row2k Features
Ernestine Bayer: Mother of U.S. Women's Rowing
Excerpt from the book by Lew Cuyler
December 7, 2006
Lew Cuyler

From the book cover

Following are two excerpts from Lew Cuyler's new authorized biography of the great Ernestine Bayer, who passed away on September 10 of this year at the age of 97, just one week after the publication of the book. The 211 page book is illustrated by 43 photographs. The book may be ordered from the author (413 496 9160 or for $20 including tax and shipping or from at $16.99. For more about Lew and the porject, see the release at the close of the excerpts below.

Chapter 1: Head of the Charles 2001

"Did you hear that?" the tall blonde with a ponytail exclaimed. "That's so cool!"

"What's that you say, girl?" her companion, equally tall but a brunette, responded. Both wore loose-fitting sweatshirts indicating to all that they were rowers for the University of Connecticut women's eight. Both were so consumed by the excitement of the day that they could not be still, not even for a minute.

This was their first Head of the Charles Regatta, the Cambridge, Massachusetts event that is the largest rowing classic in the world. They had arrived two hours earlier and had just finished unloading and rigging the eight-oared shell they would race the next day, October 22, 2001. On their way to the vendor tents, they had paused to buy sandwiches and drinks, and were now watching the doubles races while scarfing down lunch.

On Magazine Beach that sunny fall afternoon, the club races seemed but a footnote to the colorful carnival of shells, trailers, rowers, tents, vendors, rubberneckers, and reunions everywhere. For these two women rowers, in the full flush of their youth, watching the doubles was just one moment among many of the rowing world's most exciting weekend.

Oblivious to anyone listening, their conversation resumed.

"Hear that clapping and shouting down there?" said the first girl. "The announcer just said that the double is being stroked by a ninety-two year old woman. Can you imagine?"

"Ninety-two years old! No way," said the brunette, laughing off the impossibility.

The double was approaching their vantage point. The clapping and shouting swelled.

"Go, Ernie," the crowd yelled.

And indeed, there she was, white-haired Ernestine Bayer, stroking the double with her partner, Abby Peck, the Wellesley women's crew coach and former Olympian. Their near-flawless rowing seemed almost effortless.

"Yay, Ernie Bayer, go for it!" the older guy behind them yelled. "You're looking good. Pow-wer, pow-wer!"

The blonde turned to the older guy.

"Who's Ernie Bayer?" she asked.

"She's the mother of women's rowing in this country," the older guy replied. "She's the one who made it possible for you to row. She founded the first women's rowing club in America. Now women are about half the competitive rowing population in the US, and Ernie had a lot to do with that. … Go Ernie!" he shouted, adding an exclamation point to his quick rowing history lesson.

"Awesome," said the brunette. "Do you know her?"

"A little," he said. "I met her in 1992 at a regatta in New York State. I found myself standing next to her watching women's singles races. She commented on the stroke of each woman, picking out what they were doing right and what they were doing wrong. I was impressed with her knowledge.

"When she started rowing, everyone said, 'Women can't row,'" he mused. "She made liars out of all of them."

"I coach high school women rowers," he continued. "They live in the Now, but I make sure they know the history of their sport. I tell them all about Ernestine Bayer. She's an icon."

"Good luck in your race tomorrow," he concluded. "Row it for Ernestine. She's the one who made it happen, and now you have seen her."

"Go, Ernie!" they shouted before they moved on.

"Hey, thanks for telling us about her," said the blonde.

Abby Peck later said that the race was a rare experience. "The wave of applause was so fitting. I felt honored to be in the shell with her, enabling her to hear the salute she so richly deserved. I saw several photos of us rowing that race. In each one, Ernie is obviously pulling like mad. And she's grinning."

Chapter 24: "The Most Unforgettable Row of my Life"

Ernie once said that she had no regrets about being too old to compete in the 1976 Olympics. "I'll never know whether I would have been good enough to compete," she told the Portsmouth ( NH) Press in a 1993 interview. "Of course, if there had been women's rowing early on, there would have been a lot more competition. There just wasn't much when I was competing."

She had laid the groundwork for competitive women's rowing in the United States, but by the time it was established she was too old to compete in the major national and international races. Her only option was to row in seniors events where competition was very limited. The many awards she won late in her life leave us to wonder: How good was she?

Holly Metcalf, a member of the first US women's eight to win an Olympic Gold, in 1984, has offered at least a partial answer. She first met Ernie in Philadelphia, when the women's eight was inducted into the Rowing Hall of Fame, an honor they and Ernie shared that year.

"At that time, I really did not know much about her," said Metcalf. "We wanted to go out for a celebration row the next day, but we had a vacant seat because Carie Graves could not make the ceremony. We decided to invite Ernie to row with us and it turned out that the experience was quite extraordinary."

Metcalf said that she rowed in the two seat and Carie Graves rowed in four, considered a power seat in the "engine room" of the eight. Ernie, she said, did not want to row in the four seat so Metcalf switched and gave her two seat to Ernie.

"We did not expect much," she said. "Carie is six feet one and Ernie is five feet five, so aside from the age difference there was a huge height difference. We decided it would be a paddle and we were going to be nice. We did not want to hurt her. But as it turned out, we were being patronizing."

"We did a few light pieces, and then took a break," she recalled. "After a couple of seconds, Ernie said, 'Come on girls, stop being easy on me. In the next piece, show me your stuff.'"

The comment surprised the crew.

"So we did a few high intensity pieces and we were amazed at how well we made the shell run," Metcalf continued. .

She and the rest of the crew were even more amazed when Ernie said, "Show me again. Let's take a start and ten," meaning ten power strokes.

The crew hesitated but then without speaking to each other each began to realize that this white haired oarswoman in the two seat felt that they were still holding back and that she wanted them to show real power for the next sequence.

The coxswain gave the command and the crew exploded, each oarswoman exerting maximum power. The shell literally flew through the water as if it had a rocket at its stern. The piece ended, the oarswomen feathered their oars and collectively rejoiced at the power.

"We really could not tell the difference because she was in the boat," Holly said later. " Her stroke was absolutely smooth and she blended in beautifully."

Ernie said that it had been "the most unforgettable row of my life. I have never had such a smooth, powerful row. I cried after the row and I still cry every time I think of it. I've wondered ever since what it would have been like if they had been at full power for more strokes. I was humbled. I had conned them into doing a few racing starts. We took the stroke up three times during three racing starts plus ten power strokes and I don't think I could have taken an eleventh stroke. We were airborne…"

Metcalf was equally moved. "At the time of the row, none of us in the boat really understood how much personal pain she had gone through with the sport of rowing or how she dealt with elements within the rowing community that had ostracized her. She told us during the row that she was not of our caliber… But she was seventy-five years old and our generation had a different toehold on the sport of rowing.

"Following that row, we all could imagine her as an Olympic athlete, even when she could not see it for herself."

"As for me," she continued, "I finally understood what she made possible."

In later years, Holly became active in promoting women in rowing with a focus on those who were recovering from breast cancer and from abuse.

"My respect for Ernie just kept growing," she said, "Ernie's a purist, someone who exults in the sheer joy of movement. Growing up, she wanted to excel in running or swimming, but she found rowing.

"She just could not help herself. … The idea that she should encounter opposition in something so pure and so simple as rowing was unthinkable."

A second testimony to Ernie's rowing ability came from Abby Peck, the Wellesley women's coach, who stroked the women's four in the 1984 Olympics and held down the four seat in the 1988 Olympics. She was Ernie's rowing partner in a double in several races during the 1990s.

"Ernie always wanted to do Power Tens," she said. "She was strong, she was smooth, I could follow her, and even though her stroke was not as long as mine, it was rhythmic and it just clicked into the groove. Her set was perfect. She made rowing easy and fun. It was just amazingly deceptive to see this apparently frail woman step into a boat and be transformed right before your eyes into a fiercely competitive athlete."

When Ernestine Bayer had started rowing, the male community was certain that women could never share the exhilaration that came from the power of sending a shell through the water. In the pre-Ernie era of prim and proper women, men questioned how women could possibly understand what rowing was about.

"In my era," Carie Graves said, "women began to experience making a shell go fast and to discover the pleasure of hurting so much—breathing hard, and sweating, and going over the top. Men began to recognize that we could experience the same kind of pain and commitment that they could and that was what Ernie had started….

"The result of Ernie was that we proved to men and to other women that we can do this, that we are tough, and that we are indeed people who can excel in a demanding sport."

Ernie had known this from the first time she saw her husband row. Her row with the 1984 Olympians was an epiphany. "Despite all of the work I had done, I knew that those women in the Olympic gold medal eight were just the beginning and that women had scarcely begun exploring their power through sports.

"They had asked me to row with them and I was honored," she said. "During that row I felt the power of everything I had ever done. It was a payback."

PITTSFIELD, MA – Lew Cuyler, a retired journalist and senior single sculler, is the author of a biography, published this fall, entitled Ernestine Bayer: Mother of U.S. Women's Rowing.

"Ernestine Bayer, who died Sept. 10, made competitive women's rowing happen in the 1930s, a time when the sport was exclusively male," Cuyler said. "Throughout her life she fought for acceptance of women's rowing and she became a major influence in seeing to it that oarswomen would compete for the first time in the 1976 Olympics.

Born in 1909, she grew up in Philadelphia and in 1928 married Ernest Bayer, an oarsman who subsequently won a silver medal in the Olympics later that year. An athlete, Ernestine wanted to learn to row but was denied membership to the clubs along the Schuylkill River because she was a woman, Cuyler said.

"She became so upset at the prevailing attitude that she led a group of women in founding the Philadelphia Girls Rowing Club in 1938. And then, as she told me, 'All hell broke loose on Boathouse Row'" as male oarsmen made it clear that the women were not welcome.

The biography tells how she prevailed and how she dedicated her life to opening the sport to women, no matter what the obstacles.

In 1967, despite opposition from the male rowing establishment, she organized the first women's eight to row in international competition, a move that advanced the European campaign for women to row in the Olympics. Her efforts were an important prelude to Title IX, the federal legislation passed in 1972 that required colleges and universities to provide equal opportunities for women in athletics, opening the door for women's rowing programs.

Women's rowing has experienced tremendous growth since. In 1976 oarswomen competed in the Olympics for the first time and the U.S. women won a bronze. In 1984, they won a gold, and in 2004, a silver. Today, estimates indicate more women participate in the sport than men.

"I came to know Ernie through my own rowing experience," Cuyler said, "She was remarkable. There she was, in her early 90s, still rowing and competing. I sensed that her life and her commitment to the sport were a compelling story. I finally decided I should write that story and began the manuscript last January."

Cuyler rowed in both school and college but gave it up to pursue journalism. He started rowing singles in 1987 on Lake Onota in Pittsfield, where he had moved after joining The Berkshire Eagle. He became business editor in 1988.

"I found I loved rowing just as much at 56 as I did at 16," he said. He retired from The Eagle in 1995 to start his own business, Berkshire Sculling Inc., and to lead the effort to found a rowing club now known as BRASS, the Berkshire Rowing and Sculling Society. In the meantime Berkshire Sculling Inc. leases and sells single rowing shells.

Now 73, Cuyler competes regularly in seniors rowing. In September he won two gold medals in world competition in New Jersey. His wife, Harriet, also competes and has become one of the top women singles rowers in the U.S. in her age group.

Ernestine Bayer died Sept. 10 at the age of 97, only a week or so after the book's publication.

Cuyler has self-published the book through BookSurge, an company.

The 211 page book is illustrated by 43 photographs. The book may be ordered from the author (413 496 9160 or for $20 including tax and shipping or from at $16.99.

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