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Crew’s Control

Rowing makes waves nationally - and at Dexter Lake.
South Eugene Rowing Club’s junior women’s quad at the 2012 covered bridge regatta. Photo courtesy Ray Remmers and the Oregon Association of Rowers (OAR).
South Eugene Rowing Club’s junior women’s quad at the 2012 covered bridge regatta. Photo courtesy Ray Remmers and the Oregon Association of Rowers (OAR).

As the final bell rings at South Eugene High School, 40 girls trade their books for oars as they head to Dexter Lake, where they practice four days a week. Some members of the South Eugene Rowing Club have collegiate crew scholarships to look forward to, but for now, hard work into the early evening on this vast lake is solely in preparation for their third-to-last regatta of the spring season. Crew is an ever-growing sport and a scholarship opportunity for young women, in part due to Title IX — and one of the biggest sporting events in the Northwest is a regatta taking place right here in Lane County.

The Covered Bridge Regatta to be held at Dexter Lake, 16 miles southeast of Eugene, April 13-14 is the reservoir’s biggest event of the year, and its popularity exemplifies the rise of rowing as a sport. More than a thousand rowers spread across 36 clubs, five states, 21 cities and ages 15 to 70 are currently entered to participate in the 19th annual rowing competition that features junior, collegiate and master classifications, and more are expected to join.

Put on by the Oregon Association of Rowers, the volunteer-run festivities at Dexter Lake (aka Dexter Reservoir) will begin with an event on Friday night called the Dexter Dash, during which master rowers mix up teams and compete in a 500-meter sprint. The first of the regatta’s 45 races that take place on April 13 alone starts at 7:30 am, and the day’s activities go until 5 pm. After the morning session, the University of Washington’s rowing team, the defending national champion, is competing against Oregon State’s, entertaining spectators with sprint races before the afternoon session gets under way.

This means Jessie Leaf-Maker will get a glimpse of what her future holds. The senior at South Eugene High School, who rows for the South Eugene Rowing Club, will be competing in the women’s junior races as a lightweight rower — under 130 pounds — but Dexter Lake’s most prominent regatta isn’t all she has to look forward to. Leaf-Maker will soon be bound for Tulsa, Okla., where she will attend the University of Tulsa with the help of a crew scholarship.

“I’m super excited,” she says. “They have an up-and-coming team that’s pretty good. They have a lightweight part of their team, too, which really appealed to me because it kind of levels the playing field, I feel like, so I’m not competing against 250 6-foot-6 girls.” 

She’s not the only one who is happy about this opportunity. Her mother, Erika Leaf, says she is proud of what her daughter has accomplished and is thrilled for her next step. “She really threw her heart into doing her best,” Leaf says. “Her boat went to nationals last year for our club, which was very exciting for them.” 

Jessie Leaf-Maker. Photo by Todd Cooper.

The South Eugene Rowing Club is made up of 40 rowers, but many of its opponents have much bigger rosters. Under Title IX at the collegiate level, the percentages of male and female athletes must be about the same as the percentages of male and female students enrolled. Considering females have historically been underrepresented in athletics, more women’s sports are added by colleges to ensure equality. 

As an example, the University of Oregon dropped varsity wrestling and added baseball and competitive cheer in 2007 in order to satisfy Title IX (though a U.S. district judge in Connecticut recently ruled that competitive cheer is not a sport). At other universities, crew has jumped onto the scene for this same reason, but the grueling and time-consuming sport isn’t just fulfilling Title IX’s requirements; it is generating more and more noise. 

“The boys have these huge football teams,” Leaf says, “so schools — in order to try and balance out their athletes by gender — they tend to field a large women’s team. Crew is one kind of sport where you can have a very large group of girls and have it be a viable team.” 

The ratio of scholarship athletes to athletes on Leaf-Maker’s team is similar to if not better than football and the other major sports South Eugene High School offers. Leaf says there are usually three to six kids who get recruited for collegiate crew scholarships every year, and this year is no different.

“This year, I think there are three that I know of who have gotten scholarships on a team of 40, so that’s pretty good,” she says. “Not all of the 40 are seniors, either.” 

Leaf-Maker made two official visits during her recruitment process, one to Tulsa and another to Gonzaga, and her mother estimates eight to 10 schools showed interest. In addition to talent, BeRecruited.com helped Leaf-Maker and her teammates get noticed. 

On the website, rowers with the same aspirations as Leaf-Maker set up a profile that is something of an online résumé, including their “erg scores” — the calculation of an individual rower’s time over a certain distance — any big wins they have had at regattas and the regions and schools they are interested in. Through this they connect directly with colleges and check the school’s profile, while in return the school can view theirs. 

Even before her daughter’s visit to her ultimate choice, Leaf was impressed by her connection with Tulsa and its rowing coach from afar. 

“By the time we went on the official visit to Tulsa there was already a lot of familiarity and connection going on,” she says, “and so it was kind of a confirmation visit. ‘Yes, everything is as cool as it sounded it was, and the coach really is as personable and supportive as he sounded on the phone.’”

It might be tempting to look ahead to college, but Leaf-Maker’s focus is on the Covered Bridge Regatta and finishing her senior season strong. With the rowing club’s spring season in full bloom, Leaf-Maker and the rest of her team go out to Dexter Lake every Monday through Thursday after school. She says it’s a time-consuming commitment, but one that’s definitely worthwhile. 

Before her high school rowing career is over, Leaf-Maker hopes their efforts translate into a return trip to nationals, where her team finished tenth last year. 

“This is our first race, and it’s kind of like a trial,” she says. Leaf-Maker has two regattas remaining as a high-school student after Dexter Lake: one in Canada, and then regionals, which can lead to nationals if her team places third or better. While this is “super cool,” Leaf-Maker knows there isn’t much time to prepare. “We don’t have that much time to take out the kinks,” she says. 

At race-time, Dexter Lake doesn’t treat teams who have kinks left too kindly. Leaf-Maker’s team will race six junior opponents along a 2,000-meter course that could be affected by the slightest wind, and organizers are keeping their fingers crossed that the weather is nice and the water is still.

“It’s totally unpredictable,” says Kip Keller, one of the organizers of the Covered Bridge Regatta. “Because it is April, it’s worse than if it was July. We’ve had days where it goes from absolutely calm water to thunderstorms to snowy.” 

Also hoping the conditions are ideal are the rowers, who will race in pairs, fours and eights depending on the event, and are either equipped with a single oar called a sweep or two oars called sculls. Keller says it is typical that pairs race without a coxswain, who is considered the anchor of the boat, while groups of four and eight have this all-important member. 

No matter how many members fill a shell, the strategy is universal. Keller says they take short strokes to start and then lengthen their strokes while still rowing at a high repetition rate. Once they get going, Keller says they settle in to a slightly slower rate that they can hold until the final few hundred meters when they “basically give it everything that is left in their tank.” 

Leaf-Maker says other teams have twice the amount of time to practice, so her group is trying to make the most of every trip to Dexter. That’s not the only disadvantage, as their team is much smaller than the average opposition: Opponents have upward of 120 rowers, three times the size of the South Eugene Rowing Club. Leaf-Maker isn’t worried about that, though. 

“We try to make it up with working twice as hard and I think we have really good team bonding because there isn’t that many different people on the team,” she says. “A lot of us have been on it for four years so we are super close and we know a lot about each other — not just about crew but each other’s lives, too, and I think that can help us.” 

Leaf loves the effect rowing has had on her daughter and everyone else on the rowing team with its all-inclusive atmosphere and ability to create lasting friendships and memories. 

“It’s a great opportunity and a great sport because they are outside and it’s co-ed,” she says. “It’s one of the few sports that is co-ed, so they really have a nice community feeling within the team. It’s all ages and both genders and they spend a lot of time on the bus going out to Dexter and they are rowing.” She adds that the trips to Dexter Lake are “kind of like going on a weekend field trip with your friends.”

Lisa Bee-Wilson is coordinating that field trip. She is in her first year as the Covered Bridge Regatta’s director and, while admitting that organizing this large event in the tiny town of Lowell is daunting, she anticipates another tremendous regatta. And just as rowing is getting bigger and bigger on a national scale, Dexter Lake is catching the eye of many as a destination. 

“Our race course is becoming more well-known on the West Coast,” Lee-Wilson says, “and it’s a great place for teams from San Francisco and Seattle to meet in the middle. Stanford has been here; they love the course. The Huskies have been here. As we develop, we will be having more and more regattas here; hopefully three or four a year.” 

Looking back on high school, she is encouraged by crew’s growth. Four years into the sport, Leaf-Maker says she has seen crew get bigger in Washington and California, as well as at Covered Bridge.  “There is way more teams, even at Covered Bridge,” she says. “Last year, I think it was the biggest Covered Bridge Regatta ever. I think a lot more teams are popping up and so there is more competition.” 

Whether Leaf-Maker is rowing with her buddies at Dexter Lake or meeting new crew members in Tulsa, she can be comforted by the fact that her sport is gaining ground, or in this case water, nationwide.