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Rowing Welcomes Women, and Gives Scholarships Too

Athletics: A sport that was considered elite is passing the oars to more young people of both sexes, but it's a tough row to master.

April 01, 2002|SANDRA MURILLO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When former UCLA rower Amika Maran set out to start a rowing program for teenagers in 1995, she ran into a significant problem:

She couldn't recruit enough girls to fill a shell--and she only needed eight. So Maran enlisted the help of some of UCLA's better-looking male rowers.

"I was student teaching at Santa Monica High School ... at the time and I was trying to get girls to join, so I brought in some of the cute guys from the rowing teams to talk about the sport," Maran said.

Such theatrics aren't needed anymore.

Thanks to a combination of increased interest, media attention and federal guidelines governing gender equality in college athletics, rowing, which often has been viewed as an Ivy League tradition, is gathering quite a following in the land of surfers and volleyball players.

The Junior Program at Marina del Rey has 65 members, boys and girls who are among hundreds of boisterous young athletes across Southern California trying their luck at a sport they say tests strength and stamina and forms strong bonds.

It's the type of sport where "you don't need any previous experience to get real good at it, but it's tough so you can't wuss out," said Zahra Dossa, 17, a member of the program Maran founded.

Coaches say the popularity of such programs shows that rowing is appealing to a wider group of people, many of them girls, in Southern California.

That's not to say rowing is new on the West Coast. The University of Washington and UC Berkeley have traditionally been dominant on the national collegiate rowing scene.

"We're trying to get away from that mind-set that it's a snooty, prep-school thing," said Paul Wilkins, southwest regional field service coordinator for USRowing, the national governing body for the sport. "It's accessible to everybody."

The cost to participate can be high, however. Junior rowers at the Marina Aquatic Center in Marina del Rey pay about $1,300 in yearly dues. Three of those rowers rely on 50% scholarships. The Long Beach Junior Crew calls for a $700 yearly fee, which does not include trips or uniform costs.

USRowing's southwest region includes California, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Hawaii and Colorado. Of the 2,863 members in the region, only 206 live outside California. It's unclear how many are from Los Angeles County, but rowing has traditionally been more popular in Northern California, where more sites with calm water are available.

It was that unpredictable Southern California surf that kept the Marina Aquatic Center junior rowers off the water during a recent practice. Instead, athletes worked out on rowing machines, called ergometers or "ergs," which calculate their speed.

The rowers worked solo, but every now and then--perhaps by coincidence or instinct--they found a similar rhythm and fell into sync.

As their peers rowed, the rest of the girls' team compared erg times and joked about how little their classmates knew about their sport.

"You say 'I do crew' and people think you're talking about lights and sound for the play!" said one girl as the others laughed.

Their schoolmates might be surprised to learn that the Junior Program has about 35 girls, ages 13 to 18. And at the Newport Aquatic Center Junior Rowing Club in Newport Beach, there are about 100 rowers, boys and girls.

Popularity of Sport Growing in Region

Newport used to take any kid who signed up, but this year the club had to start holding tryouts, said Christy Shaver, one of the girls' coaches.

The Long Beach Junior Crew is going through some of the same changes. "We're probably at our limit," said head Coach Ian Simpson. There are 95 boys and girls on the team.

Coaches and rowers said some of the interest is fueled by the relatively new college scholarship opportunities the sport offers women. In an effort to abide by federal guidelines governing gender equality in athletics, colleges have expanded rowing teams or upgraded them from private clubs to university-funded programs.

To stay in compliance, schools must provide a proportionate number of facilities and scholarships for men's and women's sports, among other requirements. Rowing teams provide a simple, relatively affordable way for colleges to comply with the regulations; 140 colleges are now known to have women's teams.

"Rowing has become the female equivalent of football" in awarding scholarships to women, Shaver said.

But perhaps the biggest push toward more recognition came in 1997, when the NCAA made women's rowing a championship sport.

"It's made a huge difference," said UCLA head Coach Amy Fuller. "It puts it up there with an elite group of sports."

Just this year, UCLA began phasing in 20 full scholarships for women rowers. USC also offers 20 such scholarships.

Some parents have been eager to have their daughters take advantage of such scholarship opportunities.

Father Encouraged Participation in Crew

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