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Boom on the bow

Champion Digital | By Gary Brown

Thousands of people line the streets and bridges. They parade down pathways parting tents touting “Chowda in a Bread Bowl,” hot chocolate and cheese fries. An announcer’s voice reverberates results. The chattering throng cheers threads of athletes coursing toward completion.

It’s a major sporting event all right, but probably not your first guess.

For two days every fall, Boston is overrun by seafaring men and women of all ages attracted to bow-shaped boats 50 feet long and 2 feet wide propelled by broad-shouldered, thick-thighed young adults who synchronistically steer their crafts.

It’s not just any regatta. It’s the Head of the Charles, the world’s largest two-day rowing event that convenes 300,000-plus zealots ready to convince anyone who will listen that their sport is the best sport.

This spring at Eagle Creek Park in Indianapolis, thousands more will repeat that refrain at the 17th annual NCAA Women’s Rowing Championships. If rowing isn’t the world’s premier spectator sport, there certainly are enough people watching its progress to make you think otherwise.

“Every time I’m at the NCAA championship and they play that national anthem, I always remember exactly where I was standing and how I felt at the first one,” said Yale Associate AD Barb Chesler, who chaired the committee that launched the inaugural championship in Sacramento, Calif., in 1997. “I’m just elated beyond words to say I was a part of it and to see the growth since.”NCAA people are watching, to be sure. They saw something they liked enough in the 1990s to establish the women’s version as the Association’s 22nd championship sport. Fitting an activity rooted in centuries of tradition in front of the NCAA’s regulatory rudder wasn’t easy – to some it wasn’t even welcome – but the NCAA regattas certainly haven’t been regretted.

That growth has come in waves.

In 1981-82, when the NCAA began tracking sports sponsorship at member schools, there were just 43 that offered women’s rowing, with 28 of those in Division I. That total more than doubled by the time the NCAA made it a championship sport. Today, 142 NCAA members sponsor it – 85 in Division I, 17 in Division II and 40 in Division III.

That means about 7,000 women are stroking their way toward graduation, and about 5,400 of them in Divisions I and II are earning scholarship dollars to do it. According to the NCAA’s latest research, Division I schools at the median are allocating about $250,000 in athletics aid for rowing; in Division II, that figure is $46,000.

That’s good news to a lot of rowers and their coaches – and the people who fought for the NCAA championship as a way to add opportunities for women.

“The evolution from the 1980s during which women’s rowing was sort of an afterthought to now when schools are spending a quarter to half a million annually on scholarships – holy cow, that’s big stuff,” said University of Washington women’s coach Bob Ernst. “I doubt that USRowing has that kind of budget for its women’s national team.”

That’s precisely what advocates of the transition to the NCAA were hoping for. To ensure maximum opportunities, though, that first committee had to stick more than just its toe in the water. Rather than just racing to see who had the fastest boat, as the rowing community had been accustomed to doing, the NCAA committee wanted to see who had the fastest team.

The selling point, according to Smith College Athletics Director Lynn Oberbillig, who was on that first committee, was being able to race two eights and a four at a national championship. That meant schools could bring a lot of rowers, which was good for the sport, and the NCAA was going to pay for it.

In addition, though, the committee left room for at-large berths in the varsity eight, which accommodated developing programs that may have had some good rowers but not the depth for the team component.

For a while, whoever won the varsity eight did win the team title. It took six years before Brown captured the team trophy without winning the event’s most prestigious race.“That helped coaches buy into what we were selling, because if you had just eight good rowers and a coxswain, you could make the national tournament,” Oberbillig said. “That satisfied people in the sport who still felt that winning the varsity eight was better than winning the team title.”

John Murphy, who along with his wife, Phoebe, coached the Bears then and continues to do so, has become regarded as the master of the team aspect. The Bears have won three of the past six team championships without winning the varsity eight.

“It’s funny with tradition,” Murphy said of the transition of the sport he had been involved with for a decade before the NCAA took it over. “You can cling to tradition and think it’s all-important, but when a good alternative comes along, you can move in that direction, and that’s what’s happened with women’s rowing. The idea of a team championship – I remember thinking, ‘How could we have such a thing?’ Well, we had an associate AD at the time who said to me with a funny look on his face, ‘If you win it, you’ll learn to like it.’ It was very true.”

Oberbillig said as the championship wore on, and because of the way the trophies were presented with the team award going last, the team element became the valued prize. The committee’s strategy worked. The team component became important to schools like Brown and Princeton that had broad-based programs.

“It allowed them to get faster even at the top because everyone was valued at the lower levels and it kept rowers engaged over their four years,” she said. “It has had the effect of making crews faster by going for the team title early on – then they get to where their varsity eight wins. Teams that focus only on the varsity eight may struggle to maintain a boat as always being fast.”


Rowing gets to have it both ways now. At the “head races” like the Charles, there’s no team champion – just good, old-fashioned racing.


Rowing is the only sport that sends some of its participants up the creek without a paddle. These oarless wonders, called coxswains, don’t carry a big stick, but they sure act like they do.

Just ask 2012 Radcliffe grad Liz Soutter, who usually occupied the five seat in the Black and White Varsity Eight, about her diminutive teammate Jill Carlson, who was the only person in the boat facing the finish line.


“Many people who don’t understand this sport say they wouldn’t like it if someone who wasn’t actually doing it was telling them what to do,” Soutter said during a break at the Head of the Charles in October. “A coxswain is a very strange role on an athletics team, obviously because they’re not doing the physical aspect of the sport, and most people characterize sport as something very physical. But a good coxswain who wants to be successful and who wants her team to be successful has to show through her dedication and commitment that she is willing to sacrifice just as much as the rower.”

Coxswains are essentially little generals in the boat. And they’re almost always saying something – often rather loudly – to encourage their crew mates. At a race like the Charles, which is six minutes long, that’s quite a monologue.

“A lot of it is tone rather than what you say,” Carlson said. “You’ll hear a lot of coxswains talk about ‘rhythm speak,’ where you’re just kind of saying gibberish, but it’s in the rhythm of the stroke such that it helps the rowers in the boat come together.”

Former Washington College coxswain Kelsie Jensen calls her coxing style “fierce.”

“I know what I want, and I make sure I get what I want,” said the youngest of four siblings – all of whom rowed for the Shorewomen.

That kind of “coxiness” can be a fine line for the women actually pulling their weight. Soutter said rowers hardly talk during a race or practice run, “but at the end of a workout you tell her what you really liked because it’s important that they know what you like so that they keep doing it.”

What Carlson likes is winning, which Radcliffe frequently does. That requires a ton of work and commitment, even for the folks not rowing.

“The sheer amount of time and training and miles that you put in for a six- or seven-minute race is just an astounding ratio,” Carlson said. “I even feel that way as a coxswain, even though I’m not putting in the miles on the erg, I feel like I live at this boathouse.”

How does a coxswain train?

“It’s a tricky balance,” she said. “You’re always at the boathouse because you’re showing that solidarity, but it doesn’t behoove anyone for a coxswain to get on the erg.”

“Unless you want to make us laugh,” Soutter said.

Washington College coach Mike Davenport called the Charles “a Grateful Dead concert with a lot of shells in it.” He wasn’t exaggerating much, though the regatta crowd tends to be a little more nattily attired and the race is a nonsmoking event. While it can be an Uncle John’s Band atmosphere on the banks and boulevards, on the water it can be a long, strange trip indeed.

The Head of the Charles was first held Oct. 16, 1965. The race was established by the Cambridge Boat Club under the advice of Harvard sculling instructor Ernest Arlett, who sought something similar to the races he was familiar with in his native England.

The NCAA championship is held on a lake (as are most sprint races), with crews rowing side by side in heated competitions. Head races, on the other hand, send boats from the starting line sequentially on a three-mile trek through whatever turns the river affords. Crews race against the clock more than against each other, though passing can be hairy – even confrontational. Those who think of rowing as perhaps overly polite ought to witness coxswains verbally spar during a head race turn.

Former Washington College cox Kelsie Jensen likened navigating her crew at the Charles to driving a race car. “You get to swerve in and out and pick your points and go with it,” she said after steering her four boat to an 11th-place finish among 33 competitors.

Head races are traditionally held during rowing’s nontraditional season. Davenport said that if rowing were track, the head races would be cross country, while the spring is more lane-oriented. The Charles is the most popular (at least in the United States), but there are others in Philadelphia (Head of the Schuylkill), Chattanooga, Tenn. (Head of the Hooch), and elsewhere.

They’re more laid back than an NCAA championship, but not much. Brown’s Murphy said crews used to bring older boats to the Charles in case of collisions (and there are some, to be sure), but over time that changed with an increased desire to win.

What head races can do to the unsuspecting observer is chip away at the stereotype of rowing as an elitist sport. While rowing might conjure up descriptors like “high-brow” or “aristocratic,” the sport’s history suggests a more blue-collar upbringing. A biography of the rowing program at Brown says competitive rowing goes back 2,500 years, rooted in “transportation, warfare and occasional competition.” It wasn’t long before these competitions prompted bets from those who watched them.

The authors of “Ever True, the History of Brown Crew” claim the first reported rowing contest in the U.S. was in 1811 between crews from New York Bay and Long Island Sound. They say rowing as a sport was inevitable because of its popularity on the waterways of the northeastern part of the country. Many chroniclers point to the 1852 Yale-Harvard race on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire as the real origin of rowing in the United States, but both schools had been holding inter-class competitions for several years by then.

That 1852 race certainly may have been the first to have a corporate sponsor. The Boston, Concord and Montreal Railroad wanted to promote excursion trains to the area, so it sponsored a pair of races two days apart to encourage trips. The railroad also paid for the participants’ travel, food and drink (perhaps the predecessor to per diem!).

“These perks were significant,” the authors of “Ever True” wrote, “as the early rowing programs of Harvard and Yale were scraping to put boats on the water. In many ways, the just-getting-by nature of intercollegiate rowing had varied little in 150 years. While it is true that the nature of some programs – Harvard, Yale and Princeton among them – gives the appearance of never needing anything when it comes to boats and travel, even these citadels of plenty have tiny budgets compared with the football and basketball programs at their schools. In the meantime, most collegiate rowing programs are frequently keeping boats on the water with a combination of duct tape, glue and force of will.”

One of those early races also could have produced the first NCAA rules violation, had the Association been invented at the time. Former Notre Dame football player and author Michael Oriard in a presentation at the 2012 NCAA Convention said that at the second intercollegiate competition between Harvard and Yale in 1855, Harvard allegedly used a coxswain from the 1852 boat who had subsequently graduated from the university. Yale protested, but Harvard refused to remove him from the boat and proceeded to win the race.

So, what makes rowing so fascinating? After all, it can appear to the unsuspecting onlooker more like a workout than a race. And it is the only sport in which competitors win going backward.

Citing the sport’s tradition again, Radcliffe coach Liz O’Leary (Radcliffe is the name of Harvard’s women’s team; see related story below) said some programs in the 1930s used rowing to improve women’s posture – hardly a lure for today’s student-athletes.

O’Leary said what appeals to participants is indeed the team aspect. There tends not to be the “superstar” factor in rowing the way there can be in basketball or other team sports.

“All nine of you either win or lose,” she said. “It’s not just about how hard you can pull, but how hard you pull with your teammates and how effectively you match up with what they’re doing and they with you.”

The easier it looks, the better a crew is doing, O’Leary said. And if it looks easy, it really isn’t.

“Think about it,” she said. “Anything you can do at maximum intensity and heart rate for 6 ½ minutes – it’s very much a power sport. It’s a remarkable accomplishment. But if you’re doing it right, it looks beautiful. All the blades go in and out of the water together; bodies swing together, arms are in synchrony.

“What you learn about yourself in terms of how to be a successful team, how to be your best, how to bring out the best in others, how to handle success and failure – everything that any other sport teaches young people – certainly comes out in rowing.”

People from Brown don’t often agree with their Radcliffe mates, but when it comes to rowing, Bears coach Murphy sees eye to eye with his Ivy League peer.

“In a lot of sports, one person can really step up and make a great catch or hit a home run. In rowing, you’re all in it together, and those things haven’t changed over time,” he said. “The technology has changed – the boats are made from carbon fiber instead of wood – but it’s pretty much the same sport it always has been.”

It also appeals to people who have never done it before. Almost all college programs have novice teams in addition to their varsity squads.

O’Leary said many prospective rowers come into the boathouse having no idea what they’re getting into, yet come around to appreciate what rowing offers. “One of the great things about women’s rowing is that you still can be a novice as a freshman and grow to be a competitor at the NCAAs not too long afterward,” she said. “You don’t have to have rowed since you were 9, the way most other sports sort of expect.”

The impact on the novice programs in fact was a concern during the NCAA transition.

Oberbillig, the Smith AD, said how coaches “boated” rowers in the old days was a big concern, since the team concept encouraged a different strategy.

Many programs at the time weren’t three boats deep (two eights and a four), meaning coaches really wanted to use their novices in the varsity, but they wanted to row those athletes in novice races during the year. That coincides with a culture in rowing where first-timers come up through the novice programs and bond with people who are learning the sport together. They get hooked on the sport and row against others who are having that same experience. Thus they can have success right away, which attracts them to stay.


In rowing, no school clings to tradition more tightly than Harvard, where the women’s rowing team doesn’t even use the same school name or colors as the men’s. Harvard’s women’s crew goes by “Radcliffe,” which is what the women’s college was named before it merged with the men’s college in the early 1970s.

At the time, women’s teams had the chance to determine what they would call themselves. Every sport except rowing picked Harvard.

“The rowers said no, that’s how we started and we’re going to hang onto that,” said coach Liz O’Leary, who began her coaching career at Harvard – er, uh, Radcliffe, in 1986. “Black and white are our colors, not crimson. So yes, tradition is an important part of rowing here.”

Most of the bigger programs also had a novice coach who essentially ran a separate program and did not serve as a traditional assistant to the head coach. But similar to minor-league baseball coaches who lose their top players in the middle of a Major League pennant race, varsity coaches would pluck the better novice rowers for the big varsity races late in the season.


But under the system the committee was proposing, regular-season performance was going to determine which schools would earn postseason berths, so it was important that the lineups be consistent. That meant no “novice raiding” late in the game, but it also forced coaches to evaluate talent earlier and change the novice culture.

The committee knew that was a concern, but Oberbillig said, “Those of us with a more team-sport background couldn’t understand why you wouldn’t put your best rowers out there from the start – why would you have some of them in this lower-level program when they achieved more and should be with the other people coming off the bench?

“So it was what we were doing to novice rowing that bothered a lot of people. Some people still argue that we ​ruined it – but I think what we did is that rowers who came in with experience, instead of ending up on the novice teams, were being integrated with the varsity right away, while the true beginners remained with the novice program.”


Perhaps the most curious thing about the sport these days is that if the women are having such a great time rowing for NCAA championships, why don’t the men come along for the ride? Men’s rowing is older than football at many universities, and some schools already count it among their varsity offerings. While it’s unlikely there’ll be an NCAA men’s championship anytime soon, there are more advocates for that outcome now than there used to be.

Coaches like Murphy, who had to do some thinking before accepting the NCAA invasion, can see the same wheels turning in the minds of men’s coaches.

“What the men have is that they really control their sport. They don’t have all the good things that come with the NCAA but they really feel like they have that control,” Murphy said. “When women’s rowing changed over, no one really knew what to think. We had been part of a league where we didn’t have many rules, and the NCAA came in with a lot of rules. People might have been a little upset by that – it wasn’t like coaches were going to sit around and run their own regatta anymore. It was going to be run by officials and you were going to have to qualify. People were a little nervous about that.”

Murphy said it didn’t take long for him to realize that the NCAA could provide something exceptional. On the men’s side, though, he said there are certain coaches who don’t want to give up that control, while others want the good things like scholarships and the added visibility.

Those are the same factors the women’s coaches weighed two decades ago. Radcliffe’s O’Leary said women’s rowing has changed since the NCAA began sponsoring championships because it’s no longer a coach-driven sport. The coaches remain unified, but the NCAA is a strong and powerful organization not necessarily driven by what rowing wants.

“There are some things we have given up in order to have a national championship, but the championship is a remarkably exciting, competitive and spectacular event,” she said. “We’ve lost only a little bit of control in the process. But it’s always hard to give up that control.”

John Fuchs, the head coach of the seven-time Division II champion Western Washington women’s team, said the “old school” on the men’s side doesn’t want to relinquish its control and tradition, while moderate and younger coaches have seen what the NCAA did for women’s rowing and want to jump on board.

From left: The Cambridge Boat Club offers a festive perspective; Washington College rowers react to their better-than-expected finish; There’s always a time and place for a little practice.

“The trick will be how to meld the old with the new and move men’s rowing into the future,” he said. “I would enjoy seeing a poll on the subject, not from the coaches but from the athletes. If a move to the NCAA is in the future, a major topic will be scholarships and funding.”

Ernst, the University of Washington women’s coach who used to coach the men’s team there for many years, gets juiced at the thought of men’s teams rowing on NCAA waters.

“Sports like ours, if you don’t make it a spectacle, you end up with a bunch of people coming out to watch grapes grow. The Charles is a spectacle. That’s what we want,” he said. “We want our guys and gals to feel like they’re part of a team. That’s why if the NCAA had a joint championship – oh my God, it would be great.

“There are getting to be more and more men’s coaches who want that experience. And if we offered a logical format and a joint championship, people would dive on it, and selling it to the media would be a cakewalk.”

It might even be as popular as a Grateful Dead concert.


This feature originally appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of NCAA Champion Magazine.