For some, it is unimaginable. There are the intent grimaces, the brawny arms and corded thighs heaving together to the beat of an eight-oared racing shell in full flight. But there also, poised behind those 1,500 pounds of straining masculinity, is a girl, one Victoria Brown, wearing a floppy knit hat and Great Glissy Rosey lipstick.
As coxswain of the University of Oregon heavyweight crew Vicky Brown slipped on her megaphone for the first time three weeks ago, but getting to the starting line had been a long pull. One day last fall Vicky, who is 18 and a freshman in English from Beaverton, Ore., was standing on the corner outside her boyfriend's house. Her errand was to tell the crew bus to wait until Bruce got his shoes on. The guys on the bus said, "Forget Bruce. Come aboard." Shortly thereafter Vicky found herself on the beige waters of Dexter Lake, a flood-control reservoir 20 miles east of Eugene that is trimmed with newly melted snow from the surrounding Cascade Mountains.
"At first it was a novelty," says Vicky. "I had fun just watching, but the guys said try out as a coxswain and Don Costello gave me a chance to learn."
Costello, 23, had rowed for California. In this, his first year as a coach, he saw the Brown issue as one of sincerity. "She was no worse at moving a boat than some of the male coxswains I've tried to row with," he says. "She was eager and conscientious, and for some wacky reason she seemed to dig rowing. It isn't in the tradition of crew to cut anyone like that."
But she was a girl. Costello checked with Karl Drlica, the Oregon State coach and president of the Western Intercollegiate Crew Coaches Association. Drlica said Vicky would not be eligible to cox for Oregon. It was in the rules.
"When I heard about it," Vicky recalls, "I thought, 'I'm not going to let them pull that.' I really started to take it seriously."
Costello took the case to Wendell Basye, a law professor and Oregon's spirited faculty representative to the Pacific Eight. Basye discovered that the WICCA rule barring women was based on a supposed NCAA ban. Since no such NCAA rule could be found, Basye declared Vicky eligible. He contended that in the absence of NCAA or conference jurisdiction, schools ought to have autonomy to decide questions of eligibility. "Having the crew coaches be the guardians of eligibility in crew is like putting the fox in the coop to guard the chickens," he says. "Perhaps speaking of foxes and chicks in this connection won't be too well received by the women's lib faction, but what the hell difference does sex make in this case? I'm not certifying left tackles."
Amid the debate Vicky, the bright, articulate eldest daughter of a book salesman, was learning her craft. "I'd never done anything in organized sports before," she says. "Skiing was my passion, then swimming. But those are purely individual skills. In crew I have to know the physical and mental capabilities of eight or 10 men. I have to know how they react to me. And I have to know rowing. At first I felt so stupid. Joe Sweeney, the bow man, told me to yell the count, the distance to go and to keep the rudder straight. So I yelled, 'Keep that rudder straight!' "
Some knowledge came harder. "The guys tested me more because I was a girl, sure. They had to know if I was serious. And I had to prove it." During the winter the team rowed four days a week and lifted weights and ran the other three. Vicky ran with them over a steep, wooded ridge near the Oregon campus. "I was determined to keep up the whole four miles, and I did," she says. "It was awful. But I learned how you can force yourself to go on even when you don't think it's possible."
After helping the crew repair the roof of Oregon's primitive boathouse, she was urged to jump to the ground. She landed in a pile of mud and came up slinging. Doing squat jumps with the men on an icy dock, she tore a thigh muscle, which has slowly mended.