Grunt, Sweat, and Glide
By Scott Lindlaw
The Oakland Strokes, a group of 140 Venturers in the BSA's Piedmont Council, have a 33-year history of rowing four- and eight-person shells. Their exhaustive practice regimen and backbreaking determination have garnered regional, national, and international championships.
It's 54 degrees at the Oakland (California) Inner Harbor, but it feels closer to 34 on the water. In the gray dawn, Oakland Strokes Venturing crew rowing team members are slicing through the estuary in 62-foot-long boats, gracefully propelling themselves forward with each synchronized pull of the oars.
Not gracefully enough for coach Beth Anderson. From a motorboat keeping pace alongside the rowers, she spots defects in their techniques and uses a bullhorn to let them know it.
"Becca, sit up! Taller, taller, taller, taller!" Anderson blares. "Put the blade in!" "Toby, what are you doing?"
Why would these teenagers leave their beds at 5 a.m. on a Saturday and subject themselves to backbreaking exercise, the spray of icy bay water, and a coach who barks commands through a megaphone?
"I'm addicted to the sport. It's such a high," says Mollie Roark, a 16-year-old who went out for crew for the first time this year.
Indeed, the thrill of competitive rowing is already deeply ingrained even in first-year rowers on the Oakland Strokes. Many members have trouble imagining life without practice four days a week after school and at sunrise on weekends.
Demanding team sport
Often, rowing is their first team sportand an exceptionally demanding one at that. But with the shoulder-burning workouts come intense bonds of friendship and larger life lessons that the rowers already sense they will carry throughout their lives.
Joe Wainwright, 17, says rowing has given him discipline. He stays away from junk food before races and works to stay in shape in the off-season. "I'm in the best shape of my life," Joe says. "And people say this looks great on college applications."
The nonstop workouts put pressure on parents, who must shuttle their kids to practice almost every day of the week. But the grown-ups, too, see long-lasting benefits of rowing that will spill over into their children's jobs and relationships.
"For my daughter it has been a transformative experience," says Mary Selkirk, the Strokes' parent co-president. "It's not only been about physical fitness and the athletics but the kind of connection that she's developed to the team that's absolutely essential to this sport.
"This sport is not about stars. It's about winning as a team and rowing as a team."
Selkirk's daughter, Zoe Balance, 18, enrolled at Yale University this fall and is on the collegiate rowing team.
A good fit with Venturing
The Oakland Strokes was established in 1974 by Ed Lickiss, a standout rower at the University of California, Berkeley, in the 1930's. After World War II, Lickiss returned to Oakland and founded a club that later became the Strokes. At its inception, the club became the chartered organization of two Explorer posts, which since have become Venturing Crews 8 and 9 of the BSA's Piedmont Council.
"In terms of the principles and the mission of Venturing, it fits exactly," says Josephine Pegrum Hazelett, executive director of the Piedmont Council.
"The kids learn teamwork: they've got to work together to be successful. You've got to have individuals who are leaders at different times in the program, and they all need to know when to step forward."
The program also allows the Piedmont Council to reach out beyond its traditional membership and tap into new communities, Hazelett says (see "Reaching Out to Inner-City Teens").
This year, about 140 high school students from San Francisco's East Bay suburbs have taken part in the Oakland Strokes, aiming to add to the pile of medals the club has amassed over the years. Three Oakland Strokes teams won national championships in 2005, bringing home more gold medals than any other club. The 2006 rowers are out this May weekend honing their skills ahead of the regional championshipsand hoping to reach the nationals beyond that.
Practice early and often
Oakland's skyscrapers loom on one side of the practice waterway, and the craft in the Alameda Marina bob on the other. But unlike the boats in the marina, the rowers' vessels have neither sails nor engines. Instead, they're powered by four or eight rowers, plus a coxswain who faces the rowers, steering, coaching, motivating, and enforcing a cadence.
The channel is open to recreational boaters, fishing skiffs, and tugboats, but it is the rowing crews from several local clubs who seem to own the water here. Their boats, known as "shells," are made of carbon fiber and fiberglass, and run about $30,000 each. When the rowers are really pulling, the coaches have to run their little motorboats at nearly full-throttle to keep up.
"It's amazing what [they] do," says assistant coach Amy Boyle. "We get them up at 5 a.m., [and] down to the boathouse. We put them in the water when it's cold, dark, and raining, and tell them to row for two hours."
Still, coach Anderson is relentless with her bullhorn. "Tight abs!" she calls to her rowers. "Libbyslow. Sloooow!"
Occasionally, during a break, a young rower stares into the water, with a look that says: I wish I had stayed in bed. But mostly the Strokes crew members pull hard at their oars, knowing they need to peak for the upcoming races.
A photo-finish competition
Two weeks later, many confess to nerves on the morning of the Southwest Regional Junior Rowing Association Championship on Lake Natoma, in the foothills near Sacramento. It's a beautiful day for rowing, sunny and calm, and the event has the air of the Kentucky Derby, Woodstock, and a family beach vacation rolled into one.
Hundreds of parents, siblings, coaches, and fans mill around tents erected for each club. They crowd onto the beach when the rowers come racing down the lanes. In between heats, the rowers fuss over their gear, chatter nervously, or try to tune it all out by lying in the grass listening to their iPods.
The preparation pays off: Five Strokes boats qualify for the nationals. The women's junior eight teameight to a boat, plus the coxswaingoes on to place second nationally at the USRowing National Youth Championship Regatta near Cincinnati. (While international rules consider all high school-age rowers as "juniors," the Strokes' teams were made up of high school juniors and seniors.) The men's junior eight team places eighth at the championships.
In June, for the second year in a row, the Strokes women win their division at the 19th Henley's Women's Regatta, an annual international competition in Henley, England.
And in August, six Strokes rowersboth men and womencompete as members of the United States Junior National Team at the Junior World Rowing Championships in the Netherlands. There, the women's team earns a silver medal.
But before all that, the most emotionally charged contests, for the rowers and their fans, are the varsity races on Lake Natoma, where the oldest and strongest kids have the most at stake. That's because some have been at this for years, and for many, these regionals represent a last shot at the national championships.
The tension rises as the boys' varsity racers near the finish, grunting with each pull at the oar. The crowd surges toward the water for better views. Some cheering parents absentmindedly step into the lake in their shoes and don't seem to care. A few mothers even roll up their jeans and wade knee-deep into the lake, to be that much closer, as cries of "GO STROOOOOOKES!" rise to a roar. An announcer calls the race over a public-address system with the same intensity of a horse race.
At the finish line, St. Ignatius Col-lege Prep is first, with the Strokes less than half a second behind the Marin Rowing Association in a photo finish for second. The top three finishers all clinch a berth at the nationals, and the Strokes varsity eight (juniors and seniors) have earned admission to the championships.
Rowing to shore, the young men are too exhausted to celebrate. Some slump in the boat, gasping for air. Ten minutes later, several still cannot muster the energy to walk to the Strokes' tent.
"It really is six minutes of incredibly intense pain," says 18-year-old Sam Fishman, still panting as he makes his way back to his family. "But to be able to get through that pain is what they're training us to do six days a week all year."
The mental push to succeed
Although Sam has also played football and soccer, crew required a bigger commitment than anything else he had tried, he adds.
"It takes both a level of maturity that is more than anything I've ever done and a lot of mental abilities. These strengths will stick with me through the rest of my life in subtle ways. Just the fact that you have to be mentally strong to push yourself will help you in other things, too."
And that, it seems, is what gets the Strokes out of bed early on Saturday mornings when the alarm clock's painful squawk summons them to the water.
"I'm doing something...I'm making myself better," says Mac Farrell, 18, another member of the Strokes varsity eight. "And we're doing it together, and it's going to be something real when we get across that finish line."
Scott Lindlaw is a former White House correspondent for the Associated Press. He now works out of the A.P.'s San Francisco bureau.
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