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Rowing Rivalry : Strong Cal State Long Beach Crew Gets in 'Swing,' Thrashes British Oarsmen in a Most Grueling Sport

March 26, 1987|DICK WAGNER | Times Staff Writer

With the rain still beating them after the Cal State Long Beach crew already had, the Cambridge University oarsmen were slumped in their boat, gasping. Rowing 2,000 meters against the wind had left them contorted like broken dolls.

They looked more ravaged than runners at a marathon finish line, so perhaps it was true what rowers say--that their sport is the most grueling.

CSULB's rowers also had that sensation of feeling like jelly. But winning--as it always does--had made them less aware of it. They hid their gasps and showed American flags.

"You have to compose yourself," Rick Blazer, one of the eight men in the 49er boat, said after the race. "Some people lay back and look exhausted. That just looks bad."

"From the very start you're in pain," said Roger Reynolds, one of Blazer's teammates, "but you don't think about it."

It has been the 49ers' opponents who have been suffering the most. The CSULB crew, one of the strongest on the West Coast, is undefeated in four races this season after outdistancing Cambridge and San Diego State in a ballyhooed ("The British Are Coming") regatta Saturday at the Long Beach Marine Stadium. Other victories have been against UC San Diego, USC and the University of San Diego.

The regatta was planned as a showcase for a sport in which the number of college and club competitors in the United States has almost doubled to 17,000 in two years. The organizers also felt Long Beach was ready for international competition against a school where rowing is as renowned as football is on most American campuses.

Rowers Ignore Weather

At 10 a.m., the Kingston Trio, over loudspeakers at the stadium boathouse, sang, "It takes a worried man to sing a worried song."

And as the rain began to fall from a decidedly British sky, Earl Johnson, one of the event organizers, worried.

"The rowers don't care about the elements but the fans do," said Johnson, a former CSULB rower. He was hoping that there would be enough $1 donations to provide some traveling money for the 49er crew, which gets little assistance from the university because it is a club sport.

During the preliminary races, with Cambridge still back at the Queen Mary Hotel, the 49er varsity tried to keep warm in Pete Archer's boathouse.

A short, perky man of 83, Archer taught swimming at the nearby Colorado Lagoon in 1929. He was a longtime coach of rowing and every other sport except golf and tennis.

Archer now repairs the long, slender shells that are stacked to the ceiling, and on Sundays, when he is by himself, varnishes them.

"This and swimming are the two greatest sports," Archer said. "I've always maintained that people in or on the water never have any problems like dope or roughness. Water is relaxing. I never had any problems with rowers or swimmers, but when I got to coaching football, I had problems."

During their week's stay in Long Beach, the Cambridge rowers had been surprised to find that the 49er rowers are not campus heroes.

"I'd predict that half the people (at CSULB) don't know we have a rowing team," said senior Dan Johnson, the 49er captain and Earl Johnson's son, as the team began to stretch. But Johnson expressed no bitterness that he was a big man on campus only in size (6 feet 5, 200 pounds).

Johnson was pulled into rowing by the sport's esoteric nature and its great conditioning value.

"This is purely a team sport," Johnson said. "There is no glory for an individual. There are no ego problems, you compete for the love of it--you don't see rowers on Wheaties boxes."

Rowers are also a different breed because they willingly endure practices that start at 5:30 a.m. six days a week. They do it because the tranquility of that hour and the feeling of the boat gliding through the water are enough to offset the agony of two-hour workouts. With their 9 p.m. bedtime, they are not the most coveted athletes for campus parties and their T-shirts explain why: "I can't . . . I have crew in the morning."

The reward comes when the elusive split-second timing--called "swing"--among all eight rowers is achieved. "All of a sudden it happens," Dan Johnson said. "Each oar enters the water at the same time, all eight are pulling together and the boat picks up and moves."

There is a special camaraderie in an eights crew, which grows from each oarsman being trusted by the others not to let down.

"If one person slacks off or shifts his weight, it messes it up" for everybody else, Johnson said.

"We're friends, we really care about each other," Rick Blazer said.

Competition Is Intense

Competition among the 24 CSULB varsity members to win one of the eight seats is intense. "You always have your seat on the line, you're always getting pushed," Blazer said. "But when you make the first boat, your teammates look up to you."

Most rowers do not take up the sport until they have reached college.

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