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Reflecting on Head of Schuylkill Regatta

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Reflecting on Schuylkill Race

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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.
(published Oct. 27, 2016)
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