The Women of 1976 Recall Gus Constant
The women who broke so many barriers in the world of crew are still fun and feisty 40 years later. In late January, 2017, 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.(Published Jan. 31, 2017)