Almost everyone rowing in the US since 1980 is aware of the CRASH-B Sprints; like the other high-profile (and idiosyncratic) Boston rowing event, the Head of the Charles, the CRASH-B Sprints are rowing institutions in Boston and beyond. And while the impact of losing the designation of "World Indoor Rowing Championships" was noticeable in Boston for the 2018 CRASH-B Sprints, in talking with both longtime and newer CRASH-B organizers and board members in Boston, row2k found that the spirit of the CRASH-Bs was very much alive and undaunted by the changes and external forces which have impacted the regatta in the past year.
To put the "then and now" into perspective, longtime CRASH-B Board Member Geoffrey Knauth offered up a thumbnail sketch of CRASH-Bs history.
"1980 was my freshman year [at Harvard], and we had Olympians in the boat house, because Harry was not just the Harvard coach but he was also the Olympic Men's eight coach. Then the Olympic boycott happened and we had a lot of Olympians who were very, very frustrated and angry that they trained for 4 years and politics and world events were going to rob them of the chance to compete in the Olympics.
"Right about the same time. the Dreissigacker brothers [founders of Concept2, eds] invented the Model A erg, they brought it to Newell boathouse, and the athletes organized a fun regatta of about 20 rowers. There was a coach with a rain slicker inside with a bullhorn, there was a keg of beer, the race was 5 miles on the Model A; it was just for fun and to blow off steam. Mostly Olympic rowers, some other Harvard guys and their friends," continued Knauth.
"Then it was like, 'well, that was fun, let's try it again,' and it grew and it grew. Within a couple of years we were up to 700 people. A few years after that we were up to 2,000 people. We kept having to move to larger venues, but the spirit was always, 'this is our event, we are in control of that; we may not have been in control of being able to go to the Olympics, we may not have been in control of our destiny at that moment in time, but we are taking control of our destiny here with this event.'"
Given its origins among experienced international athletes, it was no surprise that the event would go international at some point, said Knauth. "We got the East Germans and the Chinese to come in the late 80s, as well as the Soviets. Even before that we had the Brits and the French coming, and the Germans. We had Redgrave coming; he and Andy Sudduth had a big showdown here, and that's the only time I ever saw a Redgrave lose a race."
The original indoor rowing event has aged well in 37 years
It was also inevitable that rowing's governing body would take an interest. "Sometime in the '80s, FISA took notice of CRASH-B, and they sent a letter that said something to the effect of 'offering to incorporate CRASH-B into their vision of rowing,' and then Tiff Wood or Kurt Somerville composed a tongue-in-cheek letter back to FISA, telling them that we would be happy to incorporate them into our vision of rowing if they were amenable, and I don't think we ever got a response."
For Knauth, this desire to not ever take themselves too seriously is at the heart of the CRASH-Bs. "It's never disrespect, but it is fun and the key is not to take yourself too seriously," he said. "Just have fun and work hard. Benevolent irreverence."
Knauth also acknowledged that the tension between CRASH-Bs desire to always be in control of their own destiny played a part in the changes CRASH-B experienced in the past year, but he was philosophical.
"We're not here to be dinosaurs. We never intended to be dinosaurs in the beginning, and we don't want to be dinosaurs now," he said. "At the same time, we understand that the world is changing. What happens is, we have these meetings and then every so often we will get an instruction from an external party that says 'you have to do things this way' and we will discuss this like, 'wait a minute, we don't have to do anything because that's not how we started.' So, we'll discuss it seriously but also try to remind ourselves where we came from and how we should respond."
Current CRASH-B Commodore Amanda Milad echoed Knauth's historical perspective.
"Thirty-seven years ago no one was getting together and racing on ergs, and it's grown tremendously worldwide," said Milad. "We pride ourselves in having been the place where people have come from all over the world, and now people can race in their home countries and that wasn't possible even 10, 15, 20 years ago. I'm a rowing person and I think the more you can make it fun, the bigger we can make the sport, the better for the sport. My thoughts are just, 'let's keep it growing.' We still have a lot of board members who were there at the beginning and it's really fun to hear how it started and that fact that indoor rowing was not a thing; it didn't exist before it was started here."
Even without retaining the title of 'World Indoor Championships,' Milad felt optimistic that the CRASH-Bs will continue to be a marquee event.
"I think a lot of people just like to come to Boston, and we love having them," she said. "There's something to be said about a race that happens year after year in the same venue, in the same place. Like the Head Of The Charles, like the San Diego Crew Classic, people sort of have their schedules of enjoying a weekend in Boston, a weekend in California, and so I think a lot of people come for that reason. There were some changes in the numbers, but the goal is to provide a good athlete experience and I think we were able to achieve that again this year regardless of any changes."
Balancing fun and serious rowing is in the CRASH-B DNA
This history of irreverence while providing a competitive experience is what the CRASH-B leadership aims to preserve going forward.
"I wouldn't even say that people are taking CRASH-Bs less seriously now," Milad said. "What we've been talking about as a board and as an event is that we want it to be a fun, lighthearted event while acknowledging that the athletes do take it really seriously, they work really hard to get here to get here.
"We had competitors aged 12 to 97 today, and I always think of CRASH-Bs along the same lines as the Head of the Charles as the two big Boston events, and I think that both of them can have this balance between lots of tradition and fun but still offering athletes a very high level of competition."