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Head of Ohio event draws 2,000 people, 500 boats to water

| Sunday, Oct. 7, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Members of the Carnegie Mellon University Women 's rowing team make their way up the Allegheny River to the finish line for the Annual Head of the Ohio Regatta hosted by Three Rivers Rowing Association, Saturday, October 6, 2012. Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review

The dock at the Lambert Boathouse on Washington's Landing was a busy place Saturday morning, as rowing crews maneuvered back and forth through spectators and other competitors carrying boats over their heads.

As eight-person crews lifted their boats from the water and walked them uphill to the road, other eight- and four-person crews came downhill and got in line to launch.

It's a setting where one ignores a “heads up” warning at his or her peril.

Just before noon, however, there was a lull. The big crews competing in the 34th Head of the Ohio Regatta were either already on the Allegheny River or not scheduled until later, and it was quiet and solitary when the men's masters singles — or sculls — started returning from their race.

That's the way 56-year-old Don Heckenstaller, of Allison Park, likes it.

“I think it's just your personality. I usually stick to the single,” said Heckenstaller, who's been rowing since college. “You can just get out there and enjoy the calmness and the quietness of being out there by yourself.”

The Head of the Ohio, presented each year by Three Rivers Rowing Association, draws nearly 2,000 rowers and 500 boats to the North Shore and Washington's Landing. Rowers race against the clock 2.6 miles upstream from the starting line near Heinz Field to just below the 40th Street Bridge. Boats come in singles, doubles, 4-person and 8-person varieties, with categories for youth and high school teams through college, corporate, open and masters divisions.

Liz Sumner, 38, of Lawrenceville, competed with an eight-person team from Three Rivers Rowing in the mixed masters division along with her boyfriend, Tim Murphy, 49, also of Lawrenceville.

“If you live in Pittsburgh, this is the best way to take advantage of the rivers,” Sumner said. “And it's so beautiful, especially in the fall. We practice at night, row past the stadiums and the Convention Center, the lights are on, you go under the bridges. Compare that to being in the gym and stairmastering or something, it's nice.”

Sumner rowed briefly during her freshman year in college, but Saturday was just Murphy's seventh time rowing and his first-ever race.

“It depends on the seat,” he said, when asked if it's hard to coordinate your timing with seven other people. “If you're in the middle, I think you just try to go along with everyone else and try not to screw up. That's my philosophy.”

Approximately 400 rowers, including Sumner and Murphy, take part in Three Rivers Rowing adult competitive teams each year along with another 1,150 adult recreational participants. Several hundred of those come from the corporate rowing teams, including Heinz.

Alison Richards, 34, of Verona has been at Heinz for 10 years and rowing for nine. As a newcomer to the area, it was initially a way for her to learn a new sport and meet people from other departments, but Richards got hooked.

“You don't have to come from a high school or college program, and you can start however old you are — 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, whatever,” she said. “Being out on the water, seeing the sunrise and the water is like a piece of glass, it's just really cool to be in touch with nature.”

Megan Kuehm, 52, of Wilkins initially picked up the sport after her kids started rowing in high school. She now coaches and helps run the corporate programs at Three Rivers.

“It's a lot of fun,” she said of introducing adults to rowing. “Initially, there's some fear, maybe they're timid, but there's excitement about getting in a boat. As they start to take the strokes, they start to really get excited. The people I talk to now are like, ‘Wow, can't believe I did this.' ”

Karen Price is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7980 or kprice@tribweb.com.

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