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Steve Kelley

The Zen of Crew: heaven and hell on the water

Crew is a sport of great beauty and aching muscles, of singular effort and perfect teamwork. Over the next two weekends, Washington men's and women's varsity eights hope all that work and passion intersect with national championships.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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At 5:30 on a picture-postcard morning, the sun glitters diamonds off Lake Washington. A beaver scoots through the weeds. Swallows put on their air show, banking and diving, hunting for breakfast. And Mount Rainier looms royally above it all, emerging from the early haze.

This is the view from the dock on the backside of the University of Washington's Conibear Shellhouse, maybe the most beautiful place in sports.

Gradually the men from the Washington crew team arrive, on foot or on bikes, ready for another early morning on the lake, ready to amp their heart rates up to about 200 beats per minute, ready to test the limits of their endurance, ready to work their muscles to exhaustion.

On Lake Washington, there is rhythm in their motion as their shell glides along the lake. The eight rowers listen to their coxswain searching for the proper beat. Their coach hollers into his megaphone to pick up the pace, 18 strokes a minute, then 28, then 36.

"You know how Ichiro uses his whole body to generate speed?" Washington men's coach Michael Callahan says through the megaphone. "That's what I want you to do."

The sun glints off the oars after every muscular pull through the water. You can hear the sound of the water as it swooshes underneath the boat.

"There's this illusory clarity that comes from rowing well. It's one of the few times when the efforts of nine individuals can result in the calmness of complete cooperation," said Courty Stanton, who rowed at Oregon State and Washington and is a former coach at Lakeside School. "And when you race, you spend the whole race, all two kilometers of it, fighting your body, slowly inching toward pushing it over the edge, constantly terrified that, at any second, it's just going to stop working for you."

In rowing, heaven intersects with hell.

The late David Halberstam, writing in his beautiful book on rowing, "The Amateurs," described the source of the pain.

"The body quickly burns out its normal supply of oxygen and then it demands more," he wrote. "But less and less oxygen is available. That means the body is still producing high levels of energy, but it is making the [rower] pay for it by producing a great deal of lactic acid."

Still rowers attack their sport with demonic passion. They work harder. They keep more difficult hours and they receive less glory than any athletes in any other sport. Halberstam called it "a sport without faces."

College rowers practice hundreds of hours for a total of about one hour of racing for the season. In the winter, they come to practice in the dark. They row in the snow. And they row in isolation, far away from the adoring crowds that watch the football and basketball teams.

"There's not much fame to be had in this sport," Washington senior Rob Gibson said after a recent practice. "And we're fine with that. It's all about the team."

They row because they want to test themselves. And they row because they appreciate the shared sacrifice. They row for each other.

"All you have to do is take care of your part," Stanton said. "Trust that your teammates will do their part, and it just works itself out. It's very stoic, if you think about it. You only have to worry about what you have control over and when you sit down and tie in, all you have control over is yourself. The result is fairly meditative. I think that's something that's pretty unique."

Rowing is singularly selfless, which makes it unique in the 21st century. Sure the engineering has changed, but the competitive principles in the boat, the morals of the sport, have remained the same.

"This is the entitlement generation. This is the me generation," said Bob Ernst, Huskies director of rowing and women's coach, who has been coaching at UW for 35 years. "Our society now is all about what are you going to do for me. But I think the best gift these kids can give each other is the gift of learning how to be willing to give that much to each other."

Callahan says there is a unique dichotomy working in his sport.

"Some people try to define the divine of rowing, the secrets of rowing," he said. "And some are more like scientists. They're looking more at physiology and split times. I think our sport is a little like architecture, where it's art and it's also engineering. Rowing is somewhere in the middle.

"It's a little like football in the sense that there is the art of the battle, but there are also the X's and O's. It isn't one-dimensional. Here at Washington we've had our George Pococks, our spiritual leader. But he's also the engineer. He's been building these boats. That is rowing. It's the combination of those two things. I think that's its beauty. The mixing of art and engineering together."

Ernst played high-school and college football. He swam and played water polo. He also owned five motorcycles and a car when he was a college senior. He said when he discovered rowing, he knew it was the perfect marriage of his two recreational passions.

"I'm a technocrat," Ernst said from Princeton, N.J. "I've always been an athlete, but I've always liked machines, too. And the first time I saw a racing shell, I thought, 'Holy cow! This is awesome. This is like a Ferrari and we're the motor.' "

This weekend Washington begins the college season's final fortnight of racing. The women's team competes this weekend at the NCAA Championships in Princeton.

Next weekend, the men's team returns to Sacramento, where it finished third in the Pac-10 Championships, to compete in the IRA Championships.

"To train the athletes, so that they can make this thing go as fast as possible, is exotic," said Ernst. "And I think the thing that grabs the athletes more than anything else is that it does take a lot of training and a lot of commitment, but the team part of it is unbelievable.

"They've got to all be in unison or it doesn't work. It doesn't make any difference how strong you are, or how big you are. If they're not all together then it doesn't go."

Both Ernst and Callahan understand the specific aesthetics of their sport. Callahan, riding in the coaching launch adjacent to the shells, will take a break during practice to point out a bald eagle or a heron flying overhead. He'll celebrate days when the mountain is out.

"I think we're the most fortunate rowers in the world," Gibson said. "The scenery we get, it's pretty incredible."

Ernst paused at the end of one his team's training runs this week and asked the women to look back at the beauty of the tree-lined course they just rowed. He pointed out the architectural marvel of the stone bridges that crossed the narrowest points at Princeton's man-made lake.

Rowing is beautiful and it's a bear. When the boat is working well, Callahan says the feeling is like hitting a perfect drive, or making the ideal fly-cast. It is serendipitous.

"I like all of it," said Callahan, who won the bronze medal in the men's eight at the 2000 World Championship. "I like the shells. I like how they look. I like fixing them. I like being around them. I've always liked the guys on the team. And I like the common effort of what we are trying to accomplish."

It takes a Washington rowing legend, however, to crystallize the zen of his sport.

Stan Pocock, George's son, remembers a moment in a practice in the fall of 1946.

"I still tear up whenever I think of it," said the 85-year-old, standing in the sun on the dock before practice Thursday.

Coming in from a long row with a full moon rising, his boat was going fast, real fast.

"Things started to fly," Pocock said. "When it's going well, it's not hard work. You can't pull hard enough to hurt yourself. There was no noise, and that's the hallmark of a good crew. It was the most inspiring moment in one's life.

"I think anyone who's ever rowed in a boat that was going that well will tell you it's worth all the hard work that you ever give, even if you only experience that once in your life."

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

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About Steve Kelley

Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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