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Strokes on the water

Rowers in Willamette workouts show strength, beauty in synchronicity
by: DeNISE FARWELL, Now in their second year, members of Portland Women’s Rowing begin many of their weekday sessions around 6 a.m., but they’re probably too busy doing 10s or full presses to watch the city wake up.

It's 7:30 on a chilly Saturday morning as a group of women, lightly bundled in Lycra and cotton, gather in a stall of the new Portland Boathouse.

Like a pit crew, the women surround a slim, long black boat. They screw the oars in place and go at it first with wrenches, then with screws and oars. Sixty feet long and a foot and a half wide at its full extent, the eight-seater resembles a skinny stretch limo.

In less than 30 minutes, this boat and a smaller, four-seater version will be put through a 90-minute workout on the Willamette River through the efforts of 13 women and one male coach.

The Portland Women's Rowing team, now entering its second year, is determined to be a force to be reckoned with.

Ranging in age from mid-20s to early 60s, the team is made up of experienced rowers.

'We're unlike other teams in that there is no teaching element,' their coach, Kalle Crafton, explains. 'Most of these women have college experience.'

Sarah Bowen-Shea, for example, first rowed at Colgate University in upstate New York and has competed for various teams in Chicago, Boston and San Francisco.

'When I moved to Portland in early 2000, I was looking for a top-caliber sweep rowing team,' she says.

Disappointed with several local teams, the freelance writer and mother of three had all but given up when she learned about Portland Women's Rowing.

'They're a group of experienced, dedicated women who row and work out on land hard, yet understand that I need to dedicate time to my family and my work,' she says.

On this day one of those hardworking women, Ali Novak, is five and a half months pregnant and sports a Viking-style hat with black horns and thick insulated wind pants.

Crafton begins giving seating positions to his rowers, and Novak is assigned to coxswain of the larger boat.

The coxswain sits at the back of the boat and calls out instructions to the rowers seated in front of her.

'She's like the driver, the director,' Crafton says.

Seated directly in front of the coxswain are the stern positions. 'These rowers set the rhythm so they need to be consistent,' he explains.

The middle four positions are what Crafton calls his power rowers. Typically this is where the taller and stronger rowers are placed. At the bow, or back, of the boat are the last two seats, where he often positions smaller, quicker women.

They're not dragon boaters

The two fiberglass boats glide into the water, with Crafton following behind in a small motorboat. He lifts a bullhorn and begins calling out drills and commands, sounding more like a soothing inspirational speaker than your typical sports coach.

'Sitting up tall. Sitting up in the abdomen, shoulders out.'

The team warms up for 15 to 20 minutes, with two rowers moving at a time. First the stern, then the bow and finally the middle power rowers get their turn.

Eventually all eight women in the larger of the two boats and the four in the smaller model begin to row, and the tiny crafts skim along the water.

A novice might wonder how the boats keep from tipping.

Crafton points out the looks of concentration on the women's faces and explains: 'Experience gives them the ability to keep it level. Watch how they sit up in the whole upper body. As soon as you collapse, then your sides aren't supported.'

Two dragon boats approach from the opposite direction. Crafton instructs his rowers to move their boats to the right side of the river. The short, choppy stabs of the dragon boat occupants look almost violent compared with the long, fluid strokes of the rowers.

If it looks effortless, it's not

Thirty minutes later the coach calls for a break. Even in subfreezing temperatures hats and jackets come off. Gloveless hands grab under the seats for bottles of water.

The team came together in January 2006 when a group of women sought to form a team that was competitive, experienced and female-only.

Members pay a yearly fee that covers equipment storage, insurance, membership in U.S. Rowing and miscellaneous fees. Coaching fees are paid seasonally, in deference to the understanding that women with families and jobs may need to take breaks from time to time.

Ten months out of the year the group strives to train on the water. The remaining two months are spent cross-training, with a special emphasis on stair-climbing.

Crafton, 26, a Portland native who rowed through high school and then spent four years on the Princeton varsity team, is quick to point out that rowing is a very horizontal sport.

'Seventy percent of your power comes from your legs,' he says. 'It takes a lot of years to get good at it. The best rowing looks effortless.'

The coach has to think for a minute before defining what makes a good rower: It's 'someone who's vigilant about self-improvement, particularly with their rowing stroke. You have to work really hard with every stroke, literally. It's a very technical stroke.'

To an outsider, the stroke resembles an enhanced version of the correct way to eat soup. The flat paddles with scalloped edges dip lightly into the water, then quickly come out with a vertical motion.

Rowers work toward Boston

Once practice resumes, the rowers swing into a more aerobic routine. Crafton instructs them to 'do some 10s,' referring to a solid period of 10 strokes, and follows this with an order of 'Full press to the bridge - let's see it!'

Zen-like expressions are replaced with full concentration as the women labor toward a goal, mouths open, arms flexing, legs pumping.

This year the team's main focus will be the Masters Regional Race held in early June at Vancouver Lake in Vancouver, Wash. But the race they look forward to the most is the Head of the Charles Regatta, which takes place in Boston every October.

To participate, a club must have been in existence for a full two years, so Portland Women's Rowing will have to wait until 2008 to qualify.

While masters races are 1,000 meters long and generally follow a straight course, 'head' racing is done on a winding course and covers anywhere from three to four miles.

'You have a staggered start, so you're trying to catch the ones in front of you,' Crafton notes with more than a little excitement in his voice.

After practice, the women congregate at the Bakery Bar on Southeast Water Avenue. Vanessa Boyd, at 25 one of the younger members, came to the sport of rowing in high school after suffering a knee injury on the ski team.

After a summer rowing program, she says: 'I was hooked. Everyone here's really good. They have a passion for rowing.'

Jeanne Niemer, 52, was in her mid-40s when she picked up the sport. She would drive her then 13-year-old daughter to practice and wait in the car, all the while thinking, 'Oh my God, that looks like so much fun.'

Six years later she functions as the rowers' unofficial leader.

'This is a great group,' she says. 'Whether the person's in front of you or behind you, they're good at rowing.'

Pausing to take a bite out of a huge dessert she adds, 'Plus you get to eat chocolate cake for breakfast!'

Portland Women's Rowing is seeking experienced rowers and coxswains. For information, go online to www.portlandwomensrowing.org.

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