Premier prep school regatta is cradle of American rowing

New England's prep school crews came back to Lake Quinsigamond here last Saturday, drawn together again to perpetuate a rite of Old School spring. It was a day representing much more than a series of boat races: an annual gathering of rival schools that were venerable back when much of the United States was considered sagebrush country.

But the clubbiness didn't dampen the competition.

This is a day of urgent rowing sanctioned by the New England Interscholastic Rowing Association (NEIRA), the climax of a 5-weekend season for crews from 30 schools. Officially it is the NEIRA Regatta. On school calendars it's usually just ``Worcester'' or ``Interschols.''

Really it's a sort of prep crew mecca.

``All the New England schools that row come out,'' says Peter Washburn, NEIRA chairman and coach of boys' crew at Phillips Andover Academy near Boston.

``If you throw the rest of the season out,'' he says, ``what you do on this weekend makes your season.''

Despite a chill wind, a modest crowd huddled on the shore. Members of the sport's relatively small, hard-core following swirled around among the busy, bright-colored encampments of bare-legged rowers.

Four decades after it began, this regatta perhaps represents the best grass-roots example of competitive crew racing the US has to offer.

``There's no question, in lots of different ways prep crew has been the life-blood of the sport,'' says the Rev. Thad Bennett, director of the regatta and a former prep, college, and US youth team oarsman.

``Everybody who rows knows exactly what the regatta is,'' agrees Washburn, ``and it's as much a true championship as an `event.'''

In 1947, just a handful of New England schoolboys and their sleek wooden boats were entered. Forty years on, it's still schoolboys (and since 1974, schoolgirls) who come to race: in elimination heats of six shells at a time down a 1,500-meter course on this serpentine lake.

When boats aren't actually surging past there is a significant amount of familial handshaking and backslapping going on throughout the finish-line crowd.

The perennial clusters of shirt-traders campaign to deal for the winning schools' T-shirts. Expensive foreign cars and long, low boat trailers jam the parking lot. Everybody seems to know everybody. And while that isn't quite the case, to say that an exclusive private club had been reconvened would not be too far off the mark.

``Some of those watching are old rowers who have been out of actually rowing for a while, but who just can't help but come back to see,'' according to Mr. Bennett. Often they needn't travel far.

``New England has been turning out oarsmen for years and years,'' says Washburn. ``It's really a hotbed up here.'' It is the cradle of crew in the United States, and the legacy it has fostered lends a real sense of ancestry.

The ``ancestral'' aura permeating crew actually dates back to 1811, when the sport was dreamed up at an unflinching bastion of Old World elitism: England's Eton College (basically the equivalent of the prep schools represented here). It was taken up as a competitive event by Oxford and Cambridge Universities in 1829.

The American version was no less nobly conceived. Harvard and Yale began racing each other in 1852, creating America's first intercollegiate athletic event by imitating ``The Boat Race'' between their English counterparts.

Today public and private clubs, colleges, and high schools compete from Florida to the state of Washington. But threads of the old pattern remain.

``You often hear about so-and-so, who rowed at Andover and then at Yale or Harvard,'' says Washburn, who, along with his younger brother, Andy, rowed for St. Andrew's in Delaware, Syracuse University, and the US lightweight team.

Private preparatory schools - once centered exclusively in the Northeast - were first in the wake of the Ivy League colleges, a natural trickle-down given that such schools were initially designed to ``feed'' students to the Ivy League.

``There's a natural connection,'' says Washburn, noting that ``Exeter, whose school color is red, has long been a feeder for Harvard; Andover, whose color is blue, has been a feeder into Yale.''

There is a similar link in the sport's competitive roots. Early races often pitted prep rowers against college freshmen. And most prep school boathouses can boast a few dusty trophies that attest to victories wrested from the ``lower boats'' of college powers.

Good rowing is so disciplined and practiced an art that the achievement of fluidity and speed of execution - which aficionados call ``the symphony of motion'' - ensures that only a well-drilled crew will ever hold off another in a grueling race.

And if crew racing doesn't blur the turnstiles the way some other sports do, devotees don't seem to care. They're sold on the sport as a cause.

``Rowing is not a game,'' an English crew coach said over 35 years ago; ``the dictionary will not let you either play or play at rowing.''

``We push them pretty hard,'' says Andy Washburn, who serves as boys' coach at Connecticut's Pomfret School as well as NEIRA secretary.

So on colorless March mornings, most crews launch their shells and multi-oared training ``barges'' and start negotiating ice floes during long rows on stretches of gray water. Early sessions are often characterized by the frustration of ``catching crabs'' (when an oar slices in and shoots toward the bottom in a fast digging motion that can hoist an oarsman over the gunwale). But then come the race weekends - and renewed motivation.

``Through the season, word spreads quickly about who's going fast,'' says Andy Washburn.

The rainbow, of course, is the promise of a series of blurred, six-minute, 1,500-meter races here in May. Perhaps in the sun and on ``flat'' water.

Most every school has had its day of glory, and there have been a few dynasties. Pomfret School dominated the fours event in the early years; Connecticut's Kent School won the varsity eights four straight years in the late 1960s; and St. Paul's in New Hampshire has dominated girls' eights racing on and off since it began.

``The competition is keen, there's no question,'' says Andy Washburn, ``even between those boats that are a full minute off the winning pace.''

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