and racquetball. But most other sports put stress on her wrists and caused tendinitis, which hampers her work as a sign-language interpreter. She hopes rowing will be easier on her wrists than other sports.
"The advantage of rowing, which is why it appeals to many masters, is that it's not an impact sport," says Margot Zalkind, masters director for U.S. Rowing. "It's a tremendous workout for your whole body."
As proof, she cites this year's Masters National Championship Regatta, held a month ago on the Occoquan Reservoir in Fairfax County. Oldest among the 1,100 competitors was a 91-year-old San Diego man. Many of the crews contained only rowers 55 and older, including two eight-woman boats.
Ms. Zalkind, who owns a graphic design studio in Arlington, took up rowing 14 years ago, while a student at the Philadelphia College of Art, under the impression that it was "cerebral."
"I had this Thomas Eakins view of the placid river and the beauty of the sport," she says. "But once I got into it, I also enjoyed the competitive aspect of it, which is a surprise, because I'd never been on a team in school."
She took to it and became a three-time winner in the masters division of the premier U.S. rowing race, the Head of the Charles Regatta, held every October on the Charles River in Boston. She points to the regatta's growing number of masters events as reflecting an increasing participation at post-collegiate levels.
Events at a regatta are of two types: sculling and sweep rowing. Sculling is done in shells (also called sculls) holding one, two or four rowers, each pulling two oars. Sweep rowing is done in shells holding two, four or eight rowers, each pulling one oar. Boats may or may not carry a coxswain (pronounced cox'n), except the eight, which always does, and the single, which never does. The coxswain steers the boat and serves as an on-board coach.
Contrary to popular belief, coxswains do not call out, "Stroke." They do monitor the stroke rate, however, by means of an electronic device called a cox box, and relate the information to the crew. It is up to the rearmost rower, dubbed the "stroke," to set the rate. Because rowers sit facing the stern, the others can follow the stroke's lead by watching the person in front of them or listening to the sound of the oar as the rhythm in the boat changes.
Rowers do an eyes-shut drill to perfect their timing. By listening to the splash of the water and the creak of the oarlock, they can match themselves to one another. Blind rowers do quite well. Whether by sight or sound, the result is teamwork.
"When a boat clicks, it's perfect timing with other people," Ms. Zalkind said. "When you get to that point, it's a phenomenal, wonderful feeling because the boat will just glide."
Sometimes, when the timing and the stroke are just right, the boat will ride so high in the water that bubbles will gurgle under the hull.
That is a much sought-after sound that may take Ms. Garcia, and others starting out, months or years to hear. After completing Thompson's Learn to Row program or classes offered at other local boat clubs, rowers will typically take intermediate level courses for about a year. Then they are ready to join any of a half-dozen clubs in the Washington area, an increasing number of which have masters programs, and find a place on a team.

Unless, of course, you happen to be Robert Parke, who took a different route into the sport. He bought a one-man scull, paying $2,000 for a used one before he knew how to row. So unstable are the narrow racing craft that as soon as he tried out the boat, he flipped it. He decided he needed to learn in a more stable boat. So he rented a wherry, a rowboat with a broader beam than a scull, from Thompson's and took lessons in rowing for two weeks. He tried the scull again and he could row.
When he joined the Potomac Boat Club 13 years ago, he had been sculling on his own for a decade. That plus what he calls a "natural ability" made it easy for him to learn sweep rowing, which he did in one hour with a pick-up crew at the club and "some world-class coaching."
He fell in love with the sport as a teenager, when his parents took him to the 1956 Henley Royal Regatta on the Thames. It was the festiveness of this long-standing annual British event, as much a social occasion as a race, that hooked him. Not until moving to Washington, though, did he take up the sport.
Mr. Parke is a participant in many regattas and calls the competition "gentlemanly." His dedication to rowing means getting up before dawn most weekdays. After an hour and a half on the river, he bicycles across the Key Bridge to the State Department's Rosslyn office, where he designs overseas buildings.
He also rows on Sunday. Then he usually climbs the "Exorcist" stairs the narrow steps connecting Prospect Street in Georgetown to M Street below, made famous in William Peter Blatty's novel "The Exorcist" and subsequent 1973 movie from his club to the Tombs for brunch.
In the shadow of Georgetown University's spires, the Tombs is the place for rowing ambience off the water. Pictures of crews line its dark, wood-paneled walls, as do oar blades from famous teams.
Rowers regularly convene there after early-morning outings on the river from March to November, the sport's prime season in Washington. They swap stories about stroke rates, discuss the latest equipment or recall their favorite regattas. Over chocolate chip pancakes and sausages last month, Mr. Parke fondly remembered his visits to the Head of the Charles.
"It's like a great festival," of the largest two-day gathering of rowers in the world. "You meet up there with your friends. You bunk up together in somebody's basement. The camaraderie is unbelievable. Then the pigouts at your favorite restaurants afterwards and drinking all the beer you can, celebrating. All that is so wonderful and so much fun and so intense that it transcends the fact that you're there to beat somebody else, although you're doing that as well. Every aspect of celebration is there."

The first documented rowing race took place on England's Thames River in 1715. It became a British tradition. By 1839 the Henley Royal Regatta, the most famous of all rowing races, was being run on the Thames, where it continues annually to this day.
On this side of the Atlantic, rowing got into full swing in 1852 with the first running of its oldest American intercollegiate event, the long-standing Harvard-Yale race. From the outset, this race changed the face of rowing.
Harvard won the race that year because of the advent of new technology.Crew members greased the seats of their leather pants, which allowed them to slide every time they pulled the oars. This added leverage to the fulcrum on which their oars turned, allowing their whole bodies to get behind their oars, rather than just their arms.
Not to be outdone, Yale rowers put their seats on wooden rollers the next year. Thus began a series of innovations that culminated in the modern seat, which slides back and forth on runners during each stroke cycle.
Contrary to first appearances, it is the rowers' legs that provide the boat's main force as they push back the seat. Beyond that, the abdominal, arm and back muscles come into play. So many muscles go into each stroke that rowers are often called the world's fittest athletes. They keep improving their technique to go faster.
One person who loves going fast is Maura McVeigh, who spent the summer coaching Thompson's Learn to Row program. The Arlington native shows a natural instinct for racing:
"When you get next to another boat and you're side by side, it gets crazy," says Ms. McVeigh, who begins her sophmore year at Mount Holyoke College this month. "You just start wanting to go faster and faster."

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