As we've already seen, 2020 was a banner year for rowing books (examples here, here and here). With rowing dormant for much of last year, at least in the States, the void was filled with stories of transformation and triumph, athletic achievement and personal growth. And while all of these books definitely showcased rowing as a sport, only a few of them touched on rowing as an idea.
This gap is now filled with the arrival of Phil Stekl's coffee table book "The Wondrous Sport of Rowing." A slim, oversize volume of verse and photography, Stekl's book clearly means to remind us of all of the things we love about rowing, the deep pull of gliding along on the water.
The book defies easy description; you could call it a poetry book, a photography book, a work of whimsy--whatever word you use, you'd be right. The photos, beautifully showcased in the book's oversize format, span rowing details from competition to landscapes (and even include some in the style of Walter Wick's "I Spy" series). The accompanying verse ranges from lighthearted to deep, and touches on the rowing themes of nature, mystery, and a host of others.
It's great fun; accompanying a two page spread of a group of Junior Boys racing past a very clearly naked group of sunbathers, Stekl pairs the photo with this verse:
"Junior only to the codes that keep one afloat
Is the cardinal rule in rowing matters cutthroat
Exhorted by all seasoned coaches, and I quote:
'No matter what, Scout, keep your eyes in the boat!'"
Stekl is not a newbie to any of this; a member of the 1980 and 1984 US Olympic teams, Stekl has truly spent decades watching the sport, and after retiring to Austria after a long financial career in the US, he's clearly enjoying himself. Nor is Stekl a novice photographer, and some of his images are stunning (one, which I won't spoil here, involves a single sculler and a swan in a way very few people, if any, have ever experienced). His new surroundings in Austria certainly don't hurt his cause (or the backgrounds of his pictures, whew), but Stekl would certainly be capable of producing these fine views from anywhere.
As Stekl's former USA teammate John Chatzky states in the book's introduction, "we train, we compete, we race and we are all driven by a desire to excel and to win but we are equally thrilled by the beauty of the motion, the sounds we experience together, the joy of the run of the shell beneath us and the wonders that surround us. All of this has been captured in this book."
51% of the proceeds from the sale of the book will be donated to the Kafue River & Watershed Center in Zambia, a cooperative effort between WorldRowing and the World Wide Fund for Nature.
As light as Stekl's book is, after a year where a whole lot of folks did not get to row as much as they might have liked, this might be the book that all folks who truly love rowing need at this juncture.