Last week on Seattle's Green Lake, more than 600 athletes gathered for the 13th annual Women's National Rowing Championships. They came from 58 clubs and schools to row with sweep oars and sculls, in singles, doubles, fours and eights. It was the largest women's nationals to date, and with good reason. In 1975 the U.S. women's eight won a silver medal at the world games in Nottingham, England; no U.S. women had ever even placed in this competition. And when Joan Lind won a silver medal in the single sculls at the Montreal Olympics it further inspired her sisters across the land. Now Green Lake was all but awash with world-class oarswomen, most notably in the single sculls, those tiny graceful boats, so frail and silent afloat, an unlikely blend of power and delicacy and always, it seems, about to tip over.
Lind, who won the singles in the last two nationals, was taking a year off from competition, and everyone at Seattle was wondering who her successor would be. Lisa Hansen of Lind's Long Beach Rowing Association was ready; only 23, she was runner-up in three of the last four nationals, and she had rowed in a quad—a four-sculled boat—in Montreal, had won bronze medals in a double scull at last summer's world games in Amsterdam and the three-mile sculling event at last fall's Head of the Charles Regatta in Cambridge, Mass.
At Seattle Hansen became involved in her second favorite sport—eating. In her Long Beach home is a poster that reads: IF YOU DON'T CHEW YOUR FOOD, NOBODY ELSE WILL. It was given to her by her former Long Beach coach, Tom McKibbon. While having dinner with her, he decided to finish his meal as fast as he could. He didn't tell her what he was doing. He came in second. One day last week, between inhalations of enchiladas and crepes with whipped cream and peaches Hansen spoke of a book she was reading. Small Is Beautiful, a seemingly perfect title for a single sculler. "And what is your favorite Scotch?" a friend asked, lampooning the Dewar's ad. Hansen only grinned, a grin that would grow neon-bright as the weekend waned. "And your favorite quote?"
" 'There's no easy way,' " she said.
"In reference to what?"
"To life," she said. "There's no easy way to do anything worthwhile, and if you find one you're probably not doing it right. It certainly applies to sculling. I've worked awfully hard in the years I've been doing it." Then she added in lighter vein, "But I never think of how I'm rowing, just how I look."
"I can tell you how," said her sometime coxswain and friend, Irene Moreno. "How?" Hansen said. "Vibrant and exciting," Moreno said, "persistent and deliberate...and racy."
"Was that rehearsed?" Moreno was asked. "Absolutely not," she said. "Some people are weak at 500 meters, and some in the finishing sprint, but Lisa has everything—a big surge at the start, a good strong stroke and concentration that never wavers."
At Green Lake, Hansen's concentration was on her competition, mainly 23-year-old Anne Warner, and on teeth. "We have this thing about teeth," Hansen said. "The shorter they are, the faster you can go, because when you go fast you grind them down." A friend asked, "Have you seen Annie's teeth? They're about this long," and she held two fingers about an eighth of an inch apart.
Warner's teeth, it turned out, were of normal length. She just displayed them a lot less than Hansen and her Long Beach friends, keeping to herself more, preferring the company of her little boat.
In the fall of her sophomore year at Yale, after only a year at the sport, Warner told her coach, "Rowing is what I want." Soon she was stroke of the Yale women's eight. The next summer she made the national team and was on the boat that won the silver medal at Nottingham. That fall, after sculling only a year, she finished second on the Head of the Charles three-mile course, and last fall she won. "In a race like that," she said at Seattle, "it's a matter of who can stand things the longest, and I can stand things longer than anyone I know." It was talk like that and rumors that Warner was eating nails for breakfast that had Hansen and the 20 other single scullers on edge.
Hansen won her elimination heat on Thursday, advancing to the semifinals; Warner, second in the same heat, would have to survive the repechage. It had been the first run of her sculling career down a 1,000-meter regulation course, however, and that fact was lost on no one. That afternoon, after Warner won her heat of the 400-meter open dash, Hansen said, "Did you see Annie's heat? She raced almost to the dock." "Why?" someone asked. "She's just intense," Hansen said. "Oh, I think it's all show," said a male coach. But later Warner said, "I didn't know the dock was so close. I thought I could get in 30 more strokes. People thought it was show, but I was just being relentless, just going about my business. Quietly."
That was the word. The other competitors soaked up sun between heats, but Warner, who had won her sculling repechage, knelt in the shadows with her boat, saying, "In the last day and a half I learned more about rigging than in the previous two years. I've increased my leverage with a simple adjustment of the oars, and...." "And what?" "That's all I'm saying," she said with a half, non-toothy smile, as she got ready for her semifinal sculling heat.
Now, far down the course, the sculls were barely visible, motes of rhythmical movement. The flimsy shells, as always, were a treat to the eye, and the mind, too. Said an athletic young observer who had sat in a scull at the boathouse, "I held on to the dock, but even then I felt that if I had a nickel in one pocket and not in the other I would have gone over. I was terrified of letting go."
Only one short stretch of shore gave a clear view of the finish, and all weekend, people who had stood elsewhere would rush to the dock and ask, "Did you win?" only to hear, "I don't know, did I?" The scullers, concentrating on the business at hand, did little glancing around during races and had trouble keeping in their lanes, which were poorly marked.
Warner kept drifting to one side, her strength uneven from racing port in her Yale eight. But she won her semifinal of the 1,000 in 3:54.19, admitting at the dock, "I was hurting, but that's O.K."
Then Hansen won her semi in 4:03.85 and confessed to her coach, John Van Blom, "I didn't row as hard as you wanted me to." He said, "As long as you're ready tomorrow," and she replied, "Sometimes when you don't row your hardest you forget what it's like." Everyone knew that semifinal times meant nothing, but it seemed a strange thing to say.
Earlier, Hansen had been talking about rowing and of how it was the first sport she had tried in which she didn't trip over her legs. "People laugh at me," she said. "I don't always stumble, though I'm not very fast." But great drive does not always express itself directly, in words or manner, as does Anne Warner's.
As St. Exupery's Little Prince said, "What is essential is invisible to the eye." And inaudible to the ear. Clearly that was something to keep in mind as the sculling showdown drew near.
What the crowd at Green Lake needed for Friday's singles finals was the Goodyear blimp from which to watch the race. What it had was an announcer with a stroke watch, peering through binoculars and shouting, "Warner starts at 39 strokes per minute, Hills out at 41½, Hansen at 38½." There was no real description of the race. The angle of view, even with binoculars, made that impossible. At about 750 meters Hansen seemed to be ahead, with Warner gaining. And that is how it ended, Hansen 1½ to two lengths in front, her time 3:48.32, the national championship hers at last. Liz Hills, her sculling mate in the doubles at Amsterdam, was third. Hansen said to Warner, "You're going to give me a lot of trouble next year," and Warner replied, "I have a feeling you're right." She was still not interested in discussing her rigging.
An hour and 20 minutes later, Hansen and Warner met again, in the open quad event, four scullers and a coxswain in each boat. Hansen's Long Beach crew had been together in various combinations for three years. She was at stroke and Liz Hills at bow. Irene Moreno was coxswain, Claudia Schneider, from the Nottingham silver-medal eight, was at No. 2 oar, and Debbie Rozowski, a spare at Montreal, was at No. 3. Anne Warner's crew had never rowed together before, but still it made a close race, losing by 3.39 seconds. Rozowski said, "My teeth hurt," and there was more grinding to come for Hansen and Warner.
In the morning Hansen, with Hills, won the open doubles. Forty minutes later, behind in the open dash finals with only 50 meters to go, Hansen surged ahead to win her fourth race of the weekend. She was followed .65 seconds later by Warner. Hansen called her four gold medals "The Grand Slam of Heavyweight Women's Sculling," and Warner, when asked what she had learned this day, replied, "That I needed 10 more strokes." The day's last race, the open eight, was won by British Columbia's Burnaby Lake Club.
As the boats were being packed for shipment, Lisa Hansen's smile was brighter than ever, and so, it seemed, was her future in rowing.