In 1852 the first American intercollegiate rowing contest took place on the calm New England waters of Lake Winnepesaukee. Young men enrolled in Yale and Harvard sat in long slender shells built for speed and went head-to-head to see whose team possessed more strength, poise and synchronicity.
Today, in 2007, nothing much has changed in the sport. It is still a team of athletes striving for the simplest of goals, to go faster than the boat next to them, in a narrow, precarious self-powered speed machine.
Saturday, November 3rd, the largest local rowing event of the year, the Head of the Marina, hosted by the California Yacht Club, was held in the main channel of Marina del Rey. Local clubs, individuals and colleges in single, double, four-person and eight-person vessels all hit the race course early in the morning to compete in this age-old sport.
There were teams of young kids whose hands were so small they could barely get a solid grip on the oar, older men with paunches and white handlebar mustaches, and every age in between. There was an equal dose of men and women at the event and this is indicative of the demographic of the sport in general.
In the last couple of decades, participation in junior and particularly women’s programs has soared. The surge in the women’s divisions has largely to do with “Title IX,” which seeks to insure federal funding is equally disbursed between men and women in college sports. This refers to “Title IX, the Education Amendments of 1972” to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“When women’s rowing became an NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) sport about ten years ago, it really exploded,” said UCLA rowing coach Paul Mokha. “And following suit, junior rowing, as a feeder, has grown dramatically all over the country.”
But while the junior and women’s programs have swelled in the warmth of Title IX, the men’s programs have struggled to remain in the mix. With mainstream sports like football and basketball eating much of the resources, rowing in some schools fights for a place.
“A lot of men’s programs have been dropped by their athletic departments,” said Mokha. “UCLA’s was [dropped], USC’s was — just recently Rutgers’ program was also dropped.”
Although some of these collegiate athletic departments aren’t supporting the sport, it apparently isn’t deterring athletes from coming and getting involved, and in substantial numbers. Many colleges, like UCLA, operate the sport on a club rather than a varsity level and have great success.
In Saturday’s race, the UCLA team members, with just four weeks of training under their belts, were using the Head of the Marina as their first true race of the year. The team was 80-men-strong and competing in a variety of divisions. There were eight-man teams, mostly novices, all getting their feet wet in their newly adopted sport, down to single rowers in one man skulls. And while the UCLA rowing team may not enjoy official varsity status, the teams are no less disciplined and train extremely hard for these events. On this newly formed squad, they do nine workouts a week — five in water and four in the gym.
As the team makes its way towards the spring competitions, the members will continue to get in top physical form and through a regimen of repetitive behavior, will slowly gel and become almost a single machine-like unit pulling the boat through the water.
Mokha points out that while it may look very simple, it’s the nuance of the sport that is so attractive and interesting.
“You have to get all eight people doing the exact same thing at the exact same time,” he said. “And that is a challenge. They have to keep the boat balanced, work perfectly together and are under such physical duress. It’s what people love about it and it’s what people hate about it.”