For these crews, rowing's the thing

Crew: High school rowing is a rarity in the Baltimore area, but for the participants, the grueling sport is better than walking on water.

May 03, 2002|By Katherine Dunn | Katherine Dunn,SUN STAFF

After about 20 strokes, Shellie Bronis doesn't feel the pain anymore.

She and her Institute of Notre Dame teammates row in hypnotizing cadence, their eight-seat racing shell gliding over the water of the Inner Harbor.

The boat's motion appears so smooth, so effortless. The sheer grace is mesmerizing.

"I zone out when I row. It's just me and rowing," said Bronis. "You've got to get into a rhythm when you row and all the pain - I can't feel it anymore."

Each individual athlete's muscle-burning, heart-pounding exertion has to flow into one steady stream of human propulsion. Somehow, the pain gets lost in the heat of a 2,000-meter sprint race.

"It's complete adrenaline," said Roland Park's Kristina Pompa. "Half the time, I can't remember what I felt or how much pain I was in at the 500-meter mark. It's such a blur."

"It takes you away," said Bryn Mawr captain Katie Baylin. "I don't know if time slows down or speeds up, but when the race is over, you realize you were in another state of mind and now you're back."

For the small group of dedicated high school rowers in Baltimore, the gain far outweighs the pain. They'll tolerate aching muscles, blistered hands and 4:30 a.m. wake-up calls in return for the thrill of the race, the camaraderie of the team and the joy of being out on the water.

"I love being on water. It's so peaceful," said Roland Park's Lauren Shepley. "Being able to pull the oar through the water is kind of empowering."

The girls also enjoy being part of such a small fraternity. Only five local schools sponsor varsity teams - Bryn Mawr, IND, Roland Park and St. Paul's girls as well as St. Paul's boys. Gilman boys have a club team.

There aren't enough teams to have an official league, so the crews will stage their own title regatta on Sunday, the Baltimore Championships, beginning at 8 a.m. at the Baltimore Rowing Club off the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River.

Most of the time, the local crews find their competition on the road. Washington and Philadelphia have huge high school rowing communities while Baltimore's is still in its infancy. The oldest program, Bryn Mawr's, dates only to 1991.

While crew has not been a huge draw here, it has been elsewhere.

On the college level, women's crew was one of the fastest-growing sports of the last decade, increasing from 1,547 participants in 1991-92 to 6,111 in 2000-01, according to NCAA statistics.

In 1997, women's crew was one of the sports that Brown University added after a landmark 1991 court decision forced the university to comply with the gender equity requirements of Title IX.

A year earlier, women's crew became an NCAA championship sport. The NCAA sanctioned 132 teams, including Loyola and Johns Hopkins, during the 2000-01 season, up from 56 in 1991-92.

The nation's largest high school rowing organization is the National Capital Area Scholastic Rowing Association in Washington. At 52 years old, it includes 42 schools and more than 3,500 rowers. It also has three perfect sites for regattas, the Occoquan Reservoir, the Anacostia River and the Potomac River at the Georgetown waterfront.

Those venues provide sheltered water, as opposed to the open water of the Inner Harbor or the Patapsco River toward Fort McHenry. When the wind picks up, as it often does in the afternoon, practices must move to indoor rowing machines.

"Down [in D.C.], it's like rowing on glass," said IND coach Mike McEwan, who rowed for Loyola College. "It's not easy in Baltimore. Some of our counterparts have no idea how it is dodging water taxis and white caps."

Getting out on the water for the first time can make a teen-ager feel as if she's in the middle of an episode of Fear Factor. Although the boat is unlikely to flip unless the wind kicks up, McEwan likens the 60-foot, eight-person shell with four oars on each side to a "big teeter-totter." The oars keep the boat balanced and, for a rookie, balance is everything.

"You don't feel in control at all," Bronis said of her first rowing experience. "It feels like the water's in control, and you feel off-balance when you first start. At any time, a wave can come and your oar can get caught in it. It's an overpowering feeling knowing that you can't do anything about it."

However, neither Bronis nor any of the other girls has ever been in a boat that flipped in open water. With a little experience comes a comfort zone, knowing you can rely on yourself and your teammates to keep the boat on an even keel.

Then you understand that the sport is really all about teamwork.

"I think it's the ultimate team sport," said St. Paul's Eric Grosshandler, "because playing basketball you have to share a ball with four other people on the team and here it's everybody working together. If you don't work together, the boat doesn't move."

The boat actually has two leaders - the coxswain, or driver, and the stroke seat or pacesetter. They sit face-to-face, and they are the only ones in the boat allowed to talk.

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