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Water World

The Evergreen State boasts an unmatched rowing tradition 100 years in the making

By Grant Wahl

Dusk in Seattle, and the U-Dub crew is still on the water. To the rhythmic zep of oars acting as one, a pair of eight-man shells glide east along the teeming channel, past the shipwrights, houseboats and pleasure-craft slips, under the traffic-choked Fremont Bridge and into the urban amphitheater of Lake Union. It's an arresting sight, the Space Needle and the Emerald City skyline glowing in the setting sun, and yet there's no time to gawk. "Coxies, let's get a little sweaty out here!" Washington coach Bob Ernst chirps into a megaphone, easing his launch alongside the shells. "Full pressure! I want the water on fire!"

And so the Huskies grit their teeth and ignite, continuing a tradition that has gripped the Pacific Northwest for a century. Sunday's Head of the Lake Regatta, held on Lake Washington, completed the fall portion of UW's 101st year of rowing, starting on June 3, 1903, with a three-length victory over hated Cal. The decades since have been wrapped in glory, from the Huskies' 72 national crowns (23 by varsity eights) to a role in cold war diplomacy, from wins at England's Henley Regatta to an Olympic triumph chosen by a Seattle newspaper -- over Rose Bowls, baseball playoffs and an NBA title -- as the city's greatest sports feat of the 20th century.

From that first race in 1903, when 5,000 fans gathered by foot, boat and carriage, Sea-town and rowing have been a perfect fit. "We have a huge water-oriented community, and nobody has a more beautiful venue for the sport," says Ernst, a four-time U.S. Olympic coach. "You look out here this morning, and there's the sunrise and the water's glassy and Mount Rainier has snow on top. The Northwest is all about the water and the timber and the hills, and rowing slides right in there."

"It's part of our identity and culture," says Eric Cohen, a former Huskies coxswain who has written an exhaustive history of the program. "Even though 80 to 90 percent of the men and women who turn out for the sport never letter, they still come to the races, talk about it with their friends and consider it a big part of their experience growing up. Then they encourage their kids to row."

No event captures the Puget Sound's maritime madness better than Opening Day, the annual yacht parade that has celebrated the start of boating season (and the end of Seattle's dreary winter) since 1909. On the first Saturday in May, as many as 60,000 rowdies fill the banks and boats along the narrow Montlake Cut near the UW campus to drink Hale's Ales and check out the procession of 50-foot Bridgedecks, 40-foot Chris-Crafts and 115-foot powerboats -- but not before the Washington crews take on international and collegiate rivals in the Windermere Cup, a unique rowing spectacle.

"It's amazing," says Mary Reeves, the Huskies' women's senior stroke. "People line their yachts up along the log boom [on Lake Washington] for a week before the race, so you literally have them cheering for you all the way down. Then you get to the Cut, and it's just packed." So deafening is the echo chamber that coxswains turn their electronic cox boxes up to 11 -- and still can't get through to their teams.

Best of all for the fans, Opening Day doesn't cost a dime. It's only one of the many enduring (and endearing) symbols of Washington rowing, joining the Huskies' unique all-white oars, the twin-spired Montlake Bridge that appears on their championship rings and the graffiti on the walls of the Montlake Cut, often of delightfully dubious taste, with such slogans as chicks are born in shells; seniors '03: party hard, row harder; and bust a nut in the cut.

Simply put, tradition matters. For all the advances in rowing, one of the sport's allures is its timelessness, the bonds that link crews of today with those from a century ago -- and the centuries to come. "When we had 1,100 rowers at our centennial banquet last May, they could all identify with everyone else," Ernst says. "Today we've got high-tech ergometers and carbon-fiber boats that weigh half as much as they did 50 years ago, but the bottom line is, if you're not willing to come down here every day and bust your teakettle, then you're not gonna be big time."

Any discussion of the greatest teakettle-busters in Huskies history has to include four milestone years. There was 1958, when a young brush-cut broadcaster named Keith Jackson called Washington's upset of the Leningrad Trud crew from Moscow for radio listeners in Seattle. The so-called "rowing diplomacy," arranged by the U.S. and Soviet governments, marked the first time an American team had triumphed on Soviet soil -- and surely the first time a Russian crowd had given any Yanks a standing O. (Jackson still considers the race the most memorable sports event he has covered.)

Then there was 1977, when Dick Erickson's varsity eight ambushed the British national team at Henley, the first time a U.S. crew had won there in 18 years. And alums are still buzzing over the Perfect Weekend in '97, when Jan Harville's women won the first NCAA-sanctioned rowing title ever awarded and the men swept the varsity, jayvee and freshman crowns at the IRA national championships.

Yet the undisputed high-water mark -- what the Seattle Post-Intelligencer would call, in a 1999 article, the city's most significant sports moment of the century -- came in 1936, when nine college kids, all Washington natives, won the Olympic gold medal in Hitler's Germany. At a time when Seattle had no pro teams or global identity, the local news media turned the Huskies into celebrities, a source of civic pride. "We didn't think of ourselves as just a crew squad or the University of Washington," says '36 coxswain Bob Moch, now 89 and a retired lawyer. "We were rowing for the city of Seattle and the whole state."

The '36 Olympic final was an epic race. The national champion Huskies had set a 2,000-meter world record in the preliminary on Lake Grunau, but stroke Don Hume, their finest oarsman, had come down with a severe cold. As Washington fell behind early, Moch asked Hume to increase the stroke rate. "And Don didn't do it," Moch says. "His eyes were closed, and his jaw was slack." By the halfway mark UW was in last place, and Moch was about to ask number seven man Joe Rantz to stroke instead. "But then Don's eyes popped open and his mouth clamped shut," Moch says, "and away we went. The boat just flew." With a full grandstand chanting Deutsch-land! in time to the German strokes, the Huskies nosed ahead in the final 200 meters to win by eight feet.

Nearly seven decades later, the survivors of the legendary '36 crew met in September to scatter the ashes of Hume, their friend and teammate, in the Guemes Channel north of Seattle. See, the ties of a crew run deeper than any lake, whether you're Bob Moch '36 or Sam Burns, class of 2004. The son of a Huskies rower, Burns walked on three years ago and finished second with the UW varsity at nationals last year, behind Harvard. He'll have one final title shot next spring. "This is my last year," Burns says, "and I'm realizing how much I'm going to miss all these guys."

Then he smiles, knowing full well that in a program like this, graduation won't mean the end of anything.

Issue date: November 17, 2003


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