CORNING CREW CLASSIC
Announcing the First Professional Rowing Race of the Century
Preliminary Heats on Saturday and Finals on Sunday
$1,000.00 Cash Prize for the Winner of the Single Scull
The big Polish sculler rowed up next to me after the preliminary heat. He had sculled beautifully. He had the confident look of a man who in his lifetime has taken 10 million strokes. Poised. He was new to the United States and I had never met him.
"My name is Kujda," he said in slightly broken English, "and I need the money very bad." Then Wieslaw Kujda rowed away without saying another word. Five minutes earlier Kujda had won the first heat by two boat lengths of open water, and if he performed like that in the final tomorrow he would probably win the $1,000 easily. Watching him row back to the dock in that poised, elegant style made me want to examine the expiration date on his visa.
Tiff Wood, a longtime friend, had finished second, and I was third, 10 seconds behind the leader. It didn't really matter since the first three finishers qualified for the final and the fourth place guy was way back. Still, I would have liked to have been a little closer to Tiff and Kujda, to feel like one of the gang.
Tiff had recently been married, so he too could use the money. Two of the finalists from the other heat, Paul Fuchs and Greg Springer, were also good friends of mine. Greg and I had just returned from racing at the Henley Royal Regatta, where we finished second in the double scull event. After spending two weeks in Europe with Greg, I knew he desperately needed the money. I tried not to admit it to myself, but I needed the money as much as anyone. There was an American Express bill for $8,000 that had my name printed at the top.
The next morning the local paper had an article about the regatta. I gave it a quick read, hoping not to see my name. The No. 1 rule in sporting success, at least for me, is to be humble, and the best way to violate it is to get your name in the papers. I was not mentioned, but alas, there was a separate story on the professional rowing races (there was also a women's singles event with a $1,000 purse). It informed readers that professional rowing had been quite popular at one time. Unfortunately, the article touted me as a favorite. My cover was blown.
Greg and I arrived at Hammond Lake, which is in Pennsylvania, some 20 miles south of Corning, N.Y., about 20 minutes before the start of the race. A head wind was blowing directly down the course—good news for me, bad news for Fuchs. Paul is a quick little sculler, a silver medalist at the '84 world championships in the lightweight category (159 pounds or less), but this head wind figured to take him out of contention, since he lacked the muscle mass to keep up with the "fatweights," as he called the rest of us. In the off-season I would spend about half my training time in the weight room doing the big three lifts: bench press, squat and dead lift. The bench press is mostly for beach muscles that don't come in handy until after the season. Squats and dead lifts, however, are essential when rowing into a head wind. In a tail wind, quickness is the key and a smaller sculler often has an advantage.
Race time was near and in the last few minutes I took a practice start and then pulled up to the starting line. I had lane two, with Tiff on my right and Paul on my left. Kujda was way over in lane five. I tried not to look at them or acknowledge the "good luck" shouts that floated over the water. I had a job to do, and to do it successfully I had to ignore the fact that my competitors were also my friends.
One thousand dollars. Through 13 years of rowing I had never won anything that could be deposited into my checking account. When our crew won a race in college (UC Irvine), the only reward was the racing shirt off our opponent's back. In my first sculling race I had won a wristwatch, but it broke after a week. I have won a few medals and plaques; one in particular is special—the gold medal that Paul Enquist and I won in the double sculls at the Los Angeles Olympics. It is so special, in fact, that I keep it in a safe deposit box and never look at it.
I had never raced for money before, nor to improve my bargaining position with sponsors. I race to uncover the person I really am, to provide a reason for my existence other than making money and aspiring to a nice house. Rowing has given me a safe arena to work off my anger.
I had never won a major single-sculling race east of the Santa Ana Freeway. Most of my success had come in team boats, the double scull and quadruple scull. The single scull is much harder, and in 20 attempts I had beaten Tiff only twice.
I kept telling myself that I didn't need the money. Just relax. Enjoy the pleasant company of my rowing friends. But my anger was starting to take over.
A thousand meters is only half the Olympic distance, and into this head wind I figured it would take about 3½ minutes to complete. A man can go through a lot of changes in 3½ minutes—a raging bull might crash and burn 10 strokes before the finish line. Should I try to lead from the first stroke, I wondered, or hang back and let the others burn out? About 10 seconds before the start I made my decision: keep close to the leader and when the time was right, blow on by.
All six racers were firmly locked onto their stake boats, moored boats that serve as starting-line markers. I have always enjoyed the twilight zone right before the start when everything is quiet—library quiet. The referee's launch had stopped growling and the racers were pointed toward the finish line. From this perspective the finish looked about a mile beyond the horizon.
Through his megaphone the starter barked the international starting command: "√ätes-vous pr√™ts? Partez!"
I rowed carefully off the line. First 10 strokes for technique, I told myself, just like in the Olympics. Out of the corner of my eye I could tell that Greg and Kujda had jumped on it, and after a minute I chanced a look at them. They were both a length or more ahead. Tiff was even with me, and Paul and the other finalist were way back. I couldn't believe the way Kujda was sculling; maybe there was less wind in his lane. He was really flying. But anyone can hold his breath for a minute—the second minute is where the fun begins.
I took a few deep breaths as I passed the 500-meter mark and then I started to lean on it. Head down. Lean on it. Think dead lifts. Try to snap the oars with a powerful drive. Lean on it more. The gap between Kujda and myself was closing and I could hear the spectators screaming at the finish line. Greg had run out of gas and now was a length behind. So was Tiff. Kujda was still leading, but not by much. Fifteen strokes left.
I didn't need the money, I needed to win. Take the anger and funnel it through the oars and into the water. Make it work for me. I thought squats: 315 pounds, 15 repetitions, all the way down, head up, eyes forward, no looking around. It must have seemed to Kujda that a dozen gold bricks had been dropped into the cockpit of his boat. The thought of all that money had to weigh him down. Ten more strokes. I took it higher. My little stroke meter was off the scale—I left it at 39 strokes a minute and now it was at 44. Water was flying—it was really rough and very easy to lose an oar. That must have been what happened to Greg. He and Tiff were way back. Paul and the other finalist were probably talking about where they should eat breakfast. The fight was between Kujda and me. He needed the money. The only thing I felt was anger. Two more strokes. Head down. One more explosion. Then I heard the finish-line judge call, "One! Two!" It was that close.
A few seconds later I heard Kujda slapping the water and cursing in Polish. That told me the whole story. Someone on the finish line said to me later that I passed Kujda in the last two strokes.
After the race I took a long warm-down to cool off. I saw the $1,000 check for about a minute and then it was handed to a U.S. Rowing Federation representative who was hanging around. The money was deposited into a special fund I can draw upon for expenses. I had more than $1,000 in unpaid bills in my wallet, but the prize money had to go through the right channels or I would lose my amateur standing. I had my picture taken next to my boat, and the photographer asked about its name: Crippler. I told him it was from the old days when I was an angry young sculler. Some things never change.
Brad Lewis, 31, hopes to win a spot on the America's Cup contender U.S.A.