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Why Not Start a Rowing Club?

BY ANDY ANDERSON
PHOTO BY PETER SPURRIER

Summer is a great time for rowing—as are fall and spring. I guess winter is nice, too, in California or Florida or Seattle, but I’ve never experienced it there. At the conclusion of our scholastic season, I’m often asked by kids who have gotten turned on to rowing, “Where can I row this summer?” If only it were that easy. Most of the best summer programs fill up early, and although their numbers are increasing, there aren’t enough to accommodate all the rowers and coxswains who want to keep rowing.

Yes, there are rowing camps, usually held at colleges. But whatever someone can get out of a week of rowing and coaching, it hardly compares to club rowing, where you get to row and race. It’s not easy to find a club with available spaces; most of the established clubs have their own members to take care of. If you don’t happen to live in a rowing hub, you’ll need to find a place to live, not an easy task for a teenager. It’s not much easier if you are a college rower. 

There are development camps, of course, and for the cream of the crop, the U19 and U23 camps. But we need more summer rowing clubs. At the risk of sounding like I’m patting myself on the back, I want to tell you about a rowing club that two coaches and I started and that had a short but brilliant run. 

In the spring of 1979, Burt Apfelbaum, who had rowed at Trinity College with me and who was coaching at Mount Holyoke College, and I were talking about doing something different, something fun. What if he brought his varsity boat down to Hartford, and we mixed his athletes with the women I was coaching at Trinity? We boated two eights, ports from Holyoke with starboards from Trinity, and vice versa. We did pieces. The boats went fast. Competitors became friends. Everyone was psyched. Burt and I noticed that the level of intensity seemed higher than usual. The athletes wanted to impress their rivals. We were on to something.

About a week later, we talked again. I remember Burt saying, “It’s criminal that these women don’t have anywhere to go to keep rowing this summer.” Well, why not expand on what we had tried and start a rowing club? And take it to the NWRA nationals to race? (The National Women’s Rowing Association was a parallel organization to the National Association of Amateur Oarsmen; in 1982, the two organizations joined forces and became USRowing, the governing body.)

Our two colleges didn’t have enough athletes who wanted to row for another month. So we asked Debby Ayers De Angelis, the coach at UMass, to join us. Mount Holyoke was willing to house the women, and we could use the docks at UMass and the boathouse at Amherst College.  Coaches brought equipment from their respective colleges. The bulk of athletes joined the three of us who were their coaches, and word of mouth drew a few more. How we got women from Oregon I have no idea. We needed a name. Our host institutions were all in the Pioneer Valley. The Pioneer Valley Rowing Association was born. 

We didn’t have a budget. The athletes paid their own way. The coaches coached for free. We rowed twice a day on the Connecticut River in Amherst for three weeks. None of us had seat-raced much. At a small college, you know your athletes well, and it’s usually obvious who belongs in the varsity boat. But with athletes you don’t know, seat racing helps a lot. It also gives the athletes the opportunity to learn quickly who makes a boat go. It builds trust when you can say, “I won my seat race with Sue in the boat” or “When Rachel strokes, I can feel the power.” 

It was our goal to boat heavyweight and lightweight eights and fours. We wanted everyone to have two races. As we prepared to drive out to Detroit for the races, all of us were pleased with the rowing that had been done. It wasn’t really possible to have a goal because we had no idea how we would stack up against the powerhouses—women who had rowed for the USA, Yale, Wisconsin, Vesper, and other storied programs. 

The heats went well. The elite four looked across the water at the starting line and saw that they, the unknowns, were racing Lake Washington, whose stern pair had rowed for the USA the previous summer. Huge grins at just being in that field. And unbelievably, they won the heat. As we gathered the night before the finals, everyone was smiling. All of our boats had made the finals. Our elite coxed four had had the race of their lives in the heat and finished fifth; of the six finalists, they were the only one without a national-team member. The eight was third. Our lightweight four won gold. 

Our team chanted “PVRA, PVRA” at the launching dock and when they watched each other race. They were very loud. One coach told me that it was obnoxious. We loved it. 

I learned so much that summer by working with great athletes and bouncing ideas off other knowledgeable coaches. The next summer, we were even stronger, with women from across the country. That second year, we won a bunch of events and the overall-points trophy. After a few more years, PVRA expanded to include men. But that first summer when we were completely green was awesome. 

Sometimes it doesn’t matter whether you have a boathouse or great equipment. If you’ve got some talented, enthusiastic athletes and some passionate coaches, you can have a summer rowing club. 

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