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Whether they're in the water going forward, or on the water going backward, the Geer sisters are propelled by a common turbine buried deep in their genes.
"Rowers tend to be very bright people," Larry Gluckman, the men's crew coach at Princeton and the Geers' coach for the world championships, said last July during a practice. "They have to take something that doesn't appear to be very complicated and perfect it." He was cruising in a motorboat in the pouring rain, alongside the sisters as they worked out in their double on the Connecticut. "They also have to be very brave. Competitive rowing is one of the most excruciating sports there is.
"O.K. now," he yelled out to them through a megaphone, "let's get that feeling as fast as we can so we can savor the water. Just lean onto that oar handle, lean. Soft hands now...ah-yeah, soft hands, letting the blades lock first onto the water; feel that little mound of water before you lock the blades firmly on."
Balanced on the long thin line that was their boat, the Geers moved back and forth in perfect unison, like two windshield wipers batting against the rain; their skill made the motion look effortless, although each stroke pulled their combined weight of 290 pounds plus the 65 pounds of the shell rapidly through the water. The motion of the delicate boat was so smooth and steady that it appeared unrelated to their rhythmic swaying. Judy sat as usual in the bow—the appropriate seat for the older, guiding sister—turning around every now and then to steer, while Carlie sat in the stern setting the stroke. Beyond them the riverbank was a blur of lush greens; treetops leaned over the water like the heads of an audience crowding over a guardrail.
"To row well," says Judy, "you have to relax between strokes; you have to wham it and relax, wham it and relax. Ideally, the recovery time should be longer than the time the blade is in the water.
"The thing about reaching out for another stroke," she says, "is that you've got the boat going in one direction and here you are, going in the other direction. You have to kind of tiptoe up through the momentum so you don't slow the boat down."
"Good linkage now," called Larry. "Think about leaning, feel the lean from the lower back; clean catches, the movement on the drive parallel to the water, hands parallel to the water, puuull through, like swatting a bottle off a table; long arms now, we don't want the elbows inverted toward each other."
A Dartmouth eight coming down the river looked like a densely populated city compared to the double. Its oars—four to a side—looked like the legs of a centipede, reaching forward, disappearing under the water momentarily and then resurfacing.
"See how blank their faces are?" said Gluckman, watching the sisters. "They're concentrating." He stared at them with his head tilted sideways, as though he were regarding a painting. "I really enjoy coaching these women. They're such fine athletes, and they're so committed to each other."
The Head of the Charles was the last race of 1981. After that the Geers still rowed on the Connecticut, wearing their "pogies," hand-knit mittens that go over their hands and their oar handles, until the ice forced them to the ergometers in the basement of the Dartmouth gym.