A father passes down his enduring passion for rowing


October 30, 2003|By Diane Mikulis | Diane Mikulis,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

EARLY ON A Sunday morning, a boat silently cuts through the stillness of the Triadelphia Reservoir, its expanse of water surrounded by dense woods in full autumn glory. Paul Jacobson's seemingly effortless rowing propels his small craft smoothly, so it looks as if it's above the water. The steady rhythm of his strokes quickly takes him away from the shore.

Jacobson, 44, of Glenelg is enjoying the sights, sounds and feel of nature, but he is also using almost every muscle in his body.

"It's fantastic exercise," he says.

What started as a ploy to get out of taking physical education his freshman year at Cornell University has turned into an enduring passion. Instead of physical education, students could elect to participate in a sport. As he stood in line with the other freshmen, Jacobson noticed members of the rowing team recruiting students and decided to join them.

"It's a sport that you can start in college and do well in, unlike a lot of other sports," he explains.

He began rowing in 1977 and continues to this day. During his senior year at Cornell, his team won the Intercollegiate Rowing Championship.

After college, Jacobson became a member of the U.S. national team and competed in the world championship in Lucerne, Switzerland, placing seventh. In 1983, he and his teammates earned a gold medal at the Pan-American Games in Caracas, Venezuela. The next year, he tried out for the U.S. Olympic team and made the finals, but not one of the coveted spots on the team.

Jacobson no longer competes, but he rows for exercise. A typical workout takes him about 45 minutes and involves rowing from the Big Branch or Triadelphia Lake Road boat ramps on the reservoir to Brighton Dam - about 10 kilometers. He varies the speed, usually rowing about 8 or 9 mph.

Sometimes called crew or sculling, the sport uses a very long, narrow, lightweight boat called a scull. Jacobson's boat is 27 feet long and barely a foot wide. The oars are mounted on metal riggings, and they provide some stability to the craft. Jacobson's boat was custom-made for one of the 1984 Olympic scullers, and he bought it from the builder.

Crew requires superior balance, and it's not uncommon to flip over. Jacobson says he once saw an Olympic sculler do a headstand in a boat while remaining stable.

Jacobson enjoys his time on the water and the workout he gets, but he also wants to share his sport. For the past few months, he has been teaching his daughter, Kirsten. He felt that at 13, she was old enough and had the sense of balance the sport requires.

After several workouts on the rowing machine at home, Kirsten went to the reservoir with her father. It didn't take long for her to discover that being on the boat felt quite different from being on the machine. Just a slight pull on the oars starts the boat in motion.

"The first time Kirsten took a stroke and the boat took off, the look on her face really made my week," Jacobson recalls.

They had worked on the physical training and the mechanics of rowing, but he realized he had skipped over the sport's vocabulary.

"I was calling out to her to feather. She was out there a distance, and I realized she didn't have the terminology," Jacobson says.

"At first, I didn't want to do it because I didn't want calluses on my hands," Kirsten says. But now she says, "It's really cool." She thinks the hardest part is the strain on her lower back, which comes from having to keep the muscles firm while leaning over. To build those muscles, she uses the rowing machine when she can't get into the water.

Kirsten, an eighth-grader at Folly Quarter Middle School, plans to continue rowing and hopes to be on a college team. Many East Coast colleges have crew teams, and the sport is growing in popularity on the West Coast, Jacobson says.

A college team is made up of eight rowers and a coxswain, who uses the rudder to steer and directs the crew. Men and women compete on different teams, and there are usually two categories: lightweight and heavyweight, as determined by the weight of the team members. Most rowers are tall and thin. Jacobson said that a typical male rower is at least 6 feet 2 and weighs about 190 pounds.

Because their boat is a single scull, father and daughter must take turns using it. Jacobson would like to get another boat, perhaps a double, so they can be out on the water at the same time. He says that Kirsten keeps improving and is ready to go farther out, but he still needs to be able to see her.

"It's satisfying to see her do it, given how much joy I get from it," Jacobson says. And he's very appreciative of the venue offered in western Howard County.

"Having that reservoir there, it's such a nice place to row," he says. "You really can't do any better than that. The setting - there's no wind, there are no motor boats creating wakes - it's completely surrounded by forest so you can't even see it. I really feel fortunate to have this place to row."

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