Doug Sanders remembers now how it started: When he was in junior high and enrolled in a sailing school in Annapolis, he used his rowboat to get there.
Daniella DeFilippo remembers, too: Intent on trying out for the sailing team when she left for Connecticut College, she was diverted by the mention of rowing. Figuring "I could sail the rest of my life," she became a coxswain on the varsity crew.
Helmut Berthold rowed for three years in high school in his native West Germany. Art Cooke, born in New Jersey but raised and schooled in England, learned to row while studying there for his doctorate. Bill McSwain, of West Chester, Pa., got his first taste of the sport at Yale.
Finally, the paths of all five led to the 120-member Baltimore Rowing Club on the middle branch of the Patapsco River, near the Hanover Street Bridge.
Trim, committed, dedicated and goal-oriented, they have joined forces for a run in the U.S. Rowing National Championship Regatta this weekend in Indianapolis. The only other group in this area that qualified for the nationals was an under-18 junior crew from Annapolis.
The Baltimore Rowing Club unit won the senior lightweight (four rowers plus a coxswain) title last year, thereby moving up from senior to elite, the highest class in U.S. Rowing. In Indianapolis, Berthold, McSwain, Sanders and Cooke will compete in the "straight four" without DeFilippo and with her in the "four with coxswain."
Both races are 2,000-meter sprints, requiring a little more than six minutes, which they won in the Middle Atlantic Championships June 6. As a lightweight crew, the rowers can average no more than 155 pounds.
Berthold, 24, who came from West Germany in 1988, is a University of Baltimore student. Sanders, 23, a St. Mary's High and Loyola College grad, is doing postgraduate work at Catholic U.
The Yalie, McSwain, also 23, is an investment banker with Alex. Brown & Sons after disdaining job offers in New York, partly because of better rowing opportunities in Baltimore. DeFilippo, a Roland Park Country School alum and a Connecticut College junior, is the 100-pound coxswain who feels her job description calls for her to be "authoritative and aggressive, and willing to be the scapegoat," able to accept the blame if anything goes wrong.
The crew's old man is Cooke, 36, who has been rowing for half of his life, starting with the seven years he spent at Cambridge University in England while pursuing his bachelor's, master's and doctorate degrees.
An aerospace program manager with Martin Marietta Laboratories, and married with a newborn daughter, Cooke can't explain why he is able to compete with his younger crewmates.
"I seem to get faster with age," Cooke said. "It will reverse itself someday, but there's no sign yet. The past five years, my test scores on the rowing machine have gotten better. I get a tremendous thrill out of rowing."
Serious rowers, like Cooke and his mates, practice year-around. Following coach Matt Brown's written workouts, they rowed five times a week from 5:30-7:15 a.m. all spring, including the last few weeks as a unit in preparation for a coordinated effort in the nationals.
Most engage in an additional two or three workouts a week, running or weight training. Cooke, the relic, notes that he started to run in marathons 18 months ago.
"This is going to be top-notch competition," Sanders said. "The best crews in the country will be in Indianapolis."
The nationals may not be the ultimate, however. "We want to make the finals and use it as a building block," McSwain said. "We'll continue in the fall."
The "big goal," McSwain said, is the Head of the Charles race in Boston in October.