Rowing is a venerable collegiate sport: a mix of endurance, teamwork, and Ivy League pageantry. But the average Joe Six-Pack has long been a wary bystander, dismissing it as an elitist pastime for rich jocks.
But that pretentious aura is slowly fading, thanks to clubs like the Western Reserve Rowing Association. After a hard day on the water, club members will sooner go out for beers than retire to the country club. During the rowing itself, they're too busy dodging freighters, battling the weather, or turning up body parts in the pungent industrial waterways of the Flats to concern themselves with any highbrow labels attached to the sport.
Navigating the Cuyahoga River can be a challenge. "We suffer," laughs Paul Delbane, coach of the all-woman recreational rowing team 7W. "There are some days where the river is as smooth as glass. There's been others where I've rowed through blizzards. The freighters aren't that bad. It's really the pleasure craft you have to watch out for."
And the occasional unpleasant surprise. Just a few weeks ago during practice, 19-year-old coach Meaghann Marcovy snagged a human hand that was bobbing in the river's murky waters.
"I ran over it with my boat," she says. "I'm used to rowing over plastic bottles, tree branches, and logs, but this didn't feel like a tree branch. So I stopped to see what we hit, and I was totally grossed out."
Luckily, that was a rare occurrence for the club, which began in 1989 and has spawned a collection of adult, university, and high school programs. It is now one of the largest recreational rowing groups in the Midwest, boasting 350 rowers on 8 women's and 16 coed teams. Its headquarters (a dock and a few nondescript warehouses full of boat shells, oars, and supplies) is tucked away in the back lots of the industrial Flats. The WRRA season begins in early May and ends August 25 with the fourth rowing race of the year -- the Final Regatta & Social, featuring one-on-one sprints on a 500-meter course.
There are 14 people on a team, but only 8 can fit in the boat at one time. To gear up for the races, teams are assigned a practice time each week with a coach. Seven crew members sit on sliding seats in the elongated rowing shell, dipping massive oars into the water to propel the craft, while the brains of the team, called the coxswain, steers and barks orders from the back. If more than eight team members show up, the extras ride with the coach in a motorized dinghy next to the rowing boat. Practices can be tough and hot, but for most rowers, it's worth it.
"It's just a good time, and we get to exercise," says 7W coxswain Sue McCormick. "And afterwards, we go get a beer."
Joe Six-Pack may want to join up after all.