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Below is my review of the new book, Bitten by the Rowing Bug by Karl Drlica, which tells the history of Oregon State Rowing on the turbulent Willamette River. Drlica draws from interviews, diaries, news accounts and more to bring to life one of the West’s first rowing programs. The review was first published by Rowing News in its May 2024 issue.

Rowing is challenging. Racing even more so. Now try doing it on the Willamette River in Corvallis, Oregon. There’s a fast current, seasonal flooding, narrow bridges, floating tree trunks and other debris, darkness, rain and cold. And it was worse before the 1960s when dams were built.

Karl Drlica, author of the new book Bitten by the Rowing Bug, Challenges of an Untamed River, knows this intimately. For decades, his father was Oregon State University rowing coach, fighting the elements and fighting for funding. The latter challenge proved almost more daunting than the forces of nature. Drlica watched his father’s struggles to build a rowing program in Corvallis. Then he, too, became a rower and coach.

Courtesy of Karl Drlica


Going far beyond his personal recollections, Drlica – a microbiologist who has written several books on DNA – has done exhaustive research on the turbulent story of Oregon State rowing. He draws on numerous interviews and troves of original documents, including the diary of his coach-father.  (The proof is 62 pages of footnotes.) The result is the definitive history of one of the first rowing clubs of any West Coast university– a fascinating read filled with untold stories of creativity and grit.

A coach from the 1920s who preceded Drlica’s father foretold the equipment problems that would plague Corvallis rowing for decades. Without docks or floats, the men had to wade into the water to climb into their shells.

The boats leaked plenty and the men became quite proficient in estimating how far they could row down the river and still return without going ashore to dump out the boat, or even sinking on occasion. Neither did it matter that the old shed boathouse leaked like a sieve and that it had no floor, only a mud bank slanting so much that on wet days it was no small feat to get a shell either in or out….There was no place to dress or leave clothing if one did change. If an oarsman got wet, he went home wet and liked it.”

An intrepid coach of the 1930s commandeered an abandoned electric railroad depot, turning it into a boathouse. Unable to afford boats, the oarsmen started building their own, using plywood and newly developed waterproof glue – a process, Drlica says, later used by the US Navy to build patrol torpedo (PT) boats in World War II.

Bringing ingenuity and perseverance to the orphan rowing club, Drlica’s father in the 1960s cajoled the U. S. Navy into donating two surplus ammunition barges otherwise headed for mothballing to use as boathouses. His father (also named Karl Drlica) fought endlessly and often futilely for funding, leaving rowers to raise  money on their own with jog-a-thons, offers to Corvallis residents to paint their house numbers prominently on their driveways, cleaning football stadiums, approaching foundations, and more.

His father saw rowing as character building and had long encouraged intramural rowing in the hopes that its popularity would eventually win over university support. But in the 1960s, when his budget was whacked in half after years of stagnation, he had to cut intramural rowing to focus on the men’s heavy weight team and a burgeoning intercollegiate women’s crew.

Drlica’s book broadens from the nitty-gritty issues unique to the Willamette River and Oregon State to a larger national picture through his chapters devoted to the struggles of women’s rowing. That story is largely told through Astrid Hancock, who coached at Oregon after teaching rowing at the all-women’s Wellesley College, near Boston.

In the late 1800s, Hancock tells Drlica, “Wellesley crew was more about singing than rowing.” The crews would row in full-length skirts and rowing was touted as producing “an erect carriage, finely poised head, full chest, well placed shoulders, strength of back and chest, and deep breathing.”

By the time she left in 1963, Wellesley women had finally become competitive and were fighting for a new boathouse. At Oregon State, she brought her crew to Seattle for the  first regatta of the newly formed National Women’s Rowing Association, where they slept on the floor.

 “Nobody had any money,” she said.  Oregon was one of seven teams in that landmark 1966 regatta, all from the West Coast except the Philadelphia Girls Rowing Club.The Oregon oarswomen, like the men, faced money shortfalls and it was only in 1969 that they raised enough to replace their heavy men’s crew shells with smaller, lighter women’s boats.  

Women’s rowing was exploding around the country. Title IX, which went into effect in 1973, requiring equity in funding for men and women in federally supported schools, didn’t immediately prove a panacea for women’s crew at Oregon State.  When the women, whose locker room was the decrepit electric railroad depot, asked for showers on a par with the men, the administration sent plumbers in to shut off the men’s showers so that it would be just as second-rate as the women’s.

Through memos written by university officials in the 1970s, Drlica exposes an effort to kill outright the rowing program his father had built. Writing to the college president, the head of Physical Education wrote:  “I would suggest that we consider carefully whether or not Oregon State University wishes to continue the crew activities (Varsity, Physical Education Instruction and Recreation).” After the student newspaper reported that crew was being killed, an outpouring in the press, an undergraduate row to the state capital and protests from alumni reversed the call though the survival of rowing teetered for another three years.

 Eventually, both men and women’s crew won varsity status at Oregon State and continued to succeed in national competition, but for Drlica’s father, who for 30 years had championed Corvallis rowing, the final days were bitter. Oarsmen were complaining  – in newspaper stories – that his coaching was out of step with the times, that he didn’t listen to his athletes, that his program had grown too big for him to handle. In his 1980 resignation speech, Drlica said, “The straw that broke the camel’s back, so far as I’m concerned, was when [the Athletic Board] hired a women’s volleyball coach…on a full-time basis, while at the same time the men’s coaches are working on a part-time basis and teaching other classes in physical education…I anticipate that [continuing would] be like hitting my thumb with a hammer because it’s going to feel so good when I stop.”  

Despite the difficulties and dangers that Karl Drlica presents in his book about the Willamette River and Corvalis rowing, the greatest danger the author faced happened to himself when, as an aging masters rower, he experienced the most frightening of possibilities on the river: his own heart attack. He describes what happened in the epilogue of his book with the same intense detail that imbues his recounting of Oregon State rowing.

Drlica collapsed sideways in his boat which rolled over, leaving him upside down, his feet stuck in the foot stretchers, his head underwater. He would remain unconscious as he was pulled from the water, given three shocks with a defibrillator on the dock by a physician-rower, and raced to the hospital where he woke up three days later. To piece together the story, Drlica did the kind of definitive reporting that characterizes his entire book: He interviewed everyone who helped save him.