As one might expect, the first World Rowing Championships to be hosted by the U.S. were rife with Americana. Held Sept. 11-18 in resolutely red-white-and-blue Indianapolis, the weeklong regatta was a virtual theme park of old-fashioned patriotic iconography.
Yellow school buses shuttled 1,200 athletes from 47 countries between Union Station and the Eagle Creek Reservoir. Hot dogs and lemonade were for sale behind the grandstands, along with light beer. Italy's Azzurri, the regatta's chief collectors of gold medals—four overall—won their races to cheers of "Vai! Vai!" but they rowed to the victory platform accompanied by the music of Aaron Copland and John Philip Sousa. Perhaps nothing was as nostalgically American, however, as the U.S. triumph in the men's heavyweight eight. Such victories, like Sousa's marches, were in vogue decades ago.
On the final day of the regatta the U.S. octet took advantage of a strong tailwind and slid across 2,000 meters in a world-championship-record time of 5:24.50. Stroked by 25-year-old Jeff Klepacki—whose father, Henry, died in July but was represented in the boat by a soggy business card tucked into his son's sock—the U.S. eight nosed out a fast-closing Dutch crew by .6 of a second.
"I've seen winners of the U.S. Open tennis with tears in their eyes, and I've seen Michael Jordan cry after winning the NBA Finals, but right now I'm beyond that," said 5'5", 110-pound coxswain Steven Segaloff between mouthfuls of a Snickers bar, which he had denied himself for months. "At the moment, I couldn't tell you what this victory means."
Besides saving the U.S. men from a gold medal shutout on their home water, the eight's win could augur a return to the world dominance the U.S. enjoyed between 1920 and 1956, when top U.S. college crews won every Olympic gold medal. A return to the gold standard in rowing's glamour event was. in fact, the motivation behind the hiring 19 months ago of U.S. men's sweep coach Mike Spracklen, a native of Marlow, England, who has led sweep crews from Great Britain and Canada to gold medals in the last three Olympics. But instant preeminence was not what Spracklen saw after Sunday's win.
"We almost got beat," he pointed out. "Today demonstrated that we still have a long way to go before Atlanta."
Atlanta has been Spracklen's mantra throughout his tenure in the U.S., though he has ruffled feathers with his public frankness about the organizational and philosophical flaws of USRowing, the sport's national governing body. And in fact, USRowing is so fragmented that most of the subgroups of sweepers and scullers train in different parts of the country. "There is no leadership here," Spracklen said of the U.S contingent in Indy. "This is like a lot of private armies rather than one big one. It's not necessarily unpleasant, but it doesn't win, either."
Spracklen trains his own private army in a decidedly unmilitary manner at the new ARCO Olympic Training Center in San Diego. Unlike many rowing coaches, he doesn't feel a need to hit the water before the sun does, so workouts usually begin at 7:30 a.m. His winning philosophy has inspired the devotion of sweepers and coxes who have dropped everything to move to his Southern California enclave. "He doesn't beat you into a performance, he emphasizes positives," says five seat Don Smith. "He gets us to trust each other by having us do everything on the water together, including thinking."
Mind-melding is no mean feat for nine men who hail from two coasts and range in age from 21 (Jamie Koven, a senior at Brown who is undefeated as a varsity oarsman and is widely considered the country's best collegiate rower) to 30 (Bob Kaehler, a physical therapist who switched from sculling to sweeping just this spring). "Frankly, we like to stay away from each other off the water," says two seat Fred Honebein. "That way we all respect each other as individuals and get along fine." That, of course, is as old-fashioned American as you can get.