PULLING TOGETHER. Strong, silent strokes perforate the city bustle as Radcliffe rowers develop synchonization and camaraderie
``Pause, flat, slide, three-quarter pressure.'' Thirty-two paddles, black points on white, obediently lift and dip, skimming over the top of the water with the stylishness and coordination of an immense water beetle; you'd think all the rowers were attached somehow.
Beaming and fresh-faced, ready for business, with hair pulled back with terry headbands, and armed with plastic water bottles, 18 young Radcliff College women are plunging into their daily hour of crewing on the Charles River.
It's an elegant-looking sport for something so toilsome. (``Follow the wheels in front of you; swing with the shoulders in front of you,'' coach Liz Leary instructs the two nine-woman teams (each has eight rowers and a coxswain). Some time later: ``A little more laid back; give yourself some room around the finish.'' And ``make sure that both shoulders are pulling straight back; don't let the outside shoulder pull more than the inside shoulder.'')
The Charles River is blue on some days; today it's a stone gray that becomes less austere when the sun comes out. The Boston shore is off to starboard, the Cambridge to port, and the rowers are suspended between the two in a place that seems to have nothing to do with cities.
They pass the Boston University boathouse, where a few little sailboats are chasing each other. The Tufts University crew goes by. The Harvard crew goes by.
``Fall really isn't the racing season; spring is,'' says coach Leary. ``But we go to some races in the fall that are distance races.
``We have about 100 women who are all [trying] out for novice crew, and about 45 to 50 experienced rowers returning. Some are the novices from last year and some are the varsity -- the ones that didn't graduate,'' she says with a trace of a sigh.
Only half of the women in each boat are rowing: ``Once they get all warmed up, all eight start in. It's kind of like starting out with a jog before you do your sprints.''
``When the rowing is correct, it's a beautiful sport to watch, when you get up close to it. When it's correct, it's rhythm, it's swing, and grace. And at the same time it's power and being aggressive -- 100 percent effort.''
Camaraderie has something to do with it, too, says crew member Kris Baird. ``You have to be not only exactly together in your timing, but all nine people have to be together -- in the boat, out of the boat. It's a team sport, as no other sport is. In theory, eight people could hate each other and swing together and make a wonderful boat, but I think that's not really true,'' she says thoughtfully.
The Charles winds a bit. We skim under bridges without changing course. A men's crew goes by: ``Their blades are not nearly as clean; the bodies aren't swinging as well together,'' Leary points out. ``Actually, men get in and they just want to pull hard. Women are more interested in how to do it right. They're willing to listen.''
She calls cryptic instructions through a loudspeaker.
``Put it in at the catch; don't make it too dramatic,'' she says to her two boatloads of nine. (``The `catch' is putting the blade into the water,'' she explains.) ``Strong, powerful backs pushing into the headwind; c'mon, c'mon, let's go!''
``We're doing 10-minute pieces,'' she explains. ``The first five minutes is about 20 strokes per minute, then three minutes of 24. Then in the last two minutes, it will come up again.''
(Through the loudspeaker again: ``Pull straight through with that outside hand....'')
The gold dome of the Massachusetts State House gleams, and white sails from the clubs on either shore skim the river. The two sculls turn, pivoting ever so slowly. Then we head toward shore again.
``I love it when I'm out here on the river, and Storrow Drive and Memorial Drive are jammed, and they're all hot and sweaty, and I'm out here in my launch having a wonderful time,'' Leary says, with a glance at the highways that follow the Charles on either side.
Turquoise and orange and blue T-shirts skate forward and back. You can tell where they are in a stroke by the expressions on their faces. Relax. Grimace. Relax. Grimace. Lift, pull, lift, pull.
(``Be a little smoother in your application of power,'' says Leary though the loudspeaker, as a regatta of ducks sails by.)
Women have been crewing at Radcliffe since 1972. ``It's a sport that's being noticed more,'' Leary says. ``People aren't as ignorant about rowing as they used to be. Part of that has to do with the fitness interest.
``Rowing is really a lifetime sport,'' she says. ``There are millions of good places to row all over the country. ... The Charles River is obviously a Mecca.''
Radcliffe is part of the Eastern Association of Women's Rowing Colleges. It sponsors a day of racing, at all levels, in the spring, she says.
``Last year Wisconsin was first, Radcliffe was second; so one of the places for good rowing is right here. It was within a second -- a great race.
``It's the oldest intercollegiate sport in the country, despite what all those football players say,'' she adds.
Back on the dock, nobody seems eager to rush off. People hang around for awhile. Kris Baird is peeling tape off her hands: ``I didn't row this summer, so I lost all my calluses,'' she says, laughing.
``I like the training, but most of all I really like pushing myself and seeing how far I can go,'' says senior Lisa Zuckerman. ``I think I can't do any more and I find I can. It's something I'd like to do in other areas of my life, but it's more concrete in rowing.''
Senior Alison Townley, who has rowed with the United States National Team for the past two summers, has set her sights on the Olympics. She says simply, ``You have to like the training, because that's about all it is.''
She points out that you have to train all year to race in six races, if you're on a college team.
``It's wonderful rowing for a college. You have a team spirit. It's more fun, though it's still very competitive to make a varsity boat.
``In the Nationals, you can train all year and not make it. It's stressful. You've put off life choices. A lot of very educated people are waitressing, just so they can row. But I like traveling around the world, so I shouldn't complain,'' she says, stretching and giving a sunny champion's smile.