Rowing eases out of its old, exclusive shell and into the mainstream

As a recreational sport and an alternative form of exercise, rowing is coming out of its shell. For years its Ivy League image - like the stern fa,cade of some private club - kept popular interest at bay.

But public rowing programs - many geared toward beginners - now exist in cities across the United States. Sales in rowing machines and ``trainer'' shells are up. And on-water rowing has gained recognition as an unmatched blend of the athletic and the aesthetic.

When crew racing is showcased at the Seoul Olympics in September, proponents of the sport hope the wide television exposure will finally remove the last vestiges of that elitist aura one spokeswoman calls its ``albatross.''

``Maybe I'm being overly optimistic,'' says Maureen Merhoff of the United States Rowing Association (USRA), ``but [Olympic exposure] could do for rowing what Mary Lou Retton did for gymnastics'' when she vaulted to a US gold medal in 1984.

Of course, the charismatic Retton was fixed in the spotlight. The logistics of rowing put considerable distance between its audience and participants. Live television may shorten that distance.

``In past competitions we've been shown on tape,'' Merhoff says. ``We're thrilled this year to be going live at least part of the time.''

Another lure for American viewers is the caliber of the competition.

``The whole world will finally be there,'' she says, including some East-bloc teams that are perennial powers.

Also generating more popular support and participation is an increase in crew activity beyond those regions traditionally associated with the sport.

The USRA shifted its headquarters from Philadelphia, one such enclave, to Indianapolis in 1985. The move was made financially appealing by city officials in Indianapolis, which is aggressively seeking to solidify a reputation as America's amateur sports capital, but relocating to the Midwest was also a symbolic gesture.

``It was political,'' says Merhoff; ``It kept us from being associated with either coast.'' The move set the tone for rowing's demographic shift - even to such unlikely rowing cities as Atlanta and Oak Ridge, Tenn. Incoming USRA president Peter Zandberger is from Nebraska. He replaces a Bostonian and is the first non-Northeasterner to hold the job.

``Some people might be amazed to learn that Topeka [Kan.] and Des Moines have well-run regattas.'' Merhoff says.

The sport's geographical expansion is measurable.

Membership in the USRA, a rowers' ``club'' and the sport's national governing body, has doubled in two years to about 25,000. The Southwest and Southeast furnished the bulk of the new membership.

At Boston's Head of the Charles Regatta, billed as the world's largest single-day rowing event, 1,400 crews applied for entry last fall. That's 250 more than did the previous year, according to Emily Talcott, the 1987 regatta's director. Many came from the West and Midwest.

At the Craftsbury Sculling Center in Vermont, a $500-per-week rowing camp, enrollment has quadrupled in the last five years, says Russell Spring, one of the camp's founders. Craftsbury's applicant pool has included men and women from Texas, Nebraska, and California.

Some of the credit for rowing's growth goes to the rowing machine, whose sales have experienced a ``meteoric rise,'' according to George Walker, vice-president of sales promotion at Herman's World of Sporting Goods.

Sales have caught up with exercise bikes in total volume, Walker says, though they have been mass-marketed only about half as long.

A good machine like the Concept II, which Merhoff and others say is favored by many rowers, costs between $600 and $800. So it may be cheaper to take to the water.

``A whole gamut of people are now sharing the costs of boats or joining community and amateur rowing programs,'' she says.

Many clubs charge a flat membership that includes use of boats. Owning equipment privately remains costly, though not prohibitive.

A single-seat Alden Ocean Shell ``trainer,'' considered the industry benchmark, costs about $1,400 including oars. Spring says there is a tendency for learners to ``overbuy'' flashy elite shells, when a simple recreational boat like the Alden would suffice. Others agree: Start simple.

``As more people get involved, there is more used equipment looking for a home,'' Merhoff says. ``Five years ago getting hold of a single would've been tough. Not anymore.'' Magazines like American Rowing carry classified ads full of used equipment.

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