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- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
"Ernie! Ernie! Ernie!" the crowd chanted, the sound reverberating through the cavernous indoor track facility at Harvard University, where the 1996 World Indoor Rowing Championships were taking place. While sliding back and forth on an exercise device known as an ergometer—a stationary rowing machine that looks more like a giant mechanical insect than a crew shell—Ernie pulled powerfully on the handle attached to a chain that in turn wound around a flywheel.
A "coxswain" sat in a chair next to each of the competitors, shouting encouragement, giving time splits or counting strokes out loud. Ernie's coxswain did all of these things, but every 30 seconds or so she also spritzed water into the exhausted rower's mouth. On small TV-sized monitors, numbers indicating time and distance traveled flashed for each rower's benefit. Ernie had only a few meters left in the 2,000-meter race. The crowd's chanting seemed to grow louder with each stroke until, suddenly, a single voice broke through the din, exhorting Ernie loudly, "Come on, Mom! Only 30 to go!"
Ernie, you see, was 86-year-old Ernestine Bayer, a white-haired lady who wore gold clip-on earrings, a tasteful plum-colored shade of lipstick and an intimidating black-and-blue Lycra rower's unitard. Bayer, who lives in Stratham, N.H., and has been rowing on the water ever since founding the Philadelphia Girls' Rowing Club in 1938, was being cheered to a third-place finish among the six women competing in the 60-plus age group. Although she was rowing for more than a minute longer than any of her competitors, Bayer's handicapped score put her ahead of women young enough to be her children, and with a raw time of 11:14.0, she set a world indoor rowing record for women 80-89 years old.
Bayer was one of the 1,519 hammers—rowers for whom sheer force counts more than finesse—at the Indoor Rowing championships, also known as the C.R.A.S.H.-B. Sprints after the Charles River All-Star Has Beens, several Boston-based former Olympic and national team oarsmen who founded the club in 1978.
The C.RA.S.H.-B. races began in 1982 with 85 rowers eager to enliven the dreary months of winter training. Over the next decade and a half, the rowers' casual training-room challenges burgeoned into a bona fide, if slightly tongue-in-cheek, international athletic event. This year's championships are scheduled for Feb. 16 at the Reggie Lewis Athletic Center of Roxbury Community College in Boston. Participants range from national outdoor rowing champions and Olympic hopefuls to high school students. But just so no one loses perspective, the media guide soberly states in its Provisional Rules of Competition, "All decisions of the Regatta Committee are secret, arbitrary, and final."
Paul Hendershott, one of the athletes at last year's single-day event, on Feb. 25, was one example of how popular indoor rowing has become. Hendershott, 52, the world indoor record holder in the 50-59 age bracket, had never rowed on water. He had, however, "erged" an astronomical 3.5 million meters a year in 1993 and '94. In '94 he was the first 50-year-old to break eight minutes for 2,500 meters indoors, with a time of 7:56.8. He brought that time down by four seconds when he won his third world indoor title in '95. And in the 1996 Sprints—now 2,000 meters, the international racing standard—he easily won the veteran men's race, and another world record, with a scratch time of 6:19.4.
As Ernie crossed the imaginary 2,000-meter finish line, the crowd was cheering so loud that she could not hear her daughter Tina shouting to her that she had made it. Not until Ernie finally opened her eyes several strokes later and saw the monitor flashing did she ease up, which prompted one awed spectator, deep in the crowd, to say to no one in particular, "What a hammer."