The Trials and Triumphs
of Seattle’s Early Oarswomen
hat a privilege to get a guided tour of the Green Lake Rowing Club and the old boathouse at the University of Washington where Seattle women broke into rowing! Judith Fagerstrom Clark, who was on the Green Lake women’s crew that competed in the First National Women’s Rowing Championship in 1966, took me around her old stomping grounds while I was in Seattle last week.
Her memories poured out. For one, she remembers an unexpected slumber party at her house because the Philadelphia Girls’ Rowing Club’s motel reservations had gone amok. Judy’s parents were out of town so she invited some of the Philly gang over, and forever friendships formed.
Of course, she became friends with Ernie (Tina) Bayer – daughter of “Mother of U.S. Women’s Rowing” Ernestine and Pennsylvania Barge Club Olympian Ernest. Years later, Judy visited Tina in Philadelphia as well as oarswoman Liz Bergen. A pioneer in her own right, Bergen in 1981 became the first female commodore of the Schuylkill Navy, more than 120 years after its founding in 1858.
At that 1966 competition in Seattle, PGRC’s eight-oared crew came in first; second was Lake Washington. Green Lake, with Judy, came in third, though overall Lake Washington scored the most points in that historic regatta.
Meanwhile, women of the University of Washington were not yet on the water, despite the prestige of its men’s program, including their triumph at the 1936 “Hitler Olympics,” memorialized in Boys in the Boat.
Surprisingly, women at the University of Washington had raced as early at 1907, but only briefly. According to this account, UWash women started racing in ’07 under the school’s new coach Hiram Conibear (later the ’36 coach).
That was blisteringly early for competitive women’s crew. The handful of other places with women’s rowing at the turn of the 20th century, such as Wellesley College and the ZLAC group in San Diego, were focused on grace and rhythm and fun.
Then came the backlash at UWash. A female gym instructor in 1910 declared racing too difficult, too strenuous for women, echoing the words of the founder of the modern day Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin, who famously said:
“Women have but one task: that of crowning the winner with garlands. It is indecent that spectators should be exposed to the risk of seeing the body of a woman being smashed before their very eyes.”
Opinion pieces in the UWash campus newspaper argued the pros and cons of women’s racing, with opponents saying:
“Women are not physically constructed for great tasks of endurance, and a better ideal would be a more perfect self-control, the highest development of which she is capable physically and, above all, the ability to be a good loser.”
For the next couple of years, women’s rowing at the University of Seattle limped on without racing. By World War I it had disappeared entirely as a woman’s sport, returning only in 1968, a half-century later!
Now women have learned to become good winners!
“Boathouse Row” in Seattle
Thursday, Feb. 16
The Pocock Rowing Center has invited me to speak on Thursday, Feb. 16 at 6.45 p.m. I’ll be focusing on many of the important ties between Seattle and Philadelphia rowing. One is how the two together launched competitive women’s rowing (along with Oakland) by creating the National Women’s Rowing Association in 1963. Amazingly, women were rowing competitively in 1907 at the University of Washington under Hiram Conibear, but it all went away by about 1910 when a FEMALE athletic director decided women were not built to row.
And then there’s the “Hitler Olympics” of 1936, famously won by the University of Washington. But coming in 2nd to the Huskies in the Olympic trials was the University of Pennsylvania. One rower on Penn’s eight, Joe Burk, vowed he’d never lose another race and he worked with Seattle’s famed boatmaker, George Pocock, to make sure that happened. Lots of links! Looking forward. The event is free and open to the public.
The Women of 1976
Recall Gus Constant
he women who broke so many barriers in the world of crew are still fun and feisty 40 years later. In late January, the Vesper Boat Club honored a number of those selected to row in the very first Olympics with women’s rowing – that would be 1976.
Among them were twins Ann and Marie Jonik, alternates in those Montreal Olympics; Pam Behrens and Cathy Menges, who finished sixth in the coxed fours; Sue Morgan and Laura Staines, 7th – place finishers in the coxless pairs; And Diane Braceland, 5th in the coxless double sculls. Joanne Wright Iverson, who launched the National Women’s Rowing Association in 1963 was manager of America’s ’76 crew contingent.
In their first appearance at an Olympics, the American women stunned the world. The late Joan Lind won Silver in the single, and the women’s eight-oared boat won Bronze.
John Hooten, a Vesper coach in the mid-1970s who helped eight women at the club get to the national camp from which the Olympians would be chosen, acted as MC. He, like the speakers who followed, paid homage to the late Gus Constant, the first person at Vesper to coach women.
‘We wouldn’t have started out without Gus,” said Marie Jonik. The sisters (each weighing 110 pounds) had been rebuffed by PennAC. Gus put them in a quad on their first day at Vesper, though they had never rowed. Afraid to admit their inexperience, “We never said a word” to Diane Braceland and and Karin Constant, Marie said, as the two more experienced rowers set a brisk pace. “They just took off. We don’t know how we did it.”
Marie called Gus Constant “creative and passionate,” giving them “the tools to row” and then get to the next level under John Hooten.
“And so I cheer Gus. He’s somebody not to forget in the start of women’s rowing. We miss him terribly.”
Pam Behrens recalled going to a party. Standing there, “with a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other,” she was approached by Gus who said, “Why don’t you try rowing?” Sarcastically, she answered: “Sure! I’ll be down on Monday.”
She did, in fact, show up – and never left. Starting in April 1972, she came in second in the nationals, then first in the Canadian Henley, and went on to world competitions in Moscow, Switzerland and England before being selected to row in the 1976 Olympics.
“I thank Gus for picking me up at that party.”
Cathy (mother of multi-time Olympian sabrist Mariel Zagunis) remembered Gus recruiting herself and Anita DeFrantz, to come to Philadelphia after they graduated from Connecticut College. They stayed in his “slumlord place” with other women rowers –an apartment he made available to the trainees. “I’d never seen a cockroach before,” Cathy said. But it was worth it. “I ended up at the 1974 world championships in Lucerne, Switzerland, with Gus, then the 1975 world championship in England, and finally the Montreal Olympics.
Several of the women continue to compete. As Sue Morgan Hooten put it, “Masters rowing is where it’s at now.”
From that perspective, she wrote a ditty, with advice to heady young rowers:
Tonight you’ve heard stories of long-ago trials,
Of the pioneer Vesper gals rowing long miles –
Achieving great things for the club and girls rowing.
But you must be aware: the momentum’s ongoing.
Vesper women of ‘76 have moved on
But we and Coach Hooten have been joined by a throng
Of Masters’-aged ladies, all ages and skill
Sculling, racing and rowing til their hearts get their fill.
You at your peak will see time passes too fast
Those few years of glory will always be yours
But countless years lie ahead– you can still have a blast.
Join old friends and new, haul out the old oars.
Pressure to torture yourself as a master?
The stakes are not high if you’re not going faster.
If you’re so inclined, there are still plenty of ways
To work hard, race and win like the good old days
Forty years in the sport have provided insight,
And advice we pass on to you young’uns tonight:
Keep pulling along, one way or another
And hold Vesper BC in your heart as a mother.
An Early Champion Reminisces
ast June marked the 50th anniversary of the Philadelphia Girls’ Rowing Club’s win in the very first National Women’s Rowing Association Championship. Anita (Jinx) Becker Sacco is now wading deep into her memories of that 1966 triumph in Seattle as she organizes a reunion of those pioneering oarswomen some time this year.
“I was a member of that crew and sat in seven seat,” she wrote me. “We were having trouble ‘clicking’ when we got to Seattle, and Frank Cunningham, a coach and boatman for one of the clubs in Seattle assisted us greatly. He went out on the water with us and got us focused. He had been a rower at Harvard, I believe, and had a soft spot for rowers of the eastern style.
“The following year, 1967, we repeated our first place finish in Oakland, California, and I finished first in the heavy single. Doors started opening for us and 1967, in retrospect, was a charmed year. PGRC produced the first U.S. women’s crew to compete internationally in the European Rowing Championships held in Vichy, France that year.”
Jinx holds another first place honor. In 1968, she became the first woman rower to join the Vesper Boat Club, that is, if you could call it “join.”
Dismayed by some infighting at PGRC at the time, Vesper’s “Gus Constant took pity on me and allowed me to utilize his single there. I was not an official member and had to tread very carefully when going to practice because of the hostility of some male members.”
About then, John B. Kelly Jr. – realizing women’s crew would soon be an Olympic sport – asked Gus to begin recruiting. “Gus became an advocate for women’s rowing at Vesper and an official women’s program was established when his fiance/wife, Karin [Constant], began to row,” Jinx said. “We had a small core group and produced some impressive wins in national competition, considering our number.’
Jinx during that time lived in a third floor apartment at 2220 Green Street, a brownstone mansion.. “When the Spring Garden area had been fashionable at the end of the 1800s, it had been the private home of Samuel Fleischer,” Jinx said. “Interestingly, as a high school student in the early 1960’s I had attended Saturday classes at the Fleischer Art Memorial at 8th and Catherine in South Philadelphia. Never dreamed that a few years later I would be living in the late Mr. Fleischer’s former home. I admired the work of Thomas Eakins and knew his home had been not too many blocks away. I often wondered how the area actually had looked in its prime. “
As for the reunion, Jinx laments the passing of two members of their crew, Evelyn Berman and Nancy Farrell. “We are all in our 70s, and my philosophy is that we need to do this while we still can.”
The (1927) Poetry of
Wellesley College Crew
Wellesley College was the first women’s college to offer rowing – in 1875. But its crew did not race another school (MIT) until the 1960s. Instead, its purpose was to promote grace and posture. As it turns out, the Wellesley women also rowed to music, according to a 1927 brochure for the annual pageant, which lists music by Grieg, Saint-Saens, Wagner and “Folk-Songs.” Somehow, poetry was associated with each tune. (If anyone knows how the poems and the music worked together, please let me know!)
One, entitled “Cleopatra” which went with a Gounod piece, goes like this:
Cleopatra, lift your hand and rouse.
The sleeping girl beside your golden bed,
That she may sing a silken song
Like that, Nile lisps along your barge’s edge.
(I checked for this poem on Google and could find nothing to match it, so perhaps it was written by one of the rowers?)
My thanks to John Schoonover, a history buff with the Wilmington Rowing Club, who shared the small pageant brochure with me. Here are a few photos of pages in it:
1936 Olympics: What Might Have Been
Would the best-seller Boys in the Boat ever have been written had rising Penn senior John Conger not come down with the mumps?
Would the compelling story of a scrappy University of Washington crew making it to the 1936 “Nazi Olympics” never have come to pass?
Instead, might the University of Pennsylvania have triumphed in Berlin? After all, the Penn eight did finish a close second to UW at the Olympic trials.
For the rest of his life, John (Jack) Conger believed that but for his “childhood disease,” Penn would have won, his son, Dick, told me.
“Our father was on the original Penn crew,” slated to compete in the 1936 Olympic trials “until he was quarantined at home with the mumps,” said Dick. “He was heart broken, of course! He told the story many times.”
According to his dad, Penn and the University of Washington had been close competitors prior to the Olympic trials. Dick’s brother, Nick, has their father’s medals to prove it. But after their dad got sick, the change of lineup “couldn’t equal the performance of when dad was in the boat,” Dick said. There was “enough of a loss of continuity that in the final eliminations UW won over the Penn boat.
I went to the archives of the Philadelphia Inquirer to check out Dick’s story. Its reporting from the spring of 1936, had John Conger rowing in the varsity eight’s bow position, right where he would have been on July 5th, had he not fallen ill.
The deciding race on Princeton’s Lake Carnegie was literally breathless, with Penn rowing at 39 strokes a minute for most of the distance. UW, however, pulled harder, keeping pace at just 35 strokes a minute, then accelerating to a screaming 40 strokes in the final stretch.
The Inquirer reported: “It was over the third quarter that the Huskies [UW] commenced to assert themselves. Steadily raising their beat and putting every ounce of their power behind each stroke, Coach Al Ulbrickson’s mighty pupils fairly jumped their shell through the placid waters with oars manipulated so adroitly that they did not raise so much as a spray.”
“Dad was convinced,” Dick said yet again, “that if his crew had remained intact, Penn would have won the gold in Berlin.”
If could have been would have been….
Head of the Schuylkill, 2016
This fabulous photo is just one in the Daily News/Inquirer’s special 52-page photo section, published Jan. 2. “2016, The Year in Pictures” is a moving visual retelling of a gut-wrenching year in this country’s history. The sense of anticipation of the rowers contrasts with the emotions that roiled our year. The supplement is free in today’s paper, or it sells for $5.95 at philly.com/store.
Anne Boyle Gilmartin
She Rowed in the 1950s
n a recent night, when I was talking about my book at the new Narberth Book Shop, Anne Boyle Gilmartin turned up. Now in her 80s, she is as enthusiastic about the Philadelphia Girls Rowing Club (PGRC) as she was as a teenager back in the 1950s.
She reminisced with me about those days, when PGRC –the first competitive rowing club in the country — was still struggling to find women to row against. “I heard about rowing and thought, ‘that sounds interesting,’ Anne told me as we sat in her Drexel Hill, PA home, sparkling with holiday decorations.
What followed was nothing but fun and laughter. She made friends. She flirted. She got great coaching. And she traveled. “We raced on the Potomac, in Boston, in New Rochelle, N.Y.,” she said, showing off her medals.
And she competed in the first major races that PGRC had against a serious women’s team, in 1956 against Florida Southern in Lakeland.
According to research I did for my book, PGRC competed against a sorority team. A Lakeland, Fla. newspaper called the match-up historic — the day “women took over man’s traditional eight-oared shell and launched intersectional competition.”
Anne rowed that day with Ernestine Bayer, widely called the “mother of women’s rowing,” and a founder of PGRC in 1938. By 1956, the intrepid Ernie was 47 years old “and not to be dissuaded from racing, despite criticism that she was too old,” I wrote in my chapter on women’s crew. PGRC lost, but only by a foot.
Anne remembers being coached by Tom Curran, a champion rower of the 1930s who by the 1950s was also leading La Salle College crew to victory. “He was a rogue,” she said, laughing, as she remembered “the Bear.” But he was tough, too. “If you didn’t dance the way he fiddled, you were in trouble,” she said.
Eying the photo of Curran coaching a men’s eight on page 116 in my book (scroll below), she spied Romeo Boyd and swooned. Sounding like Shakespeare’s Juliet, she recalled calling out to him: “Romeo….Oh, Romeo…”
“He’d take me and throw me in the water. We just had fun.”
We’ve Now Identified
All in 1956 Photo
hanks to Vince “Murph” Szymkowski (in the boat) and Teresa Dean Fynes (whose father-in-law is in the boat), we may have identified the rowers in this 1956 La Salle crew photo, which appears on page 116 in the book.
If some are still incorrect, please let me know!
Bow, John Dever, 2 Bill Fynes, 3 Jack Bloxsom, 4 Frank McCloskey, 5 John Maketa, 6
Romeo Boyd, 7 Bob Morro, Stroke Vince Szymkowski, Cox Jack Seitz.
If you have stories to share about Tom (the Bear) Curran, please email me at BHRthebook@gmail.com
Thanks for Hosting Me, USRowing
any thanks to the folks at USRowing for inviting me to their annual convention–Susan, Pam, Sarah and more! My books flew off the table! Loved it when rowers with some history recognized themselves or friends or former coaches in photos.
A Huge Turnout At the Union League
truly wonderful event last night, with about 200 people signed up to hear me talk at Philadelphia’s venerable Union League. It was stunning to learn how many people have ties to rowing in this community. Thank you, all!
In a 1956 Photo:
A Rower Finds Himself
ith much excitement, a rower anxiously awaited his copy of Boathouse Row because friends were calling him to say he was in a photo. Vince Szymkowski emailed me last week:
“I got the book yesterday. My picture appears on p. 116 stroking the boat, which I did to two Dad Vail Championships. After graduating from La Salle, I coached with the “Bear” for two years. Later coached at Penn AC. Had 4 National Junior Champions and 1 Bronze medal in the Youth Worlds. I have been known down at Boathouse Row as Vince “murph” Szymkowski.”
Thanks, Vince, for letting me know. The photo, from the archives at Temple University’s Special Research Collection, did not identify the men in the boat. Who else can anyone name?
Book in the Spotlight:
WHYY Radio Times 11 A.M. Wed.
great week for the book:
Main Line Today did a Q&A with me here.
Had great fun at the Head of the Schuylkill, where lots of folks I interviewed for the book dropped by.
I shared a table with 1964 Olympian Emory Clark, who let me wear his hefty gold medal. He sold plenty of his own books about that incredible race, letting people wear his medal. I need one!
This Weekend on Schuylkill
Rowers to Race
very year, thousands of people pound down the paved backbone of the city in the sweaty exuberance of the Broad Street Run. This Saturday and Sunday, in another extraordinary test of athleticism and determination open to anyone, the sound will be the beating of oars down a different city artery – the Schuylkill River.
Rowing out their hearts and lungs in the Head of the Schuylkill Regatta will be more than 8,500 competitors from 29 states and 12 foreign countries racing in 1,948 boats. They range from high school teenagers and college freshmen just picking up the sport to committed athletes striving for world competition to masters rowers in their 50s, 60s, 70s and yes, even their 80s.
About half are now women, a fact that would shock the crowds who witnessed the first big regatta on the Schuylkill on November 12, 1835.
That day, seven eight-oared barges, much heavier than today’s hip-hugging vessels, competed. The event “brought to the shores of the Schuylkill more persons than were ever assembled on its banks before,” wrote John Thomas Scharf in his 1884 History of Philadelphia. They “came on horseback and in gigs and wagons and coaches, the number present being several thousand, and the event being also considered by some persons sufficient to justify a cessation of business for the day.”
Regattas soared in popularity after 1858, when the emerging boat clubs of Boathouse Row banded together to form the Schuylkill Navy, the country’s oldest amateur athletic governing body.
By the 1870s, when Philadelphia artist Thomas Eakins painted his Central High School classmate, champion rower Max Schmitt, as many as 30,000 people would throng the river banks, crowd its bridges and pile onto rowboats and steamers to cheer the racers and wage bets. With baseball and football in their infancies, rowing was then the single most popular spectator sport in the country and Philadelphia was the place to see it.
Today, it still is.
The races will run Saturday and Sunday from 8 a.m. to 4.30 p.m. For information, go here.
Phila. Inquirer Excerpts Book!
What “Old Men” Can Do
n Sunday, October 23, 2019, the Philadelphia Inquirer is running an excerpt from my book. It’s already up on line here. There’s also a slideshow and very unrehearsed Q&A with me about the book. I can’t wait to get an actual copy, hopefully in the next couple of weeks.
Temple Coach Gavin White:
On Tom Curran
emple University crew coach Gavin White has been named “Man of the Year” by US Rowing, a huge honor. As a Temple undergrad in the early 1970s, White rowed under the extraordinary and idiosyncratic coach Tom Curran, who arrived at Temple after bringing stardom to La Salle College crew. In an interview for my book about the imprint left by Tom Curran on collegiate rowing in Philadelphia, Coach White, who succeeded Curran in his job in 1978, told me what he was like.
On why Curran was called “the Bear”:
“He had the biggest hands I ever saw, enormous hands…the biggest paws. He was husky. You could almost see his posture was like a giant bear.”
On Curran’s coaching methods:
“He was so meticulous. He could take a quick look at the boat and see what you were doing wrong. You might never leave the dock until we finally got it right.”
“He taught me everything I know about rowing. He gave the foundation for coaching. He was an amazing character, almost bigger than life.”
About Curran’s personality:
“He was gruff, especially if you disagreed with him. But he was also funny.”
Read about his honor here.
My Identity Crisis:
Me as Marketer?
his week, with the book now headed for the printers, I had an identity crisis, now that I have left the realm of research and writing and am now entering the uncomfortable phase of getting on a megaphone to tell the world about it. When someone said to me, “It’s not you… find another project,” I reached out to other book authors to find out why I might want to be my own call center :
My author-friends resoundingly chimed in with lots of reasons I had not been able to articulate:
“You love what you’ve discovered writing your book. Now you can share your excitement with others who are fascinated, too.”
“It’s what authors have to do. If you don’t push it out, no one will know about it — so what was the point of writing it?”
“You’ll meet so many interesting people, and that will lead to things you never imagined.”
“You’ll leave every event on a high.”
And, as one friend told me several times: “You’ll have so much fun!”
What could be better at this stage of life than having so much fun!
Commentary: Women’s rowing
first made waves in Philly
This week, as 20 U.S oarswomen compete in Rio alongside the men, they might give thanks to the Philadelphia women who decades ago struggled against the current of their time to win the right to row, long after they had won the right to vote.
The effort came in waves, starting in 1938 when the first competitive women’s rowing club in the country, the Philadelphia Girls’ Rowing Club, landed a berth on the Schuylkill only because Ernestine Bayer had been tipped off at her banking job that the Philadelphia Skating Club was moving out to Ardmore. Bayer rounded up a group of women, mostly secretaries and clerks, who snagged the boathouse before any other club on the all-male Boathouse Row heard about it.
Headlines called PGRC a “matrimonial club,” its members mostly interested in dating oarsmen. Reporters asked if rowing was “good for the figure.” And regatta organizers gave them permission only to do “exhibition rows” – for the entertainment value.
Hard as Bayer tried, PGRC could not find other oarswomen to compete against. The sport was seen as too tough, too masculine for women. So club members raced each other. It was 1955 before they found opponents at Florida Southern University, a match-up called historic by local papers.
Four years later, Joanne Wright Iverson, a teen who had grown up along the Schuylkill in Miquon, stepped into a shell at PGRC. “I had a blister on the ring finger of both hands, and the insides of my thumbs were raw . . . but I didn’t care,” she would later write in her book, An Obsession with Rings. “I was absolutely hooked.”
She set her sights on the Olympics and was shocked to learn the Games had no women’s rowing, even though it had been a male sport in the first year of the modern games in 1896.
In the 1960s, Iverson and Bayer, now in her 50s, each pursued different means to the same end – getting American women into international competition.
Iverson discovered that Ted Nash at the Lake Washington Rowing Club in Seattle and Edwin Lickiss, of the Lake Merritt Rowing Club in Oakland, Calif., were coaching women rowers. In 1963, the three founded the National Women’s Rowing Association since the National Association of Amateur Oarsmen, as the title suggests, focused on men.
Meanwhile, Bayer’s request that the International Rowing Federation allow American women to compete in Europe was denied by its U.S. director, whose office was on Boathouse Row.
“He said, ‘No. You’re not in the same class as the Europeans. If the Communists win, they’ll rub our noses in it,'” recalled Bayer’s daughter, Tina. But a turning point came in 1967 after Bayer wangled an exhibition row for PGRC at an international meet in Toronto. The oarswomen, including Tina, were to race against a boat of older men, many of them former Olympians. Among them was Thomi Keller, president of the rowing federation.
“They had never rowed together,” Tina said. “We had and won!” Impressed, Keller personally invited PGRC to compete that summer in Vichy, France. Their eight finished last but the Europeans, also seeking Olympic competition, were grateful for the American presence. As the International Olympic Committee spent several years waffling, the highly competitive Vesper Boat Club recognized the inevitable and quietly broke ranks with Philadelphia’s other boat clubs to recruit women with strong legs jogging past the boathouse. The arrival of women infuriated some club members, who nailed shut the door of the women’s tiny locker room, hid their rowing seats, and rudely shoved their boat away from the dock.
The women persisted. Finally, in Montreal in 1976 – the first Olympics with women’s rowing – the American women’s eight crossed the finish line behind only East Germany and the Soviet Union, to win a bronze medal.
That was just the beginning. Today, all but two of the houses on Boathouse Row are coed (PGRC remains all women; Malta,all men). Meanwhile, the wave of interest in women’s rowing among the nation’s high schools and colleges has generated the world’s best eight-oared crew. Since 2006, the U.S. women’s eight has won gold at every Olympics and world championship. The final for that premier rowing event is slated for Saturday, where America’s entry will once again be racing on the shoulders of the women of Boathouse Row.
This article first appeared on Philly.com on August 10, 2016