For the first time in the Henley Regatta's dignified 140-year history, women will power racing shells down the crowd-lined Thames River July 3 and 4. There to convince any doubters that women belong will be crews from several countries, including a unique American one long on savvy and determination.
The US contingent, which won't win any name-the-crew contests, calls itself "The 1980 Boat Club." The name is not without significance. The club consists of otherwise unaffiliated ex-Olympians and national team members, rowers who once dreamed of retiring on top at the 1980 Moscow Games.
The club, informally operated out of coxswain Holly Hatton's Somerville, Mass., apartment, has about 10 members. Looking for an "immediate goal" after the bitter disappointment of last summer's Olympic boycott, Hatton pulled together the Henley team, "a four with cox" as it's referred to in rowing circles -- four rowers and a signal-calling coxswain.
Hatton didn't have to go far to find two of the rowers. Carrie Graves and Peg McCarthy, members of both the '76 and '80 Olympic teams, share an apartment in the Boston area, where Carrie is Radcliffe's crew coach and Peg works as a civil engineer.
To this nucleus were added Carol Brown and Liz Hills, old friends of the Boston trio and Olympic veterans. The catch was in coordinating their training, since Carol lives in Seattle and Liz in New Market, N.H.
Hills spent the last several months making the hour-and-a-half drive to Boston, arriving for a late afternoon practice, staying overnight, then rising at dawn for a morning workout before commuting back to her job at the University of New Hampshire.
Brown's distance from Boston meant she had to train independently, keeping tabs on what the others were doing through letters and phone calls. The situation was far from ideal, since four rowers must act as one in a race.
The entire crew came together only five days before a special Henley trial on Connecticut's Lake Waramaug in May. At that specially arranged row-off, the 1980 Boat Club earned the right to represent the US in England. Then, in something of a tuneup for their overseas trip, the women won the "fours" at the recent national championship in San Diego. Finally, in preparing for Henley, the group converged on Boston University's boathouse for less than a week of two-a-day workouts.
Developing precision movement under such unusual circumstances would be impossible for less experienced rowers, but the Henley crew doesn't lack for know-how or woman hours on the water.
Each rower was a pioneer in the sport when it took off collegiately for women during the mid 1970s. In 1976 when women first competed in rowing at the Olympics, they were in Montreal, and would have been in Moscow last summer if the US hadn't elected to stay home.
"The reason I'm still competing is because I was left hanging in 1980," says Graves. "I know this country can put together an eight [boat with eight rowers and a coxswain] that can win. If we'd gone to the '80 Olympics, there's no way I'd be training now."
Brown pretty much echoes those sentiments, indicating she's come out of "retirement" twice, first after the 1976 games, when the US "eight" finished third behind East Germany and the Soviet Union, and then this past year. "Peggy , Carrie, Holly, and I were on the 'eight' last summer that finally beat the East Germans at the [pre-Olympic] Lucerne International Regatta. I couldn't leave on that note, because we can't say we were ever world champions."
Their lost Olympic opportunity has goaded them toward 1984, when a flock of young Americans may wind up backlogged behind the eight-year veterans. "A lot of people are waiting for us to retire to take our spots," Brown says of an ever larger US rowing pool.
There are no guarantees that any or all of the Henley rowers can make the '84 team, but they pursue that goal with quiet confidence. "We have more finesse now, we've learned how to race, and we have a much better muscular base than several years ago," Graves explains.
Most important, they know the depth of their commitment to rowing. Pursuing a strictly amateur sport into adulthood involves a special devotion, the kind that can put career plans and creature comforts on the back burner.
Hatton, once the art director of a Philadelphia advertising agency, went to free lancing in order to give more time to crew. After several "lean years," she has developed a handful of regular clients, whom she can service when not coaching Boston University's women's team. "Now I can't see myself ever going back to a 9-to-5 job," she says, indicating an international-level coaching position has evolved as a career goal.
Though Brown earned a graduate degree in forest management, she has a job in a food service and vending business that allows her to train seriously. "My employer gives me a leave of absence every summer. I don't always have the same job when I get back, but I have a job," she observes.
Hills, who has converted from sculling (rowing with two smaller oars) to sweep rowing ("cranking" on one large oar), has just made plans to switch jobs, from one in college crew and recreation, to a position as assistant director of admissions at a prep school. The change was partly made to keep her mentally fresh for training.
Perhaps the most easily translated sacrifice the Henley rowers have made to their sport is the financial one. The Henley trip is costing them about $5,700 for everybody, with whatever doesn't come out of their own pockets or "nonexistent bank accounts" paid for with contributions solicited from family and friends. "I'm still in debt from 1979," Hatton says.