Outside magazine, May 1999
113 Miles to Go? Pull, Dammit!
To dream up the world's toughest rowing race, it helps to be called The Hammer
If you happen to wake at dawn some sunday morning in Portland, walk onto the Sellwood Bridge, and peer down through the fog shrouding Oregon's Willamette River, you just might catch a glimpse of Tiff Wood raging in the stern of an eight-man racing shell: lips curled, teeth clenched, lost in a primal struggle to splinter a carbon-fiber oar that, in all probability, is already bowed alarmingly in the water. "There isn't anything that's going to stop me from honking harder and harder on that oar until I've won the race or finished the drill," explains Wood, a man who, on at least one occasion, has honked hard enough to snap his own ribs. "It's kind of an amazing thing," he adds, momentarily brought up short by the fervency of his own zeal. "There's a blackness to my determination that verges on self-destruction."
Appropriately put. Wood, after all, has spent the better part of the last 30 years mortifying his flesh on the altar of what may well be the least recognized and most churlishly sponsored sport in America. Back in rowing's Golden Age, before the turn of the century, oarsmen were as famous and well paid as NBA players are today, but after a series of betting scandals in the 1890s, professional competition died out and only amateur racing survived. Within a decade, interest waned and regatta attendance plummeted. Now top athletes pay for their own plane tickets and even Olympic medalists are consigned to anonymity. It's an indignity that generations of American rowers have borne in silence, but Wood (aka "The Hammer") hopes this state of affairs might finally begin to change this month when he launches a 114-mile endurance regatta that not only qualifies as one of the most difficult races in North America, but may also impart a new cachet to his beleaguered sport.
If pain-for-no-gain is rowing's keystone article of faith, then Wood, 46, stands as its battered patron saint. Since first tying in to the number-four seat of a Harvard eight called The Rude and Smooth in 1974, he has achieved such notoriety within his cloistered world that it is now virtually impossible to walk into any boathouse between Philadelphia and Portland and not run into someone who isn't eager to claim the dubious privilege of having rowed with, been thrashed by, or thrown up in the company of The Hammer. Moreover, 15 years after retiring from Olympic competition, he is still subjecting his middle-aged body to rowing-related tortures both on and off the water.
By 5:30 on most weekday mornings, Wood, who has two children and a coat-and-tie career as a human-resources consultant, is immersed in an intense rowing machine workout at the Willamette Rowing Club. On Saturdays and Sundays he's on the water before dawn, where he and his sculling partner, Bill Byrd, make such a fast double that they sometimes overtake the eight-man boats. And on winter weekends, Wood drives his daughter Tess to Mount Hood for ski lessons and then sprints up and down the slopes until she's finished. Declares Jeff Castellano, a varsity oarsman at Harvard, "He's known as the toughest guy ever."
It is in this spirit that Wood dreamed up the event that he hopes could one day become the Ironman of American rowing. The Corvallis-to-Portland Row (which lends itself to the wildly appropriate acronym CPR) debuts at 6:00 a.m. on May 22, when Wood and two dozen other rowerswill embark on their two-day ultramarathon on the Willamette. Confined to sliding seats in cockpits barely as wide as their waists, they will labor almost nonstop for ten hours each day. "It's like running the Boston marathon twice, and then getting up and doing it two more times," explains Gregg Stone, a 1980 Olympian who has rowed with Wood since high school--and who says he has no intention of participating in anything so unpleasant. "It doesn't sound like much fun to me."
But fun holds little interest for Wood, who seems driven in equal parts by his own infatuation with pain and by the hope that the CPR will imbue long-distance rowing with an appeal similar to what it already enjoys in Europe, where endurance regattas are immensely popular. Of course, in a nation saturated with spectacularly overhyped athletic spectacles, such a notion may well sound absurd. At the moment, however, there are signs that Wood's mission might actually succeed--although the results could be considerably less robust than he envisions.
In September, the F‰d‰ration Internationale des Soci‰ti‰s d'Aviron (which sets the worldwide agenda for rowing) will sponsor its own 114-mile event on Lake Champlain. Unlike Wood's gut-buster, however, FISA's seven-day amble will involve plenty of sightseeing, a square dance, and wide-bodied touring shells that can accommodate four rowers plus a case of Bordeaux, a dozen T-bones, and a hibachi. "Touring puts the fun back into rowing," explains FISA commissioner Marilyn Shapiro. "You don't have to slam your brains out for 2,000 meters. Instead, you can row for two hours, pull over, build a fire, boil a pot of tea, and take a walk."
Sacrilege! cries Wood, who is convinced that "a lot of blisters, a lot of sore butts, a lot of butt sores" are all part of rowing's innate charm--and that the CPR might one day be recognized as the moment when rowing finally shed its obscurity and swaggered into the limelight. Absurd? Well, probably--but stranger things have happened. "I doubt a single event can ever get the public interested in rowing the way it once was," sighs Lisa Schlenker, a sculler on the U.S. National Team who spent $11,000 of her own savings to get to the 1998 World Championships, where her boat's silver-medal performance failed to attract the attention of a single American television network or cable channel. "But who knows, this race could certainly be a catalyst--starting the push, igniting people's attention. There aren't many athletes who can do what we do. So to take rowing to another level and make it even more extreme, even more out there, well, that's huge." --TED KATAUSKAS
PHOTOS: Michael Llewellyn
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