TRY 300 SIT-UPS
In the sullen, sleepy predawn, all locker rooms are much alike: the clangor of metal doors being opened and shut, the slippery coolness of varnished wood benches, the sound of ripping adhesive tape, the pungency of liniment smoothed into yesterday's knots. There are compensations for rising in the dark and tramping through dripping rain to such a place. And they are especially savored by rowers—a shared sense of superiority to softer humans still snug under blankets, and the good, cleansing, physical tiredness that follows hard exercise.
Over the years, women have been mostly reckoned among the blanketed comfortable. But there is a new sorority of crewwomen, kin to the self-punishing oarsmen of crew tradition. They have something of the same personal desperation to excel, the same compulsion to master an arcane, taxing discipline. There are now 75 women's crews and rowing associations in the U.S., with 2,000 oarswomen and a full set of regattas and league championships. Two years ago there were 37 crews. Five years ago there were 29.
Radcliffe, the national champion, went to Moscow for the European championships last year and proved itself by finishing less than three seconds slower than the winner, with only two seniors—and five freshmen—in the boat. The 'Cliffies have trained for this season like galley slaves, rowing one or two hours a day on the Charles River last fall, two or more hours this spring, and as much time in the tank as they could scrounge during the icebound months. These are serious athletes assembling at the dingy Victorian pile of Weld Boathouse come six o'clock of a December morning. Serious, but hardly somber.
"You stay on the river until the spray freezes on your face, and the megaphone freezes on the coxswain's lips," said one Radcliffe cox. "A far cry from when I started crew. It rained one day and I called up Coach John Baker and asked, "What do we do now?' "
"Supposedly, when the first ice forms, John gets in the launch and, with the untold advantage of machismo, roars around and breaks it all up," a freshman says. "When it gets worse, we put ice picks in the oarlocks. In winter, we shovel the snow off the stadium steps, and then we run them. John keeps saying, 'You needn't run the bottom steps. They're too deep to shovel anyway.' " The 25th trip up the double steps leaves the girls with the blank eyes of the cross-country man, willing away fatigue.
The calisthenics rival the rowing as hard labor. A set of exercises consists of 50 sit-ups, 10 push-ups and "the maximum number" of chin-ups. Three sets is a typical dose.
"One day we got 300 sit-ups sprung on us," a 'Cliffie says. "We were holding our stomachs for a week."
The Radcliffe rowers are conscious of the stereotypical female athlete but scarcely hung up about it. A certain Irene Winkler—6'4", 220 pounds and a star at everything—was frequently alluded to until the right number of newcomers and outsiders had asked who she was. At an appropriately public moment, just as Baker emerges from the boathouse, the crew yelled in unison "Irene!" It is generally conceded that the high point of one article about the crew was a quote from Judy Levine: "My calluses put runs in all my stockings." Radcliffe got letters from ladies all over the country containing hints on how to stop the runs.
The scene on the Charles represents progress, undoubtedly, though Connie Cervilla's grandmother, who does not approve of her rowing, asked her stiffly how this "relates to your future job." At least, she didn't ask what a future husband might think.