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5-year-old Anchorage club growing, planning for future

Posted: Thursday, June 27, 2002

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) -- As coach Sarah Riggs barked orders on a sunny Saturday afternoon, eight rowers lifted a 60-foot-long, wooden rowing shell weighing roughly 300 pounds off a rack on the east bank of Anchorage's Sand Lake. Following her commands, the rowers hoisted the shell over their heads and locked their elbows. Then they leaned their heads to show which side they intended to chose when it came time to lower the boat onto their shoulders. On command, they lowered the boat onto their shoulders and trundled centipedelike out of a fenced storage pen toward the water.

Practice was about to begin for the Anchorage Rowing Association. A club formed just five years ago, it now boasts 50 members; a paid East Coast coach for the summer; junior, open and master divisions; a team in training for the Masters World Games in Australia in the fall; practice sessions on Sand Lake six days a week, sometimes twice a day; and ongoing learn-to-row classes that draw nearly 100 new students every year. About 30 end up sticking with rowing.

''I've never seen a club program like this before,'' said Riggs as her eight rowers waded knee deep into Sand Lake's waters with the boat overhead.

Soon the rowing shell Robert F. Herrick was in the water. The oarsmen went about setting up the boat, putting eight 12-foot oars in their locks.

Two by two, starting at the bow of the boat, the rowers then climbed aboard. Each gripped an oar. Each settled into a sliding seat with knees to chest and feet laced into ''clogs'' -- foot plates mounted on the boat's floor. They sat in a tight line facing the stern looking to be balanced on a sleek, floating 2-by-4. Each held one oar. Each was stripped down to a tank top and shorts.

The rowers who gripped the oars jutting out the right side of the boat held still. The other rowers started rowing slowly, turning the boat away from shore to compete with airplanes on floats, motorboats pulling water skiers and the occasional fisherman for a slice of a lake little more than a half-mile long.

Riggs followed the fast-moving rowing shell aboard ''the launch,'' a small, aluminum skiff powered by 10 horsepower, two-stroke motor.

She started the team with a warm-up drill.

''We're going to row by four on the square, full slide, switching a pair on every 10 strokes.''

Translation? Only four rowers would be rowing at a time, starting with the four seated in the back half of the boat. The stern seats -- 7 and 8 -- would stop rowing after 10 strokes, and at the same time seats 3 and 4 would begin. Then with 10 more strokes, seats five and six would drop out, and the bow seats -- 1 and 2 -- would pick it up.

''On the square'' meant the rowers not rowing were to hold their oars perpendicular to and slightly out of the water. Full slide meant everyone was to take a full-powered stroke, sliding all the way forward and all the way back as they pulled their oar.

The force behind the Anchorage Rowing Club is Marietta ''Ed'' Anderson, an investment broker who grew up in Anchorage idolizing Olympic rower Kris Thorsness, the first Alaskan to win an Olympic gold medal. She is often found in one of the boats these days.

Anderson pursued the sport in college and eventually her sister married Thorsness' brother, bringing her even closer to the sport. In 1997, she got word that a group of women on the Kenai Peninsula had bought a couple of eight-seat shells but didn't know a thing about rowing. Anderson jumped at the chance to be involved in rowing again and volunteered to help out. She ended up driving down to the Kenai a couple of times a week to help get the Kenai Krewsers, a women's team, started. The next thing she knew, she was ''the coach.''

Then, in the spring of '98 she and Holly Baker, a Girdwood rower who got started with the Krewsers in '97, put up fliers announcing a meeting to gauge interest in starting something similar in Anchorage. Thirty people showed up.

''People were just waiting for it to be organized,'' Anderson said.

Anchorage had been home to a rowing club in the mid-1980s, but it had faded away by the '90s.

A resurgence was driven in part by a collection of experienced rowers here. About a dozen of the club's 50 members rowed competitively in college and bring coaching experience to the team. Otherwise, the group is made up of all types of want-to-be rowers from ages 12 to 60-plus. There are students, firefighters, computer technicians, teachers and doctors.

The Anchorage program also offers a very inexpensive opportunity for newcomers to check out rowing, Riggs said.

''East Coast clubs require you to join at $500 or more, then figure it out,'' she said. ''In Anchorage, you can take 'Learn to Row' classes for $49.''

The classes teach sweep, the type of team rowing in which each crew member mans one oar. The sport in which a rower uses two oars is called ''sculling'' Over time, sweep rowers develop a preference for port or starboard.

The ''Learn to Row'' classes have become big moneymakers for the club, Anderson said. It now has annual revenues of nearly $30,000 and last year became an official nonprofit organization. The club is setting aside about 10 percent of its annual revenues in a capital fund, Anderson said.

Most club members are women, but slowly the men are coming.

Brian McClaskey lives near Sand Lake and saw a group of women taking a boat out a year ago. When he asked about the boat, he learned about the club. He had rowed in high school in Canada. Now he is a club board member here.

''As a venue for exercise, team sports have always been more fun for me,'' McClaskey said, ''It is good exercise, and it is fun.''

''There's a shortage of men rowers,'' Riggs said. ''It tends to be a problem nationwide.''

She believes women are attracted to the sport because it is a team effort with no one singled out for subpar performance. The abundance of women and dearth of men should eventually help attract more men to the club, she said. There is now a crew of men who regularly go out a few early mornings each week, she said.

Of the club's roughly 20 men, she added, ''there is only one guy who is down here trying to get dates.'' At that, she rolled her eyes.

Riggs was hired as club coach this summer and is on the lake a couple times a day. Most recently, she coached at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. Prior to that, the 24-year-old coached at New York University. She rowed in college at Rutgers University.

Riggs said she learned about the Anchorage job on the Internet at www.row2k.com. She said it's the Web site for ''everything rowing.''

Sand Lake is a challenging place to row, however. It's just barely big enough to row the eight, Anderson said.

Also, a city noise ordinance dictates the club's coach can only use the motorized launch between 3 and 8 p.m. on weekdays and noon and 6 p.m. on weekends and slightly later on Sundays. There are no other options in the city, Anderson said. Campbell Lake is bigger, but there is no public access.

One of the club's biggest problems now is one experienced by clubs all over the country: No one wants to be a coxswain.

Typically, on competitive teams, the coxswain (pronounced cox-sen) is a lightweight person who knows a lot about rowing and steering a boat. The cox sits in the stern facing the rowers and issues orders to keep the rowers coordinated, estimate the power of strokes and keep the boat on track.

''Everyone wants to be a horse and no one wants to be a jockey,'' Riggs said.

For now, Anchorage club members are taking turns in the coxswain seat, Riggs said. It means no one gets particularly good at it, which eventually holds the club back, she added.

As this two-hour practice began to wind down, Riggs shouted orders that had pairs of rowers stopping until the boat came to a slow glide near the shore. Then she gave the order that meant stop rowing:

''Weigh enough.''

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