It was hardly what hope and Sharon Strong of Winter Park, Fla., had envisioned for their daughter Portia when they put her on a plane for Boston University four years ago. Nonetheless, on April 5, Portia, a senior seven seat on the Terrier women's crew, found herself lying facedown in a San Diego tattoo parlor, her right buttock exposed. As her teammates watched, the school's rowing crest—a cross with a set of bisecting oars—was drawn on her behind with a tattoo needle.
The Terrier crew had just lost its first race of the season, to Washington, at the San Diego Crew Classic, and in the words of coxswain Melissa Hall, "We needed some pain." So Hall let her fingers do the walking until she happened across a local tattoo parlor that met her approval. In a display of unity, five of the women had various parts of their bodies redecorated.
The results were not immediate—Boston University lost its next two races. Since then, the Terriers have not been beaten, and last Saturday at the National Collegiate Rowing Championships on Harsha Lake in Cincinnati they finished the regular season by winning their second straight national crown. Just 30 minutes after Boston University chopped its way to victory, its Beantown brother, Harvard, edged Dartmouth by the width of an oar handle to win the men's title in 5:33.97, a record for the event.
"We made a pact not long after San Diego that every stroke would be a good one," said the Terriers' Kelly Musick, who had what she thinks is the Chinese symbol for balance tattooed onto her back. ("He was Chinese," she said of the tattoo artist. "I took his word for it.")
In Cincinnati, Boston University jumped to an early lead in the six-boat field and held off Cornell and Princeton to win by nearly five seconds, in 6:28.79. Before the race, Princeton, a crew of self-proclaimed superstition freaks, felt it had covered all the bases. In addition to performing what the crew refers to as the chalice ceremony, in which water from Lake Carnegie, the Tigers' home course, is poured over the bow of their shell before every race, the rowers also wore the following inscription from Les Misèrables on their shirts:
And the Tigers come at night
With their voices soft as thunder
And they tear your hope apart
And they turn your dreams to shame.
Over the past two seasons, though, the Terriers have made things downright miserable for Princeton, handing the Tigers their only three defeats in that span. "They've won this thing two years in a row," said Princeton junior Katherine Healey after the race. "They're in a position to talk some smack."
And talk smack they did, boldly supporting their claim as the trashiest crew on the Charles. "With us, it's satisfaction guaranteed," said Boston University junior captain Sarah Baker.
Still, not even the supremely confident Terriers wanted to take any chances in Cincinnati, and during practice runs before Saturday's race they rowed in every crew's lane but their own. "To put a hex on 'em," said Hall. In addition, the Terriers opened the doors to their van and turned up the volume on C+C Music Factory's psych song Gonna Make You Sweat during prerace calisthenics. Psychology aside, Boston University also relied on technical advances: In the middle of the season the Terriers eschewed the traditional tulip-shaped oar for the new Big Blade—nicknamed the hatchet.
Developed last summer by Dick and Peter Dreissigacker, whose Vermont-based company, Concept II, specializes in crew equipment, the hatchet, which more closely resembles a meat cleaver than an ax, is seven centimeters shorter than the standard oar but has 20% more surface area at the blade. What this means, in non-crewspeak, is that rowers can generate more power with less effort.
While one would have expected crews to scramble for these new blades when former Dartmouth coach Larry Gluckman, who left the school to become Concept II's liaison to college rowing, started peddling them last fall, only his successor in Hanover, Scott Armstrong, 28, made the switch immediately. However, after the Big Green blew through its dual-meet season undefeated and became only the third crew since 1958 to win the Eastern Sprints and the Intercollegiate Rowing Association regattas in the same year (Brown in 1987 and Cornell in '63 are the other two), every crew hoping to line up in Cincinnati made sure it had a set.
That included Harvard, despite the feelings of staid Crimson coach Harry Parker, who had voted before last month's Eastern Sprints to have the hatchet banned until next year. Using the hatchet, Harvard avenged its only defeat of the season, a second-place finish to Dartmouth at the Sprints, and earned its sixth national championship in 10 years. And more may lie ahead. All eight of Parker's charges, save one, return next season. Among them are the Cooper twins, Bill and John, both former members of the U.S. Junior National team.
"We like to tell people that they came by rowing naturally," says their father, Bill Sr. One of the boys' maternal great-great-grandfathers was Yale crew coach Bob Cook, after whom the school's boathouse was named. A paternal great-grandfather once rowed from Kentucky to New Orleans via the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.
Throughout Bill and John's childhood, the Coopers would spend summers on Echo Lake, in California's Sierra Nevada mountains. The family's cabin had no electricity, so with no television to watch, Bill and John had to find ways to amuse themselves. At 13 they begged their parents for a kayak but were given a two-seated rowboat instead. Their first time out the boys pulled so hard they snapped the end off a wooden oar.
Shortly afterward they joined the crew at Berkeley (Calif.) High, and when the coach asked if they had had any previous experience, both of them nodded. But when he asked which side they rowed, the boys looked at each other quizzically. Then John called out port, and Bill, to be different, said starboard. They haven't changed sides since.
When it came time for choosing a college, things weren't so easy. Bill settled on Harvard early, while John leaned toward Yale. But one evening after dinner, John asked his parents, "Do you think Harvard's big enough for the both of us?"
Despite similar coifs—crewcuts, of course—the Coopers lead very separate lives. Last summer Bill met Boston University's Baker at a barbecue at Hall's house. The two have been an item ever since. "It's a good thing we won," said Bill. "Now I don't have to take crap from her for the rest of the year."
Baker smiled and wandered back down the shore to her teammates, past Strong, who had just switched off a cellular phone after calling her grandmother. "I told her it was the hardest race of my life," said Strong. "And that even though I was hurting really bad, I felt great."
Want to bet she didn't mention the tattoo?