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Originally published May 5, 2011 at 10:24 PM | Page modified May 6, 2011 at 11:58 AM

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Jerry Brewer

Washington crew: Seattle's greatest sports juggernaut

Dominant and enduring, the Huskies rowing program is 108 years old and still in its prime. How has it remained relevant in Seattle's varied sports scene?

Seattle Times staff columnist

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The University of Washington crew program, the most acclaimed and enduringly dominant of all Seattle sports teams, is revered and anonymous at once.

Rowers proudly call their sport a faceless one and consider it the ultimate team game, but in this sporting era of individualism and superstar branding, the crew culture doesn't translate to a mass audience. And so there is a paradox within a legacy.

Just as great rowing seems effortless and masks its extreme physical demands, the Huskies are a contradiction of unprecedented prestige and diminished popularity, at least with the average sports fan.

At 108 years old and still in its prime, the Washington crew program will compete in the 25th annual Windermere Cup races Saturday, the centerpiece of boating season's opening day. The program remains the greatest sporting juggernaut in this city — and it's not even close. But despite its tradition of national championships, Olympic medals and historic feats, crew has more of a niche reputation in a Seattle sports market that has grown larger and more varied over the past 40 years.

It's funny to say that, though, because rowing helped to develop Seattle's palate for sports. Washington was the first to disprove the notion that this isolated Pacific Northwest city couldn't become renowned for athletic greatness.

Famed broadcaster Keith Jackson, who worked in Seattle radio and television before joining ABC in 1964, says Washington rowing helped transform this region's sports psyche.

"There are two things that changed the landscape of sport in the Pacific Northwest — that changed the belief that the region was isolated and ignored and relegated to regional pride — and that's the 1958 Washington crew triumph in the Soviet Union during the Cold War and the back-to-back Rose Bowl victories by the Huskies in football in 1960 and 1961," he says. "They both changed the landscape of Seattle and sport.

"The crew victory came first, and it was a big deal. The fervor didn't last as long as what would come after those two Rose Bowl teams. But it was the start of a significant change in perception."

By 1967, Seattle landed an NBA team, and in 1969, Major League Baseball arrived, beginning a flood of pro sports that has ebbed and flowed. The Seattle Pilots relocated to Milwaukee after only a year. In the 1970s, the NFL arrived, and MLB returned. The NBA team was ripped away in 2008. The WNBA and Major League Soccer have built solid fan bases.

But before professional sports, before Washington football enhanced its tradition, before hydroplane racing roared into the picture, the famed Huskies oarsmen won over Seattle. They symbolized this city's humble, gritty work ethic and brought national relevance to the area. Then they made an international imprint.

The men's varsity eight won a gold medal in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, to the chagrin of Adolf Hitler. Local author Daniel James Brown is writing a book ("The Boys in the Boat") about that feat. The Weinstein Co., which distributed the Academy Award-winning film "The King's Speech," has already purchased the movie rights to the book.

In 1958, the Huskies went behind the Iron Curtain and won the Moscow Cup in a landmark sporting event of the Cold War. Jackson followed the team to Moscow and broadcast the race on KOMO-AM radio, a first for an American sports announcer on Russian soil.

Washington rowers haven't just made their own history; they've been on the fringe of social change.

"Washington rowing is about opportunity," said Bob Ernst, the UW rowing director and women's coach. "It's not about entitlement. It's about opportunity. I remember Dick Erickson (former coach and member of the 1958 varsity eight) saying it over and over again: 'A kid can show up here having never seen a shell before and wind up being an Olympic champion.' Our sport is special in that way."

The sport isn't as mesmerizing to the general population as it used to be, but the Seattle area still has a large, vibrant and active rowing community that supports and reveres the Huskies. Though times change and interests diversify, the standard of excellence never slips at the Huskies' boathouse.

The Washington men have won 13 Intercollegiate Rowing Association national titles. The women have won 11 NCAA national titles. Rowers from the program have competed in 13 Olympic Games, dating back to 1936, most of them earning medals. Eight UW coaches have been Olympic coaches.

Those accomplishments are even more amazing when you consider the sport's slim margin for error. Tenths of seconds can determine winning and losing. Crew athletes train for the entire year just to compete in about five races. For the men, that's less than 30 minutes of competition. For the women, it's less than 40. And at Washington, the expectation is to have the fastest boats, always.

"Washington rowing is kind of like the American ethic," Ernst said. "If you get second, people want to know, 'Wow, what happened to you guys?' "

The sport has changed. The Washington rowing program is no longer reserved mostly for local kids who compete for pride. Washington gives scholarships to the men and women now. The program has a $2.5 million operating budget and recruits internationally. But the evolution hasn't altered athletes' mission to honor and elevate the legacy.

"It becomes a part of who you are," said Kerry Simmonds, the senior captain of the women's team. "I'm extremely fortunate to be a part of this program. It's hard to even think about what my college experience would've been like without rowing. My life wouldn't be as fulfilling, I don't think."

The Huskies are dominant and dependable. They don't galvanize local sports fans anymore. They stabilize them. As long as Washington crew is good, there's hope for some of Seattle's blunder-plagued teams.

"If I ever get trapped in an alley, I'll tell you what — I'd like a No. 5 man behind my back," Jackson said. "Those are strong suckers."

Fortunately, those strong suckers still have the city's back.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com, Twitter: @Jerry_Brewer

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