The oars barely clear the puddles, the slides rocket into the stern on each recovery, the blades seem to hesitate for weeks above the water and then thrash in with all the grace of a drunken spider doing a belly flop. It's one of those days. "Can you believe this?" you ask your trusty dog perched in the bow of your launch. You've already tried every drill in the book, you've cajoled, you've cursed, you've thrown your megaphone. A couple of them in each boat look like they've given it up long ago. Nothing left to do but let them take it on in. If only we weren't four miles from the boathouse.
But wait, you think. I know what'll shake them up.
"Weigh enough. Let's pull the boats together." The oarsmen grimace and sullenly sip at their water. You notice, not for the first time, how similar their suckling is to the way your ten-month old sucks on a bottle.
"Who's switching coach?" the coxswain asks eagerly.
"Peterson and..." Suddenly, genius strikes. "...And this!" You reach down into the paper bag next to your feet and extract a Twinkie from the lunch you never ate. "Yes. Peterson, in the launch. Twinkie, five seat."
The boats start up again, the Twinkie perched delicately on the five seat. Peterson, furious, head bent down, hunched in your launch's bow with the dog.
"On this one." The eights start to pick up speed. Despite its ungainly rhythm, the shell with eight men rowing surges forward. Of course.
But hold on here, the Twinkie is hanging in there. The seven men are straining, it's no thing of beauty, but their shell has moved back. And taken a seat. Two seats. They're going through. By god, they are. They're taking a full length. The Twinkie has done it!
Every coach's dream? Rower's nightmare?
A story to this effect has been going around rowing circles for years. I can recall one zealous assistant coach at a selection camp in 1983 who swore that she could replace a certain oarswoman with any household appliance -- toaster, blender, or waffle iron -- and the boat would go faster. We nicknamed this coach "General Electric," but she never made good on her threat. Has it been done? And with a Twinkie?
I started asking people if they had heard this story. Many have; some swear it is true. "A friend of mine was in the boat it happened to," is an assertion I've heard quite a few times. When pressed -- Which friend? Where did he row? Who was her coach? -- No one can quite remember.
Until I got to Steve Wagner, that is. Steve Wagner. Head men's coach at Rutgers. Program director at Craftsbury Sculling Center. All-American nice guy. College coach of three of the oarsmen in the 1994 World Champion men's eight at Indy. Twinkie racer?
Several people pointed me in his direction. One friend cautioned, "I don't know, it might have been a ham sandwich. But I'm pretty sure that Steve has done this." I called him up.
"Yeah, I admit it. I have done that," Steve ventured a bit hesitantly. "Actually it was a spark plug, though. I was really mad at some freshmen I was coaching at F.I.T. back in the late seventies. And I just looked down, saw the spark plug, and said, "I'll bet this spark plug could pull harder than you are right now."
Like many of the great discoverers (Edison and Newton come to mind), a happy accident set a whole chain of events in motion. There just happened to be a spark plug rolling around in the bottom of his launch? Fate or divine inspiration? You decide.
Ever the coach, I was curious about the results. Did the spark plug actually win? And by how much?
You bet it did. If a coach knows what's going on in his crew and can see that one guy isn't pulling, getting that extra weight out of there can make a huge difference.
Steve warmed to his tale, "In fact I've never had a piece of fruit or a sandwich lose. It was a great eye-opener for those freshmen. It taught them one of rowing's most valuable lessons, that everyone counts. Nobody can get a free ride." His soft chuckle came over the phone line. "I haven't done that in years," he added wistfully. "But it sure does wake people up."
One last question, Steve. "Ever use a Twinkie?" Visions of massive endorsements and sponsorships by Hostess danced through my mind.
"Nope. Peanut butter and jelly was my favorite."
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