Women's crew, which started with posture, has a surprising new standing. This was never more colorfully or pleasantly evident than last weekend in Philadelphia where 250 girls, co-eds and grown women gathered along the banks of the Schuylkill for the eighth National Women's Rowing Championships. They were there to compete in 19 different classes, in everything from the light wherry—a sort of throwback to the old work boat—to the same sleek Pocock shells for eight with coxswain that the men use. In the U.S. today there are 58 women's rowing organizations. Twenty-three of them were at Philadelphia and in six heavyweight classes the prize was a trip in late August to the European championships in Moscow.
Were the girls primed for their big tests? Let a young lady from Radcliffe, the favorite in the eights before the regatta began in almost perfect spring weather on Friday, tell it. "Rowing is a total change," said the oarswoman, jaded by the intellectual climate of Cambridge. "It is a nice escape, the only place that allows you to degenerate to the relaxing level of 'Kill 'em. Eat 'em.' Animal screams. Monkey imitations."
The Cliffies had dipped so deep into the animal kingdom as to have KILL 'EM taped on the back of the sliding seats in their shell and EAT 'EM inscribed on the back of their shirts. But it was up front that counted. Across the girls' chests was the legend MOSCOW OAR BUST.
The 'ems that the Radcliffe crew had to kill oar bust trying were a well-coached, well-equipped and well-financed Princeton eight that averaged 143 pounds and used a men's standard lightweight shell with ease, and a nearly professional Vesper Boat Club crew formed out of a team composed of nurses, lab technicians, teachers and physical education grad students. As expected, in the trials the Tigers of Princeton beat three other good crews, College Boat Club (Penn), Wisconsin and Williams. Radcliffe won over Vesper and Washington, and while that was not unexpected the time was—3:21.3 for the 1,000 meters, the best in women's rowing this year.
The Vesper women, who are flogged to the limit by coaching as fierce as any men's team endures, were beaten by a group of college girls whose training just could be tougher. Radcliffe is coached by John Baker, an unpaid recent graduate of the Harvard crew. Remarkably knowledgeable and articulate in rowing philosophy and physiology, he gets up at 5 a.m. to run and row along with the women. One of the nation's better scullers, Baker conceived the idea of having Radcliffe duplicate Harvard's near-mythical "50 stadia" drill—50 consecutive times up and down the steps of Harvard Stadium. After the first two stadia, plenty of candidates decided they were not cut out for the sport, yet 12 made it all the way, giving Radcliffe an exuberant self-confidence that led it into the nationals with a 6-1 record.
This is all far away from the days when women's rowing had its other standing, posture. As Gail Pierson, a singles sculler, Ph.D., assistant professor in economics at Harvard and president of the women's rowing organization, said last week, "The man who introduced rowing at Smith College was a nut on posture. He began the sport there thinking that it would improve the way the girls stood and walked. He even developed a special rocking seat that wasn't much good for getting anywhere but was great for the old posture."
Little more enlightened were the people who got a women's crew program going at the University of Washington in 1897. The teams wore bloomers and marched to the boats in formation while men carried the boats. It was all form. A women's team was scored on how gracefully it got into the boats and how gracefully it rowed.
Well, as it turned out, those crews and all the women's crews that succeeded them had exceptionally good posture and they rowed gracefully. Posture and grace, in fact, are what separate the women from the boys. Coaches at Philadelphia, male and female, insisted that women are easier to teach because they are so much more at home with technique.
"It's a hard thing to communicate to guys that they have to row with grace," said the University of Washington No. 3 oar, Joanne Williams. "Men kind of muscle it through. We have to row it through. We've seen new guys, untrained but real athletes, get in a boat. The whole boat just jerks through the water in a zigzag. We yell at them, 'Be graceful.' "
"Technically, girls row as well or better," says Gus Constant, the Vesper coach. "Put green new guys in a boat, and the oars and water fly in all directions." His wife Karin, a top oar in five different events, says, "Women start with better balance and more finesse. Their bodies are more relaxed. They make this little controlled motion and actually they go faster."