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Comrade Igor And The Oarsmen Of The Occoquan : Athletes In A Classic But Obscure Sport Turn To A Soviet Coach To Mine Gold

June 23, 1991|BRAD ALAN LEWIS | Brad Alan Lewis, with Paul Enquist, won the double-scull gold medal at the 1984 Olympics; his book, "Assault on Lake Casitas" recounts his Olympic triumph.

IGOR GRINKO ARRIVED IN Washington last December by way of Kiev. The official reason for his visit was to teach a three-day clinic at the United States Rowing Assn.'s annual convention. In reality, Grinko's clinic will last 20 months, through the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games and possibly beyond. Yes, it has come to this: Americans have hired a Soviet to help them win some gold.

During one of his first days here, Grinko was taken to the Potomac Boat Club to meet Alison Townley, one of this country's top scullers. He watched her row on an "erg"--a rowing machine--for a few minutes; then, deciding she wasn't working hard enough, he waved his arms, trying to make himself understood. Finally, in frustration, he took out his Russian/English dictionary, thumbed through it until he found the word he wanted and then shouted: "Suffer!" Six months and a few thousand exhortations later, it still ranks among his favorite words.

In the past decade, American champions in this beautiful but recondite sport have been in short supply. Since 1985, only two U.S. men's sculling boats have made the Olympic or world-championship finals (the top six). A single sculler finished sixth at the Seoul Olympics, and a double-scull team finished fourth at the 1990 World Rowing Championships. Since the quadruple-scull event was added to the Olympics in 1976, an American men's quad scull has made the finals only once, in 1976; the best finish was fifth place at the '79 world championships. The women have done slightly better: Since 1985, there have been one quad, four double-scull and four single-scull finalists.

After a long look at this sorry state, the USRA cried enough! and came up with a straightforward strategy to turn around American sculling. Months of research, deep reflection and countless conference calls led the association to borrow a page from the professional sports handbook's Rule No. 2: If you can't beat them, hire their coach. (Rule No. 1: Hire their athletes.) In a revolutionary attempt to improve the performance of our scullers, the USRA hired Grinko as its full-time national-team sculling coach. His services were had at a bargain price of about $40,000 a year, roughly the same as four games on the Bo Jackson $10,000-per-Game Bonus Plan.

To help Grinko succeed, the association is trying another radical idea. A training center was created especially for sculling on the Occoquan Reservoir in Virginia, a secluded stretch of water about 15 miles from Washington. Jim Dietz, the 1988 Olympic sculling coach and himself a champion sculler, says it's a step in the right direction.

"Anyone who has the situation that he has, within four to six years, is going to produce something good, because in the past we've never had a coach delegated that far in advance--where he can have his own boathouse, where he can bring his guys in to train, use his own systematic approach, bring them up all the time. That's the only way you can do it. You just can't get together a month before the Olympics and put together a boat. It just doesn't work." So American sculling now joins an elite group of Olympic sports that also have year-round training facilities--volleyball in San Diego, baseball in Memphis and yachting in Miami.

Rowing is a singular sport. It's antiquated, completely without real-world purpose, and yet the practitioners are as devoted to it as religious converts. If you've ever seen the Thomas Eakins painting "John Biglin in a Single Scull," which shows a man in a white jersey and a red bandanna rowing up Philadelphia's Schuylkill River, then you know what the sport is all about. The oars act as levers, prying the boat through the water; the force driving the oars comes from the legs, back and arms, in that order of importance. The premiere rowing muscle is the heart: a rower must have heart, a strong, flawless pump that will keep legs firing the whole 2,000 meters--a mile-and-a-quarter, the Olympic distance--for maybe seven minutes of continuous, maximum, full-tilt effort in a single scull. Passing out at the finish line, although rare, is greatly respected among rowers.

Timeless Rowing Reward No.1: You can eat like Roseanne Barr and still look like Sylvester Stallone.

Driving up to the Occoquan boathouse, one looks for a sign, a placard, any indication that the boathouse is near. Nothing. The clerk at the local liquor store has never heard of it. Anonymity is the privilege of rowers.

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