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Rowers rush to Pittsburgh rivers

| Friday, April 18, 2008

Well before sunrise, when most people who don't have to be awake yet aren't, the boat docks at Washington's Landing and Millvale are already crowded with rowers, trying to get in the water.

"Starting at 5:15 a.m., our docks look like rush hour going through the Squirrel Hill Tunnel," said Three Rivers Rowing Association executive director Richard Butler. "Then, when the high schools are out, at approximately 3 p.m., it's rush hour again. Just row after row of boats and rowers."

Given Pittsburgh's wealth of waterways, it's no surprise that rowing in all its forms - crew, sculling, kayaking and even dragon boating - has become a popular sport from late spring to early fall. There are roughly a dozen high school teams in Western Pennsylvania, and local colleges are also involved. Most teams operate out of one of the rowing association's facilities.

It's thanks to Three Rivers Rowing and offshoot organizations such as Steel City Rowing in Verona that virtually anyone can learn to row.

"There is a thriving rowing community (in Pittsburgh)," Butler said. "It's a lifestyle sport that any size or shape person can do. You may not be the best in the nation, but you can still row."

Central Catholic rowing coach Jay Hammond said the program size has doubled in the five years he's been there, from just under 30 boys to 60 this year.

"I think when you have that large an increase it suggests that perceptions are changing," he said.

Hammond said that rowing at the high school level appeals to both students and parents because of the discipline it teaches and because rowing provides meaningful competition for all levels.

"There's no sitting on the bench," Hammond said.

Western Pennsylvania still ranks behind rowing hotbeds such as Philadelphia and New England, but Hammond said the competition in the Midwest Scholastic League is getting steadily better.

"An increasing number of our guys are being recruited at elite universities," he said. "So we're making some progress, if you measure success that way."

At the college level, Pitt, Carnegie Mellon and Duquesne all have club teams. For the Duquesne women, rowing is an NCAA sport.


Row your boat

There are several different styles of rowing and types of boats:

Sweeping: Rowers have two hands on one oar. Can be done in pairs, in fours or in eights.

Sculling: Rowers have an oar in each hand. Can be done as a single, in pairs or in fours.

Kayaking: One long oar has a paddle on each end, rowers alternate strokes. Can be done as a single or in pairs.

Dragon boating: Originated in China; each boat is 43 feet long and weighs 700 pounds. Twenty rowers, seated side-by-side on 10 benches, power the boat while one person steers and a drummer sets the pace.


The three school club teams will race for local bragging rights Saturday in the Car-Du-Pitt Regatta from the 40th street bridge to Washington's Landing on the Allegheny River.

Like high school rowing, collegiate rowing requires an intense training regimen.

"When we recruit, we try to sex it up and say, 'You could win a national title, represent Pitt and travel,' but then the harsh reality is that you have to work out five, if not seven, times a week year-round," said Matt Kowalski, assistant coach for Pitt crew. "When you have to be at the boathouse at 5:30 a.m., it tends to weed out a lot of people."

Recreational rowing isn't quite so demanding, although many of Three Rivers Rowing Association's members do train and race.

Butler said the group has approximately 400 members but that program participants number in the thousands.

"We are nationally known, not only for being one of the largest community rowing centers in the country but also because so many of our rowers bring back so many awards," Butler said.

Some of their most popular programs are corporate leagues. So far this year they have 28 corporate teams registered for the season beginning in May.

The association also offers free Learn to Row days at their Millvale Training Center. The next one is May 20 from 7 to 8 p.m., and registration is required.

For more information on how to start rowing, visit www.threeriversrowing.org or call 412-321-TRRA.

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