For Philadelphia rowing, there is a shiny beacon of hope that elite rowing returns to the slightly irregularly-shaped 2000 meter course on the Schuylkill. That beacon, The Philadelphia Challenge Cup, is crafted of gold. The 18-inch high Challenge Cup (AKA "the Gold Cup") had been missing for more than 35 years when it was found in a Philadelphia antique and jewelry shop on 8th Street, I. Switt Antiques, by US Rowing Referee and Judge Joan Sholl. That was in 1996, and the Cup has been held up in a legal battle since - until last month.
The complete story and travels of the Gold Cup may never be known, even with the diligence of Schuylkill Navy Commodore Clete Graham's research. Graham has been tracking the mysterious cup in his spare time, intended for the top Amateur Single Sculler of the World and first awarded in 1920, for more than a decade.
Now it is back... and with a vengeance. Purchased by Herb Lotman, founder and CEO of Keystone Foods ( the company was sold in summer of 2010) for an undisclosed amount but valued at 10,000-20,000 dollars when found (considerably more now with price of gold), the Cup has been promised to be awarded again to the top male and female scullers in the World, right from the banks of the Schuylkill. The intended backdrop for the contest is none other than the Aberdeen Dad Vail Regatta, now presented by Coca Cola. Lotman was credited with connecting Aberdeen Asset Management with the regatta when it was threatening to move to Rumson, NJ, in 2010, now he is bringing new sponsors and an interesting twist to the event in 2011. Lotman, whose company has been a major backer of the LPGA tour, has found a new sport in rowing, and is working to return rowing to the glory days of Kelly on said Drive.
With the unprecedented build-up of a Mayoral Press Conference with Philadelphia Mayor Mike Nutter on Tuesday December 21st, this promises to be one of the bigger media events in recent rowing history, and with Henley-style match races to boot. The Henley connection is worth mentioning. The creation of this very cup was a knee jerk to John B. Kelly's exclusion from the prestigious Henley Royal Regatta in England because of his humble, laborer lineage. After he won the Olympic Games in Brussels, Belgium in 1920, Kelly was awarded the newly-commissioned Cup from the Schuylkill Navy. The Cup was intended to be what the Davis Cup is to tennis, Ryder Cup is to golf and America's Cup is to yachting and given to the top amateur sculler in the world annually.
Names on the cup before its disappearance (it is reported to have gone missing in the early 1960s), include big names in rowing history: John B. Kelly Sr (Vesper)., Paul Costello (Vesper), Joe Burk (Penn AC), Vyacheslav Ivanov, who won it for 5 of the years from 1956-1964, (Soviet Union), and Don Spero (NYAC). With its discovery in 1996 and with Clete Graham as the dockmaster at the Olympics in Atlanta, the "Cup" (or a representation of the Cup), was again awarded to the Olympic single sculls winner, Swiss sculler Xeno Mueller, now California erg guru and coach.
This tale is not complete though. The currently unknown path back to Philadelphia reads like a Nancy Drew mystery. There are five theories to its disappearance including (four from Clete Graham's research, one from Joan Sholl, USRA official who found the cup):
The trophy had been obtained legally by the antique shop in a storage unit sale almost 20 years before it was discovered by Sholl. Once discovered, a legal battle began to determine whose it rightfully belonged to... and who had to give or receive the money to keep it. Ultimately, no right was determined, but Lotman was able to purchase the Cup nonetheless, which was then returned to the Schuylkill Navy and a new Challenge Cup Foundation committee chaired by Lotman, with James Barker, Daniel Lyons, William McNabb, and Scot Fisher filling board seats.
"I am thrilled to have it back," says John Hogan, commodore of the Schuylkill Navy, Philadelphia rowing supporter and owner of Mariner Insurance. "God bless Herb Lotman for bringing it back." He adds, "He can pull it off." He is referring to contesting the Philadelphia Challenge Cup again. Hogan is a fixture in Philadelphia rowing and part of the team that hosts one the largest scholastic regattas, The Stotesbury Cup. A press conference with Mayor Michael Nutter today will show that the Gold Cup presents the kind of drama that the failed Dad Vail move did last year, but with a positive, international twist.
Joan Sholl remembers when she first saw the Cup at the antique store in 1996. "I asked for any old rowing medals or trophies... they had an old trophy in the back." When they brought it out, although it hadn't been cleaned in years, "I knew a lot of the names on the trophy, " she said. She couldn't afford the asking price, but called then-commodore Clete Graham after she left the store. Philadelphia attorney and US Rowing official Bob Suter was called in, and the wrangling commenced. Who was the rightful owner? Sholl was not in the ownership lineage, except for the inexplicable draw to the door in the long line of shops on Jeweler's Row that led Schuykill Navy and ultimately Herb Lotman to the trophy. "My husband (rower Jack Sholl, founder of the Golden Eight) always says I do things my own way."
The mystery of the Cup's almost 40-year absence may never be solved. But the future story is equally intriguing. The Philadelphia Challenge Cup committee has already obtained big-dollar sponsorship for the trophy, with $10,000, $5,000 and $2,500 cash awards to the podium positions for both genders. There is an assumption they will craft a replica or similar quality trophy for the female recipients. Invitations will go to the top-four scullers as determined by the FISA standings. And, they will have to do so in May, two weeks before the first World Cup 2011 is contested in Germany (or any World Cup in years to come). Not to mention they will need continued sponsorships to bring these top athletes to Philadelphia. Will Philadelphia have the Henley allure?
There may be other logistical challenges; collegiate coaches might wonder if any more racing squeezed into the two-day collegiate championship regatta, and if there is big hype for the Cup, will it entirely eclipse the collegiate championship, or enliven it? Most rowing folks know the answer to this one; bring it on.
The press conference is this morning, and many questions will be answered (news posts will be on row2k.com) and all rowing eyes will be on the Aberdeen Dad Vail Regatta in May.
(Thanks to Clete Graham for some of this research, and Jim Murray Ltd public relations.)