SAN DIEGO—The race was over.
For the first time in five years, the junior varsity boys from Berkeley High School had advanced to the grand finals at the San Diego Crew Classic Regatta over the weekend of April 2 and 3—and then gone on to beat two crews and finish a solid fourth.
Jeff Wong, who had rowed the bow position in the JV boat, was among the more than two dozen BHS men and women packing up in preparation for the flight home. He paused amidst the sweaty clothes and empty food containers to reflect on the past two days.
“I arrived nervous, unsure about so much. But all we had to do was trust each other—and ourselves,” Wong said. “I leave feeling really accomplished.”
Some might wonder where the victory lies in a fourth place finish. But not these kids. And not when the venue is the largest West Coast rowing event as you represent the only public high school amidst 3,400 rowers.
Welcome aboard the Berkeley High School crew, where the life lessons come in exhausting seven-minute marathons (the approximate time it took to row each 2,000-meter race) and the emotional finish line moves with each boat’s goals—some with success, some not.
Some 100 students go out for crew at Berkeley, which founded the program in 1967. The school ponies up the transportation to local races, but almost all the $197,000 annual budget for the non-profit organization is raised by parents and friends.
A few of the shells sport duct tape. Not all the oars match. But in an arena where the competition hails from private schools and clubs that can recruit or select from a large field of prospects, Berkeley’s longevity is nothing short of remarkable, according to Brett Johnson, a spokesman for US Rowing (the national governing body for the sport).
“The expansion of public school participation in rowing has been in the east. For Berkeley to have lasted so long with all the school budget cuts is definitely a rarity, and testament to the parents who keep the program running,” Johnson said during a telephone interview.
Mary Glaeser, one of the rowing parents, is co-president of the high school crew’s Board of Directors. For the board, meeting expenses apparently can resemble some of the patch work adorning the older boats. What keeps her going?
“I love this sport, I love the movement together,” Glaeser said. “It reminds me of music.”
Music was no doubt the farthest thing on rowers’ minds during final practice in Oakland before the regatta the week before. The varsity and JV boats had just sparred for 2,000 meters down the crew training ground in the Oakland Estuary, a waterway shared with the Cal crews. Rowing has no time outs, no pauses for huddles, no breathers during foul shots. Physiologically, a race reputedly makes the same aerobic demand as two back-to-back basketball games.
So it was no surprise that at the end of this scrimmage, the rowers in both boats resembled dogs in the Iditarod.
“So how did it feel? And how are we doing—other than hurting, of course?” asked Chris Dadd, the 47-year old head coach. He had watched from a launch trailing the contest.
No one in either boat appeared ready to talk. Finally Zander Bice, who rows the stern “stroke” oar, summoned up the energy to signal “thumbs up.” Good enough, Dadd concluded, and directed Rachel Rudy, the boat coxswain, to steer for home at the Jack London Aquatic Center.
Crew is not a spectator sport, coaches would explain during the launch ride in. There are no individual heroes, no shot clocks to add excitement, no thumping body checks. There’s not even tolerance for exhibitionism.
“It’s an athlete’s sport, incredibly designed to help you break through one barrier then the next,” said Colin Arnold, the JV coach. Back at the boathouse, Gabriel Bronson, a senior on the varsity boat, elaborated.
“It’s cold, it’s wet, it’s hard,” he said. “But I know that if I can handle three hours of hell during practice, I can handle one hour of anything, anywhere else in my life.”
The next stop: San Diego.
The San Diego Crew Classic turns the shores of Mission Bay into a veritable Camelot of exhibition tents. Almost 400 pencil-thin shells lie in state, oriented as if magnetized toward the water in slings as they await the call to launch and race. T-shirts celebrate the rowing culture: “God is a coxswain,” “A woman’s place is on the water,” “We’re the fast girls your mother warned you about,” “Gay but rowing straight.”
Saturday, April 2, was mostly filled with preliminary races. The top few finishers in each heat would move on to Sunday’s grand finals or qualify for a consolation round.
Saturday was not a good day for the Berkeley varsity men and women. Neither crew advanced. “Gloomy” might be too chipper a description of the men during the post-race race boat wash.
“There’s nothing I can say to take away the disappointment,” Dadd told his boys. “I’m not inside your heads. You’ve got to decide whether or not you are going to re-focus and get it together.” Every coach has to deal with early season illnesses; apparently there were times when Dadd had little to deal at all.
By contrast, the mood was ebullient among the JV rowers. The girls had qualified for a consolation race; better still, the boys had advanced to the grand finals.
“Try not to wash tonight,” one of the boys advised his mates after the race. “It’s bad luck.”
In Sunday’s consolation finals, the girls placed third, beating three southern California rowing clubs. In the grand finals, the boys placed fourth, finishing ahead of a prep school from Sammamish, WA., and the Oakland Strokes Rowing Club—their own boathouse neighbors.
In the boy’s post-race debriefing, their coach talked about the rewards of staying relaxed, staying focused, and having fun. “You accomplished everything you set out to attain. Some of them were far from easy,” Arnold said. “What you did today, you did for yourselves.”
This combination of JV oarsmen had only been together for a week. With the climactic Northwest Regional Junior Championships slated to take place in Sacramento at the end of the school year, the horizon seemed limitless, a point not lost on Jeff Wong.
“I am sure this boat can go faster,” he said.
On second thought, it would appear that the race is far from over.
As the father of a Berkeley High crew coach, David Arnold, a freelance journalist from Boston, struggled for objectivity writing this story.