Forever Rowing Upstream
By Skip Rozen
Wall Street Journal
Unbeknownst to even the most rabid sports fans, one of America’s oldest and most storied athletic disciplines is pursued daily on a nearby river, lake or
bay. Thousands of people power racing shells, narrow boats 26 feet to 60 feet long (depending on the number of rowers, from one to eight). Some row slowly
and methodically; others push themselves to their physical limit, the long heavy oars hitting the water up to 45 times a minute, their muscles tortured
and their lungs burning.
It’s understandable if you haven’t noticed: Rowers frequently start at 5:30 a.m., before most of us leave for work. What’s surprising is how ignorant we
are of big-time regattas.
Even for a non-Olympic year, this was a busy season. Last weekend in Lucerne, Switzerland, U.S. rowers finished fourth among 37 countries competing at
the third of three World Cup regattas. On the last Saturday of June, 21 titles were awarded at the 138th U.S. Rowing National Championships on Mercer
Lake in New Jersey. Earlier that month, the University of Washington men took first at the Intercollegiate Rowing Association National Championships in
early June; Stanford University women won the NCAA championships in May.
Results made few newspapers and rated nary a second of ESPN coverage.
“That’s a problem for us,” conceded Glenn Merry, head of U.S. Rowing, the sport’s national governing body, in a phone interview. “Right now we have
maybe 150,000 who regularly participate in a sport out of a population of 300 million. To most Americans, we’re just not relevant.”
This is sad for a sport with a rich heritage. Rowing was the first American collegiate sport, predating football in 1852 by 17 years. College teams
won gold medals in eight consecutive Olympics from 1920 through 1956 in the men’s eight, the most prominent event.
That early success, hard won by crews from such schools as the Naval Academy and Yale, earned rowing a wholesome image. But today’s multibillion-dollar
sports machines are driven by stars, money and violence. A team sport with no professional league, rowing has been ignored by television-the fan’s
conduit to sports. Yet U.S. Rowing estimates that 85,000 people now row competitively, up from 32,000 in 1986; an additional 65,000 row recreationally.
Occasionally races draw crowds: Boston’s Head of the Charles regatta claims an attendance of 300,000 over its two days each October.
While high schools and colleges form rowing’s core, the new growth is aided by community rowing clubs. They are everywhere where there’s water: Boulder,
Colo. and Alexandria, Va.; New York City, Chicago, Oklahoma City and throughout Canada.
One of the busiest is Community Rowing Inc. on Boston’s Charles River, a nonprofit organization that helps its 1,560 youth and adult participants row
at introductory and competitive levels. CRI began in 1985, when Harvard coach Harry Parker opened his facilities to new rowers. It offers classes for a
fee to anyone and community outreach free to more than 200 teenage girls from the Boston area-“a third black, a third white, and a third from all over,”
according to CRI.
“Once the sport realized that the perception was the only way to get into the water was to attend an elite college, people worked really hard to change
that,” said director Bruce Smith from the new CRI boathouse. “Community rowing exists because a bunch of those elite people said we’ve got to open the
doors of this sport.” Rowing’s image as a sport for the wealthy and white troubled U.S. Rowing enough to create a new position, inclusion manager, and
hire Richard Butler in May. His exact duties are as yet undefined, but he might start by examining the work of CRI.
At 5:30 on a recent Friday morning, dozens of boats propelled by a diverse group of rowers left the CRI dock: women in the four-oared shells with
coxswain-a nonrowing on-board coach who steers the boat-and men in their four, each rower with a single oar, all members of the competitive groups;
women just learning in their eight-person shells, and lots and lots of scullers, singles and doubles and quads-boats with one, two or four rowers, each
with two oars. They glided up river and down river, under the bridges of Boston, nearly silent except for the occasional correction of a coach from an
accompanying motor launch.
Other Boston boathouses offer learner programs, part of a nationwide effort to popularize rowing. But increased numbers have not translated into Olympic
success. Rowing is our third-largest Olympic team, behind track-and-field and swimming, but it produced only three medals in 2008, compared with 31 for
swimming and 23 for track and field. The U.S. Olympic Committee blames an emphasis on big boats, reasoning that eight rowers could conceivably win medals
in three or more smaller boats.
“They asked what it will take to move the other events forward,” according to Mr. Merry, making it clear that the USOC uses funding for leverage. “If we
weren’t willing to make more of an effort in the other events, they would have to put more money into another sport, like sailing. We’re working on that.”
But U.S. Olympic problems are not limited to a division of effort. Because rowers traditionally start in high school or college, even the best don’t
reach an elite level until their late 20s. This pushes the strenuous training of advanced rowing up against studies and career, causing many to quit.
The dropout rate for freshman rowers is as high as 90%.
Collin Buesser, with high-school experience and a family tradition of rowing, left Northeastern’s crew after his freshman year in 2008. “We trained two,
three hours every morning starting at 5:45 and then another two to three hours in the afternoon,” he said. “I just couldn’t balance all that with nine
hours of homework.”
Plenty do manage, however. They put in their hours at college and clubs dedicated to rowing. One of the oldest is the Riverside Boat Club, just down the
Charles from CRI. Its 210 members pay $550 a year and often row 11 times a week, training to compete against other clubs and some of the nation’s best at
“It’s almost like it’s this closet subculture,” said Riverside trustee Kate Sullivan one recent morning as early rowers took to the water. “On the one
hand, it’s too bad. Then again, it isn’t.”
For some rowers, anonymity is part of their bond.
-Mr. Rozin writes about sports for the Journal.-