Row, Row, Row Your Shell
A Club Sport That Uses an Oar
In the wee hours of the morning, Oakland is like a ghost town. The only moving bodies are deliverymen unloading bottles of juice at 7-Eleven. While the day has not yet begun for most Pitt students, alarm clocks go off for the Universitys rowing club.
Its 5:00 am on a Wednesday. For a college student, this is an ungodly hour. Yet, rowers for the Pitt varsity mens and womens teams drag themselves out of bed, slip on tennis shoes and T-shirts, and saunter to the William Pitt Union for a crack-of-dawn practice. Nobody says good morning or hows the weather. Water bottles in tow, they pile into cars like zombies and drive to Washingtons Landing, near downtown Pittsburgh.
Once the cars roll into the boathouse parking lot, the students no longer look like zombies. And after some leg stretching, arm swinging, and neck popping, they look like athletes ready to ride the Allegheny River.
Pitts rowing teams arent alone. Rowers from Carnegie Mellon University and Duquesne University are stripping off sweatpants to reveal clinging spandex and tank tops. Pitt, in its club sport capacity, competes against these Pittsburgh neighbors as well as other colleges and universities, primarily along the eastern seaboard. During the past few years, theyve had their share of victories, but rowing to them seems to be about more than winning or losing.
Its evident that everyone at the boathouse is eager to get off dry land. But first things first. The boats (or shells, as the rowers call them) must be taken down by cranks from the storage house.
Rowers on the Pitt varsity mens team know their roles. Lifting the shells, much like everything else in rowing, involves synchronization, timing, and togetherness. Four rowers stand under a shell as two coxswainsthose who call the shots when on the waterlower the boat to just above their teammates heads.
Hands up! Tiffany Althof shouts. Shes the varsity womens head coach, but today she will fill in as a varsity mens coxswain. Althof looks too young to be a coach, much less a harsh one. Her multi-colored ski cap and sunny smile are more suited to a kindergarten class than a college rowing club. But when Althof opens her mouth to yell commands, the rowersmen and women alikeknow she means business.
Arms down! Now shoulders! Althof bellows. With precision, the four men drop the shell from above their heads and ease the boat onto their collarbones. They carry the shell to the dock and with the same exactness, gracefully set the shell in the water. Even stepping into the boat requires a team effort.
Right feet in. Now left feet. Sit down. Push off.
The guy in the front is Kevin Cammarata, the varsity mens captain and a member of the rowing club for four years. Two seats behind him is Will Pluta, a junior majoring in philosophy and psychology, and who is a good-looking Art Garfunkel look-alike with wild sandy hair. If Pluta is Garfunkel then Cammarata is an athletic Paul Simon, complete with a small frame, dark Grecian haircut, and glasses. The two guys, much like their musical counterparts, have a rhythm that flows. Once they are on the water with their teammates, there is no individuality. The four rowers in the shell become oneone movement and rhythm.
Cammarata, a senior majoring in computer science and religious studies, says that what makes the rowing club different from other university sports is the combination of finesse and power. Its obvious on the water when the rowers have this combination, and when they dont. As the dark sky turns into an impressionistic backdrop of pinks and oranges, the four men row down the Allegheny River. They pause only for instruction. The guidance comes from the skipper of a motorized rowboat called the launch, which is never more than a few oars away.
Pluta and Cammarata (Kris Mamula photo)
The launchs skipper is Alek Gralewski. He is the mens coach and himself a former high-school and college-level rower. Gralewskis quiet demeanor in the car ride to the boathouse has vanished. One minute, hes on the radio, giving directions to the coxswains. The next, hes shouting to Pluta to keep his elbow up. Gralewski, just like the boats, is in constant motion. With a gruff shout, he tells the rowers that the next drill is on a time limit.
Minute and a half on. Forty-five seconds off.
Gralewski stands up on the launch, tilting the boat slightly as he catches his balance. He looks at his stopwatch. Attention! Ready! Row! The rowers take off.
Half, the coxswains instruct the rowers. The rowers dont exert full power on the first dig of the oar into the water. Half! the coxswains shout again. Three quarters. Three quarters. Full! Pluta lifts his elbow as high as he can, a pained but determined look on his face. Cammaratas shell cruisesfaster, faster. The crisp air whips the rowers faces as the shell glides down the river.