By Jenny Neyman
Rowing has all the elements of the perfect sports obsession — easy to learn well enough to participate from the get-go, yet endlessly challenging. A great cardio and strength workout, but low impact so it can be a lifelong activity. Can be done in groups or solo, and pursued as a relaxed therapeutic activity, with a killer competitive spirit or anywhere in between.
“I was just immediately addicted and I’ve just been rowing ever since. I love it. It’s ridiculously easy to learn the stroke, but extremely hard to master it,” said Nancy Saylor, of the central Kenai Peninsula’s Alaska Midnight Sun Rowing Association.
“I just took right to it,” Saylor said. Yet she’s been refining her skills every season since her first row about a decade ago, and still has more to learn. “I remember after my novice year thinking, ‘Well, I know how to row, what else is there?’ But every single year the coaches tell me the same thing, so there must be something I’m not doing that I should be picking up on.”
Rowing also offers the enticement of variety. The group rows on Mackey Lake in Soldotna and participates in a few regattas in the state each year. But if those sights get stale, rowers can ship out and flex their oar muscles in new locales all around the world.
Seven members of the Midnight Sun Rowing Association are doing just that, heading to Italy to participate in international masters — meaning, for adults — rowing events.
Margot Bias, Jim Hurd, Karen Hurd, Kristin Mitchell and Saylor are already in Italy this week to row in the World Master Games in Turin through Aug. 11. It’s an international multisport event held every four years, open to athletes ages 27 and above and involves an array of sports — badminton, running, volleyball, baseball, soccer, cycling, karate, swimming, rugby and more. It’s open to athletes of all abilities, but the Midnight Sun rowers are boarding their boats bringing their best abilities.
“I want to go to win. Why else would you do it? I want to hear some medals clanking on me, hanging around my neck,” Saylor said. “I’ve always wanted to go (to an international master’s event) and just have not been able to, but for some reason when I heard the word Italy, suddenly it was possible.”
Two more, Tiger and Judy Demers, will head to Italy for the World Rowing Masters Regatta, held Sept. 5 through 8 in Varese. That’s a rowing-only masters event, organized by the International Rowing Federation.
The Turin crew will row in a combination of events — a women’s four sweep boat, where each of the four rowers only has one oar; a women’s quad, where each of the four rowers has two oars; doubles and singles.
“Which will be really cool because I’ve been rowing for 11 years and I’ve never raced in a single, so my first time will be on the international stage. So that will be fun,” Saylor said.
At the Moose Nugget Regatta in Wasilla at the end of June, the “Italian lineups,” as they called those bound for the international events, did particularly well, with Saylor and Mitchell winning gold in the women’s double, Jim and Karen Hurd winning gold in the mixed double, Bias, Saylor, Mitchell and Hurd winning gold in the women’s four and Judy Demers winning gold in the single.
“So that’s pretty fun. That was a good shot in the arm,” Saylor said.
In rowing, though, there can often be factors beyond the rowers’ control. The unpredictability can be alternately thrilling and maddening.
Weather, for one, can have a complicating effect.
“The wind is the thing that will stop you. Kind of like the mailmen, we row in hail, sleet, snow and rain. But if the wind picks up too much then you can’t do it because the waves come up and swamp the boat, and boats have actually kind of sunk before,” Saylor said.
In this case the weather is likely to pose a challenge for the Alaskans, given that it’s been 90 degrees in Turin lately. Not so in Alaska, though the warm, sunny days of July helped the rowers prepare for what they will face in Europe.
“I’m really grateful we’ve had such a nice, hot summer because it’s good training for us,” Saylor said.
Equipment can be another question mark, especially in a situation like this where the Alaska rowers will be renting equipment in Italy.
“Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s better. It’s always something,” Tiger Demers said.
The Turin rowers will be renting Filippi boats, Italian-made racing shells.
“But I’ve never been in one before so I don’t know what they’re like,” Saylor said. “It’s funny, you train and train and train and train and do your best and you just never know what’s going to happen,” she said.
That’s why she’s also going for the experience. Even if she doesn’t need an extra bag in which to check all her medals, she’s at least guaranteed a wealth of memories from her first trip to Italy and her first participation in an overseas rowing event. The closest she’s been to this is the Head of the Charles Regatta in 2005, an international event held in Massachusetts.
“It was really fun. There’s just tons of people everywhere. You pass by groups of people and they’re speaking a language and you don’t know what they’re saying, I didn’t know where they were from. The whole atmosphere is fun because a lot of people don’t really know that much about rowing here. It’s this sort of hidden little secret almost. So it’s fun to be immersed in the culture of rowing with all those different people from all over,” Saylor said. “I still have a lot of good memories from that race and I’m sure I’ll have more from this one.”
The Demerses have participated in the World Rowing Masters Regatta three times previously, in Poland, Germany and Canada.
“It’s just something we’ve done in our elder years and just have enjoyed every bit of it, and that we’re able to do these things. So we’ve just gotten into a little niche that works for us,” Judy said.
They’re at a disadvantage coming from Alaska, since rowers in more temperate climates can row year-round, but the Midnight Sun group only has the summer in which to practice.
“So they’re very fit and they have years of rowing — lots of strokes — behind them. We have to train and work really hard,” Judy said.
But that’s nothing new. Both have been lifelong athletes, with Tiger competing in the 1964 Winter Olympics on the U.S. Ski Team. What is new is each and every rowing event, since they often end up in boats with rowers they don’t know. Since they’re the only two people coming from the Midnight Sun group, they join what’s known as Rolodex teams — other single or small groups of rowers who want to participate but don’t have enough teammates to form their own contingent. Tiger joins a group based out of Washington, D.C., and ends up rowing with mostly other Americans, though occasionally a European will fill a vacant spot in a boat if someone drops out.
Judy rows with a composite team organized by a woman in Pennsylvania, but which includes rowers from around the world.
“German, French, Italian, Japanese. The key word in this group is ‘international,’” she said. “It’s just a marvelous experience. Over the years I’ve gotten to know the members of this club and it’s so international, I really like it.”
But how does one jump in a boat with people who don’t speak the same language and work as a team, especially in a sport where synchronicity is key?
That part’s not easy, Judy concedes.
“I know some words. I know halt — ‘halten’ in German. They help me,” she said.
Saylor plans to put her name in the pool of available rowers, should a boat need an extra in her age category.
“I’ll just jump in a boat with some crazy Russians or something and see what happens. As I think a little more through that — so, what if I do get in a boat with a bunch of Russians and they’re giving commands and I don’t even know they’re talking to me? So we’ll see,” Saylor said.
That’s all part of the appeal of rowing — slicing an oar blade into a challenge and propelling yourself through it.
“Yeah, you’re jumping in a boat with people you’ve never rowed with before, and sometimes it’s a little hodgepodge. It doesn’t always end up being everybody rowing in synch, and that’s the key to crew,” Tiger said. “But every once in a while you get in a boat where everything just clicks and everybody’s rowing good together, and that’s fun.”