Since the first intercollegiate race between Harvard and Yale in 1852, rowing has typically been regarded as an elite sport reserved for cardigan-clad men from the Northeast's most hallowed universities.
But when the long crew shells gracefully slipped into the water this weekend for Boston's Head of the Charles - the largest two-day regatta in the world with an estimated 300,000 spectators - more than a century of stereotypes were left foundering in their wake.
For the first time in the 35-year history of the event, more women than men competed in the regatta's elite Champion Eight race. Women's participation in the regatta's 20 events also rose dramatically.
In response to Title IX - which mandates equal spending for men's and women's sports at public institutions - colleges have added women's crew to balance their athletic lineups. Since the 1996-97 season, the number of women's varsity crew programs nationwide has almost doubled from 74 to about 140.
Even at this early stage, the change is already having a significant impact on American rowing. It has become a popular women's sport in places like Kentucky, where it had previously been unknown. And across the US, high schools are beginning to offer rowing programs to keep up with demand.
For this year's Champion Eight race, arguably the most closely watched race of the regatta, "the change is a direct result of the NCAA decision three years ago to make women's rowing a varsity sport," says Katy Bonnin of the Head of the Charles organizing committee. "We're really seeing a difference in the numbers, especially from universities that are traditionally big football schools."
The University of Louisville in Kentucky is one of the schools that is eagerly responding to the ubiquitous crew command, "Ready all, row."
After two seasons, the program at Louisville is an infant, but already coach Julio Viyella has a team of about 30 - enough to fill out three eight-person boats and maybe a four-person boat. He hopes to add a crew of eight each year until he reaches 60 athletes.
At the Head of the Eagle regatta in Indianapolis last weekend, Louisville's women's eight won a silver medal, coming in one second behind rowing powerhouse University of Wisconsin - not bad for the team's first official race.
Many universities that have traditionally been strong in men's sports have recently added varsity crew programs. This year, schools with relatively new varsity crew programs, such as Michigan State, Florida State, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, University of Iowa, University of Tulsa, and University of Indiana, made an appearance at this weekend's Head of the Charles.
The popularity of women's rowing at the college level is providing impetus for high schools to start rowing teams of their own. In Louisville, two local high schools, Assumption High School and Sacred Heart Academy, are starting their own crew programs. And at Community Rowing, the only public nonprofit club here in the Boston area, junior women's coach Ethan Curren teaches girls from all over the city and its suburbs.
"I don't have rowers come up and say, 'I want to row because it will help me get into college....' These athletes have to be here because they love it," he says.
And more then that, Mr. Curren adds, rowing is helping many of them feel better about themselves. "Rowing is a power sport. Within rowing, tall muscular girls don't have to feel ashamed that they aren't a size 2," he says. "I have seen many a 14-year-old girl who came to slouching to hide her height as much as possible, who is then transformed into someone proud of her physique through crew."
Frank Coyle, executive director of the US Rowing Association, says programs for older women and men have also been increasing. "Rowing is still a 'green' sport that cuts across age barriers and can be done for a lifetime," he says.
Yet some of the world's best rowers never touched an oar until college. And one of Viyella's rowers, a 6 ft., 3 in. Oklahoman, was wooed by Division II and III basketball coaches. She turned them down to try something different: crew.
Since his days as a rower at the University of Miami, Viyella has coached women's teams at colleges from Florida to Texas, and he says crew has always been received with open arms. "A strong sports tradition already exists here [at Louisville]," he says. "Why not support an even more traditional sport like rowing?"
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society