AH, PHILADELPHIA IN SPRINGTIME. No, it isn't Paris, but there are some similarities. Both have rivers that run through them, at least, and like the Seine, the olive-colored river that runs through Philly is peppered with random parks and statuary. Numerous old bridges also traverse the Schuylkill, some of them made famous by the local oarsman and painter Thomas Eakins, who studied abroad at L'École des Beaux Arts. Most of the serious artwork, of course, is housed in the Philadelphia Art Museum, but there are outdoor sculptures scattered about the area near Boathouse Row -itself one of the most visually stunning examples of rowing architecture in the United States.
As our charter bus crossed over the Girard Bridge, we got a quick bird's eye view of this historic waterway, the one we'd soon be racing on. Then we banked a right onto Kelly Drive, which brought us down to water level. Already, the Schuylkill was awash with other crews, and as we drove along the east bank of the river, Peter played tour guide, identifying blade colors of local clubs - Penn AC, Vesper, Fairmount, and his old high school crew, Haverford. He also pointed out noteworthy landmarks like the Strawberry Mansion Bridge, which marked the 1500-meter pivot point of the dogleg racecourse.
"And there's the statue of Jack Kelly," Peter said.
The statue of Jack Kelly near the Schuylkill 2000m finish line
We spied a bronze statue of a giant oarsman in a single scull, perched just before the grandstands that marked the finish line.
"Who the hell is that?" Rob asked.
"Just some dead dude," Porgy chimed in.
"No, not just some dead dude." Carl Rox bellowed. "Kelly was one of the most famous oarsmen of all time!"
"Yeah, show some respect, dumbass frosh," Mongo added.
"I've heard of Grace Kelly," Heidi offered.
"That's his daughter," Bill Witherspoon said. "Her performance in Rear Window was outstanding, and of course now she's the Princess of Monaco who -
"Look, there's the steps that Rocky ran up!" Wean cut in.
We were now passing by the Philadelphia Art Museum.
"Dude, we definitely need to run up those bad boys before our race!" Joe said.
Clearly, Rocky Balboa was more important than Jack Kelly.
What happens when you put 56 oarsmen in one hotel? Add 18 female rowers into the mix, and you have a recipe for misadventure. The Trinity women had finally joined us for our last trip, having followed their own schedule during the season. The women's varsity eight, stroked by Cynda Davis, had gone undefeated, and just like us, they had high hopes to win big.
They referred to themselves as "The Sultans of Swing," and all the way down to Philly, they blasted the Dire Straits song again and again, until someone finally wrestled their boom box away from them and tossed the cassette tape out the window, replacing it with the Rolling Stones classic "Shattered." By the time we entered the City of Brotherly Love, everyone had joined in with the ragged voice of Mick Jagger, who whipped us into an R&B frenzy:
Laughter, joy, and loneliness and sex and sex and sex and sex
And look at me -I'm in tatters
When the bus stopped, Norm Graf stood up and tried to restore order.
"Okay, everyone! Now I know this is our first coed outing of the season..."
Hoots and hollers rang out, not all of which came from the men's team.
"...but this is also our last race, and we have a real chance to win the Jack Bratten Point Trophy—but only if everyone pulls hard and works to their potential."
More cheers were heard, but the message quickly sank in and delivered its sobering effect.
"And so, while I know that it will be a grave disappointment for some of you to hear, I want you all to abstain from any sex this weekend, which has been scientifically proven to reduce sports performance."
Graf glared at us, trying to keep a straight face while groans, snickering, and other sounds followed. "That's bullshit," someone muttered.
"WELL, HELL'S BELLS!" Cynda Davis boomed from the back of the bus. "I think I can keep a lid on things, if all of you boys can manage to keep your hands off me!"
"AHHH! Let me out of here!" a chorus of male voices shouted, and the stampede to exit the bus commenced.
At the hotel, I was slated to room with Peter, and because of his contacts at Undine Barge, Trinity had been granted permission to boat from that prestigious old club, situated at #13 Boathouse Row. After a quick change of clothes, we all ran back down to the river, dodging cars on Kelly Drive, and began to rig our shell. It was time to learn the ways of the Schuylkill. Other crews were doing the same, and Boathouse Row quickly became a virtual beehive of activity, with a slew of oarsmen and coaches promenading along the sidewalk, marshaled by Dad Vail race officials dressed in bright yellow jackets. They certainly had their hands full, with 235 crews and 1,650 oarsmen from 54 colleges in attendance that weekend.
On the way to our shell trailer to fetch some oars, I managed to bump straight into none other than Michael Caluso, who was walking around Kelly Drive with one of his Coast Guard teammates. We both stopped dead in our tracks and stared each other up and down for a few long seconds. I started to turn around when Caluso held up his hand and walked over, acting as if we were old buddies.
"Hey, Boyne. How's it going? This is my teammate, Gerald."
I shook Gerald's hand. They both had crew cuts in the military fashion.
"What's up with you?" I asked.
"Well, we haven't lost a race since we met you guys back in April."
"That's great," I said. "Neither have we."
There was an uncomfortable silence. Then Gerald wandered off, leaving the two of us alone.
"Hey, I know there's been some bad feelings between us in the past," Caluso said, "but let's let bygones be bygones." He stuck out his hand and then added, "May the best boat win."
I stared at his hand for a second, as if it were a poisonous snake.
"Okay," I said, and we locked grips.
For a nanosecond, I entertained the notion that the guy who had tortured me all through high school had finally owned up to his past misdeeds. But the sentiment didn't match up with Caluso's grip, which was hard and aggressive and not at all friendly.
"See you at the finish line," he said, grinning smugly like he'd already won the race.
I rejoined my frosh lightweight squad and we shoved off from Undine to take our first and only practice row. At first, we were totally preoccupied with the challenge of trying to negotiate our way through the logjam of other crews, but once we rowed upstream and crossed over to the far shore, things grew quieter and we enjoyed distant views of old mansions, which sat on grassy hummocks and suggested a time gone by. Further upstream, past the starting line, lay East Falls and the splendor of the river's upper reaches.
I thought about a lot of things during that practice row, but none of them really mattered in the end, save one. And as Heidi called our minds back into the boat and we started our pre-race sequence of starts and short pieces, everything quickly washed away in the one desire and the ultimate reason to row - to win.
(Author's Note: This is a work of "creative non-fiction," which means that it is more or less true. Some of the names of the characters have been altered, mostly to protect them from identification. The story takes place in the mid-1970s, a time in when the sport of rowing was in a period of change, and so was the author's life. Enjoy!)
For more on Dan Boyne, go to www.danboyne.com.