Against the Current

In top-notch collegiate and professional rowing, rowers can bring an oar in and out of the water as many as 45 times every minute. The sport is one of the oldest and most demanding in America, not to mention the rest of the world, and requires extraordinary dedication.

Dartmouth College men's crew, Connecticut River.

Dartmouth College men's crew, Connecticut River.

2009 has seen its share of notable regattas: American oarsmen finished in the top five (of 37 teams) in Lucerne, Switzerland at the third World Cup regatta; the 138th U.S. Rowing National Championships were held in June on Mercer Lake in New Jersey; the University of Washington’s men’s team placed first at the Intercollegiate Rowing Association National Championships this year; and in May, Stanford’s women’s rowers won the sport’s NCAA championship.

Few Americans noticed. Despite being the oldest collegiate sport (pre-dating football by over a decade), rowing garners barely a second on ESPN highlight reels; sportscasters are largely unaware American university teams won gold medals at eight consecutive Olympic games, boasting crews of mainly Yale and Naval Academy men. The most well-known American race, Boston’s Head of the Charles Regatta, draws about 300,000 viewers yearly. Hardly Superbowl numbers. 

It’s only-semi-deserved elitist image has kept would-be rowers at a distance, many say. Also, demands of the sport are high: almost 90% of college rowers quit, owing in large part to the tremendous time commitment the sport requires. Both factors keep converts at bay and a lid on the sport’s public draw. “It’s almost like it’s this closet subculture,” says Kate Sullivan, a trustee of the Riverside Boat Club, one of the country’s oldest private rowing clubs, of the sport’s perceived exclusivity. “On the one hand, it’s too bad. Then again, it isn’t.”

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