Saturday, September 3, 2011

My Return to Rowing

I got involved with rowing when I went to Parkersburg High School. I had an older cousin who had rowed, so I already had some familiarity with the sport. I had played football and wrestled in junior high, but I knew my chances to play would decrease as my cohorts from four junior high teams converged into PHS. Rowing is a good sport that provides an excellent total-body workout, and puts a premium on teamwork (unless you are sculling). I loved being on the water—it was a nice way to get in touch with nature. The mechanical aspects of rowing also appealed to me—there is a similarity to auto racing, another favorite of mine.

I've previously written about how I ended up at the University of Charleston, joining four other PHS Class of '76 graduates on the Golden Eagle crew team (see I thought that after college ended, my rowing days were over. However, I have been fortunate to have two interesting episodes where I rowed again.

The first was at the Parkersburg Homecoming Festival in 1988, soon after I returned to my hometown from Washington, DC. Fellow PHS and UC oarsman Eric F. and I participated in a PHS Alumni crew race that was part of the festivities. It was fun getting out on the water again! However, the big story of the day was that one of the guys had a kid who was a talented water-skier. They had arrived with skis and tow rope, and wanted to experiment to see if it was possible for an eight-man shell to pull a water-skier. To our amazement, we could see this youngster rise up out of the water as we rowed (and Eric's wife Darla has the photographic evidence). It was really neat to have had the experience of towing a water-skier, and I thought that event would be a fitting capstone on my rowing career.

However, I got one more opportunity this past Sunday. Anna and I had noticed a sign in Morgantown touting a “Learn to Row” day at the WVU boathouse on the Monongahela River. Even though I am 53, I thought I would like to give it another try. It was a chance to return to the Mon River, where I had first rowed back in 1975, which in itself is an interesting story. I shared it with the folks at the boathouse, and they loved hearing about the beginnings of their program.

With the proliferation of televised college football, some of you might find it hard to believe that in the '60s and '70s, the only time you got to see the Mountaineers play on TV was if they went to a bowl game. The only exception occurred in the fall of 1975, when ABC decided to televise the WVU-Pitt football game (featuring Pitt's star running back Tony Dorsett) from Old Mountaineer Field. It would be the first nationally televised game from Morgantown, and Pitt was a top ten team.

There was a guy at WVU (Dr. Van Eck) who wanted to get the sport of rowing started in Morgantown. Although the Mountaineers didn't have a team yet, he didn't want to lose this “marketing opportunity.” He contacted PHS, and arranged for our high school crew team to come to Morgantown that Saturday, put in at the Walnut Street boat ramp, and spend the afternoon rowing up and down the river. Old Mountaineer Field was horseshoe shaped, with the open end facing the river. When ABC would cut away to commercial breaks during the game, the sight of a crew team practicing on the river would provide an interesting backdrop. It didn't matter that we were a high school team—the point was to show that WVU was crew-friendly and a potential destination for future Mountaineer oarsmen.

As it turned out, that game is one of the most legendary games the Mountaineers ever played. The heavily favored Pitt Panthers were upset by a score of 17-14 on a last second field goal. Although we were on the water, we could hear the crowd noises and could tell that the place was going crazy at the end of the game. We were probably (?) the first crew team to ever row in Morgantown, and helped to provide the catalyst for the future WVU crew team. Indeed, WVU hired former UC crew coach Clark Wray to help get their program started a few years later.

So last Sunday, one of the very first oarsman on the Mon returned to row there. It was a lot of fun to have the water rushing past you on both sides again. I remembered everything I needed to do—it was just like riding a bike. It felt good to be stepping into a shell again and adjusting the shoes. A few things were unusual to me, like the modern designed blades rather than the spoons we used to use, or the fact that the coxswain was laying down in the bow, rather than sitting in the stern. But none of these minor difference took away any of the fun.

Finally, I also am glad that I got to row in a gold and blue WVU shell, with a flying WV logo and matching oars. I love both my alma maters, UC and WVU, and now I can say I've rowed at both programs. I think this may have been the fitting capstone on my rowing career. In the words of the command used by coxswains to stop rowing, it may be time to finally “Let it run!”


  1. Awesome story. I arrived at the boathouse Sunday shortly after your trip down the river, so I heard your story from others with our MRA group that met you there that day. The history and your passion for rowing warm my heart. Thanks so much for sharing. I only joined the club and learned to row last July. Now i serve as secretary on the board. I love the serenity of being out on the Mon. I am also a WVU grad and was only a few months old when your televised football game day excursion took place. I notice you are employed by WVU-P, I am employed here at our main campus. I think I speak for our club in saying, feel free to join us anytime for a row, we would be happy to have you.

  2. Dear Mr Kurtz,
    My name is Felipe. I am a graduate of WVU and a member of MRA. I've sailed for over 15 years but only began my rowing career last May. Unfortunately I was not there for the Learn To Row Day and missed the chance to meet you and listen to your stories first hand. Thank you for sharing your rich history and awesome stories with us through your blog. I am glad to hear that you enjoyed yourself. I do hope that you will continue to row. I personally believe your rowing career is far from over. My grandmother is 96 that makes you pretty much a teenager at 53. I participated in my first regatta (Independence Day Regatta) only a month and a half after learning how to row. One of the things I noticed in that regatta was how rowing, as with sailing, is a forgiving sport with a broad range of age between athletes. Your picture shows that you are still in good shape and I say as long as you can still grip that oar; you should continue to join us even if its just for a light paddle to enjoy nature.
    I'd like to invite you to join us in Pittsburgh on the 1st of October for the Head Of The Ohio Regatta. A few of us from MRA are going to be attending both as spectators and competitors. Not to mention the WVU men's and women's crew.
    I'd also like to invite you & your readers to visit & "Like" our Facebook page (Monongahela Rowing Association) as well as our webpage ( for continued information on the sport of rowing and upcoming events.