Steve's Blog

FORGOTTEN CENTAUR(ette)S: That they won no games doesn’t matter; that no one is aware they played them does

APR

9

2013

8:36 am

A recurring theme at CENTAUR SEASONS has been the idea that Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales in Center Valley, Pennsylvania — the school brand-new, we 400 students its only viable resource – offered a uniquely interesting education to those lucky enough to have been there in the late ’60s, early ’70s.

If something needed to get done, we had to do it. Anything, it seemed, was possible.

The story of the Centaurettes first-ever women’s basketball team – the college’s first-ever women’s team of any kind — is a perfect example. With tonight’s NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship as backdrop, this seems a perfect time to tell it.

[All links refer to previous CENTAUR SEASON posts that address similar ideas (often as they relate to the men’s team).]

Sue McCandless Pfeil says she realizes now that what she did during the 1971-1972 basketball season was certainly a step forward for women at Allentown College.

But back then? She had NO idea.

“As far as all that went, that was the furthest thing from my mind,” Sue says. “There was nothing about feeling that I was ‘entitled’ to do this. I just wanted to play basketball, you know? I wanted to have a team. And if we wanted to have a team, I knew we were going to have to do it ourselves.”

Sue enlisted a friend, Gail “Clyde” Roney. Together they went to see Coach John Compardo, the Athletic Director and one-man-band of an athletic department.

Coach, we’d like to start a women’s basketball team.

By rights, Coach should have turned them down, in that gravelly gruff voice of his:

Eh, girls, now’s not the time, got no money, better wait.

“Coach,” says Walt Pfeil, who would soon be drafted to head the nascent team, “had the good sense not to say no.”

Eh, sure. I’ll see what I can do. Why not? Got no money, though.

Sue and Clyde beat the drum for players, going room to room in the dorms, talking up the team to the college’s 70 or so co-eds.

“I spent more time getting the basketball thing going than I did on any school assignment,” Sue says.

Sue and Walt, now onboard as coach, attended a meeting of the Lehigh Valley Colleges Women’s Athletic Association to gin up some games.

Walt shanghaied his roommate, Wayne Rizzo, into being co-coach.

With an eight or nine game schedule in place, preseason practice commenced. All they had to do now was, well, everything

“What limited us gave us opportunity,” Sue says of her original basketball efforts, but she could be talking of any number of projects back then that seemed to spring up whole cloth at this tiny school in Center Valley.

‘OK,” Sue says: “There was no women’s basketball team established, but then we get to have the experience of getting it started and keeping it going so that it worked for us.  We made it. We designed it. We created it. As opposed to it all just sort of being there for us.”

One more thing: “I wanted to have enough to have a real team,” Sue says.

Of the core group of eight women who signed on with the team (numbers vary), maybe half had never touched a basketball. “The player who could dribble the ball three times without it going off her foot became our point guard,” Wayne says.

A few women had played only during the six-on-six era, with three guards and three forwards relegated to one half of the court.

With no more court time to be squeezed from Billera Hall, the college’s overworked gym, Coach Compardo suggested the team practice up the hill, at Brisson Seminary.

“Yeah, they’ll let a bunch of girls run around up there in their shorts, sure they will. Nothing will happen” Wayne says. (In fact, they did let them. And nothing happened.)

One woman had no sneakers; Coach Compardo scrounged some money (likely from his own pocket) to buy some Chucks. “I remember being very jealous,” Sue says, laughing at herself. “They were very cool sneakers!”

During games there would be shots made in the opponent’s basket. One Centaurette would make “a great layup, utilizing all the technique taught to her in practice,” according to written notes Walt put together for me. “The only issue was that the game was being played on the main court and the shot was taken and made on one of the side baskets.”

It is easy here to have fun. But I won’t make fun.

If I have tried to do nothing else with this CENTAUR SEASONS, it has been to declare that the effort we guys put into our game be given proper due – even while acknowledge that we were just … the Centaurs, playing for some nowhere, no-name school in the middle of some cornfields.

These women, these Centaurettes (yes, that is what they called themselves) deserve no less the same.

“We took it seriously,” Wayne says. “Walt took it very seriously. We practiced two, three times a week, a couple of hours a night, and then we had the games and stuff, all on the road. We all devoted a lot of time to it. We got into it. We wanted to make a good showing.”

Deborah Bubba Dolan came to the team with high school experience, “recruited,” kind-a-sort-a, the way some us were, by an Oblate priest who had played major college ball.

Forty years later, Deb says, she still appreciates how diligently Walt and Wayne approached their charge.

Sue gets all the credit for stepping up and getting the team going, Deb says. “But had it not been for Walt and Wayne coming forward, we probably wouldn’t have played.”  And Deb, a freshman that year, really wanted to keep playing basketball.

“These guys were just fellow students willing to take time out of their schedules to coach us, so we could have a team,” she says.  “I think that shows what the college was about when we were there. How we were willing to help each other out. Here were these 20-, 21-year-old guys saying, ‘You don’t have a coach? We’ll coach you.’ They didn’t get paid, and they had to teach most of us how to play the game before they could take us on the road to play a game.”

I can hear the appreciation in Deb’s voice through the phone. I tell her as much.

“Oh, absolutely,” she declares. “I haven’t seen them in years, but I still have a great appreciation for them.” Then, unabashedly: “I think about them often. I do. Both of them.”

Some historical context.

This 1971-1972 Centaurette Season is the final gasp of the pre-Title IX world of women’s athletics. In that era, nothing — nothing — could be taken for granted.

“This team was all do-it-yourself,” Wayne says.

But in this same season Immaculata College, outside Philadelphia, would now-famously win the very first women’s national college basketball championships. And on June 23, 1972, Title IX and its transformative possibilities for women’s athletics would be signed into law. No one in that moment knew what the future held, but it was a heady time to be thinking about it.

Meanwhile, for the Centaurettes that year, after a few weeks of preseason practice they get word that an informal scrimmage has been organized against the Lehigh University women’s freshman team, at their place. But when they arrive, the gym is set up for a real game, with clock, referees, scorers’ table, all that. It gets ugly quick.

“I don’t remember the score, but we were kept to single digits,” it says in Walt’s notes. “Our high scorer had two points.”

Back in their dorm room that night, coaches Walt and Wayne figure that this women’s hoops experiment is over. “Had they been embarrassed enough to not want to go on?”  But everyone showed up – “strong” and “determined” – for the next practice.

For the real games, Coach Compardo got the team grey ALLENTOWN COLLEGE T-shirts —  “and blue polyester shorts,” Sue says, dripping sarcasm. “And we were happy to get them.”

I can tell you that in 1971-1972 the first women’s basketball team at Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales went 0 and 8 or 0 and 9. As Walt has it in his notes: “We had a DEFEATED season.” There were losses to schools like Cedar Crest, Our Lady of Angels, Moravian. There was a tournament of sorts at the end with St. Joe’s and LaSalle, according to Walt and Wayne, organized by Tim Kelley (again: It needed to be done; Tim got it done). I can’t tell you any scores, which is just as well.

Though that is also not the point.

“I was not an athlete,” Maria Martinez wrote to me in response to an all-points email. “I never played basketball before. But it didn’t matter. What mattered was that we were starting a program for the women.”

Which makes it all the more a shame that this first team (and the ’72-’73 team as well) has been left unrecorded in the otherwise mindboggling DeSales University athletics archive.  There is nothing nefarious about this oversight, I am positive. And I’m certain the ommision is not for lack of trying on the SID’s part. The hope here is simply that Centaur Seasons can help fill in the blanks.

Because the very fact that Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales University put a women’s team on the court in that seminal season of Title IX is well worth celebrating.

Why not invite them all back to a game next year?

“Not too many years after I graduated,” Sue told me when we talked, “I saw in an alumni newsletter what the team was like. And it made me think, Wow, we just had what we had. Look at what they have now!”

She said that when she was at the college she didn’t – maybe couldn’t – see much beyond where she was right then.

That basketball team she spent so much time getting onto the court? “I thought we were just a little side note,” she says. “I didn’t see us then as us contributing to a ‘program,’ or building Allentown College into a place where people would really want to go. It just wasn’t something we thought about AT ALL back then. We didn’t know what the future held for women athletes, in that moment in time.”

So what about now, this moment in time?  These days the DeSales University women’s Bulldog basketball program is a perennial power, having won an average of 20 games a season over the past decade.

“Without us realizing it,” Sue says, “we really pulled something off.”

*          *          *          *          *          *

The 1971-1972 Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales women’s basketball team: Kathy Anthony Gray, Deborah Bubba Dolan, Ann Conahan (manager), Mary Ellen Ewell Strohl, Julie Gleason, Maria Martinez,  Molly Maclean Monte,  Sue McCandless Pfeil, Violetta Romano-Lucey, Gail Roney Mallett,  Stevie Tagye, Sally Wise Swanson. Coaches: Walt Pfeil and V. Wayne Rizzo.

The 1972-1973 Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales women’s basketball team (which also went 0-and-8/-9: Kathy Anthony Gray, Deborah Barnak Burke, Deborah Bubba Dolan, Deborah DeNardo, Sue McCandless Pfeil, Stephanie Tagye,  Regina Scirrotto Ivcic, Sylvia Stubits, Sally Wise Swanson. Coach: Mrs. Mary Wendell

There appears to have been no team in 1973-1974, the last year of these CENTAUR SEASONS.

Source: May 11, 1972 Allentown College 7th Annual Sports Banquet program (Tony Mazzeo collection); May 10, 1973 Allentown College 8th Annual Sports Banquet program (Steve McKee); DeSales University Alumni Directory, 2012 edition

And yes: Walt and Sue married a few years after they graduated in 1973.

‘THESE GUYS ARE SLAPPIN’ US IN THE FACE!’ — entry #16 from “A history of the events of the Allentown College’s 1972-1973 B-ball season …

JAN

26

2013

7:00 am

… AS CHRONICLED BY, AND WITH THE PERSONAL MEMOIRS + OCCASSIONAL PHILOSOPHIZING OF THE AUTHOR, ONE STEPHEN J. McKEE”

This CENTAUR SEASONS post was written 40 years ago.

PREVIOUS GAME: Centaurs 56, Philadelphia Pharmacy 71, last night

NEXT GAME: at Spring Garden College, in five days

CENTAUR SEASON: 2-6

We lost to Pharmacy, 71-56. We were down 18 at halftime, 39-21. And we looked terrible — really, honestly terrible. We were standing around, we were forcing shots, we weren’t crashing the boards. And they were, or at least it seemed, doing everything right.

“THESE GUYS ARE SLAPPIN’ US IN THE FACE!”

That’s what Jerry Fleming screamed at halftime when we slunk into the locker room. And he was right. Once in, I noticed that Flem was standing with his back to everybody. He told me later he was so angry he was crying. Total and complete frustration. He said that he never felt worse about a ball game than he did at halftime of this Philly Pharmacy game. And this from a guy who never plays.

For the first time all season, Coach Sabota yelled. I mean, really yelled at us. He banged lockers. He swore, He ranted. He raved.

He couldn’t have done anything better. As Coach said after the game:

“I got three facts for you. One, we outscored a team, 38-35 in the second half, after that team had beaten us by 19 in the first half. Two, we cut our turnovers in half. And three, we doubled our rebounds in the second half, as well as doubling our shooting percentage.”

There were other facts that came out later. Two guys who on Pharmacy’s team scored 14 points apiece in the first half, in the second half they scored a combined 12.

We were, to put it bluntly, a completely different team in the second half.

This was also, without doubt, the best game, or half, I have played all season: 11 rebounds, four blocked shots, one steal. I held their big boy – 6’8” – to six points in the second half. He had four rebounds in that half as well.

Coach yelled and raved and fumed. It was all a question of motivation. Even though we lost that game – we got as close as nine points, twice – that game, or at least that half, was genuinely fun to play in.

(Reminder when next we meet: Jerry Fleming and Philly Pharmacy, LAST year.)

PREVIOUS GAME: Centaurs 56, Philadelphia Pharmacy 71, last night

NEXT GAME: Spring Garden College, five days

1972-73 CENTAUR SEASON Schedule and Results:

12/1  — at Lehigh CCC — W/81-71 — 1-0

12-4 — at Northampton CCC — W/87-50 — 2-0

12-6  — EASTERN BAPTIST — L/73-75 — 2-1

12-12 — SPRING GARDEN — L/54-66 — 2-2

12-16 — PHILLY BIBLE — L/72-79 — 2-3

1-18   — at Baptist Bible — L/82-84 — 2-4

1-19  — WILMINGTON — L/56-71 — 2-5

1-25  — at Philly Pharmacy — L/56-71 — 2-6

1-30  — at Spring Garden

2-3   — at Messiah College

2-6   — at  Wilmington

2-13  — RUTGERS, S. JERSEY

2-16  — LEHIGH CCC

2-20  — MESSIAH

2-22  — NORTHAMPTON CCC

2-24  — PHILLY PHARMACY

2-27  — BAPTIST BIBLE

MIDSEASON REPORT #3: Revisiting the “Secrets of the Centaur”

JAN

10

2013

7:00 am

With the “HISTORY OF THE EVENTS OF THE ALLENTOWN COLLEGE’S 1972-1973 B-BALL SEASON, AS CHRONICLED BY, AND WITH THE PERSONAL MEMOIRS AND OCCASSIONAL PHILOSOPHIZING OF THE AUTHOR, ONE STEPHEN J. McKEE” still on Christmas break (next game January 18) this seems an opportune moment to look back on where CENTAUR SEASONS has been, and where it might be going, with a couple of MidSeason Reports.

MidSeason Report No. 1: A list of all CENTAUR SEASONS posts, from Day One

MidSeason Report No. 2: The John Wooden Interview, a CENTAUR SEASONS Exclusive

This third MidSeason Report looks at CENTAUR SEASONS posts that have tried to explain what it was like to go to a tiny-little, barely there college in the middle of some cornfields. How we had to make something out of nothing once we got there. And why we went there in the first place.  “The Secrets of the Centaur,” I call them.

SEARCHING FOR THAT … SOMETHING ELSE. Posted October 1, 2012.  “ ‘Is this going to be a story about a quaint little place,’ Bob Zeccardi, my senior-year roommate demanded of me, ‘or is it a story about what makes a really great place anywhere?’ That’s the question. ‘Because there aren’t a lot of great places, right? If you can communicate what it was that made that place so special, and you can somehow convey that those thing are transferable to other parts of your life, man, that would be powerful.’ ”

“WHY US? WHY FIRST?” Posted October 12, 2012. “At Allentown, my junior-year roommate Dave Glielmi remembers, ‘We had the unique opportunity to be someplace where the school changed year to year because of us – because we changed, and that changed the school. It was going through an evolution that we were involved in. I don’t think the average kid at the average school gets that kind of an opportunity.’ ”

“BRICKS AND A BIRTHDAY”   Posted October 22, 2012.   “…[I]t was no accident that we – a specific we – went to Allentown. That this particular place in its particular moment exuded a particular vibe only a particular kid could hear.”

“THE NIGHT THE CENTAURS MOVED THE BUS: Part Three of a Metaphor in Three Parts.” Posted November 6, 2012.   “The things I learned, the values I learned — sometimes in the face of adversity, sometimes in the face of fun, sometimes in the face of competition – I learned them there. The basketball was very important. The education was very important. But it’s the collection of friendships and experiences that helped me define who I am. That’s what those four years were.”  (Chris Cashman, Centaur senior co-captain, 72-73)

“AT THE END OF THE BENCH:  What a Centaur Turned Coach Learned at Allentown and Shares with UCLA Coach John Wooden.” Posted November 19, 2912.  Tom Shirley was just good enough to make the team at Allentown and sit on the bench. As with many of us (me, for sure), had Tom gone to school anywhere else he likely doesn’t get a sniff of the basketball team. Meaning if Tom Shirley, bench-warmer turned long-time successful coach, doesn’t go to college where he did, he perhaps never learns one of the most important lesson he has taken with him through his professional life. “I know what it’s like to be the twelfth man,” Tom said, declaring it proudly. ”And I learned it at Allentown College.”

“KEEP YOUR FOOT IN THAT BUCKET, STEVE!” Posted December 10, 2012. “This is what I learned about learning while learning at Allentown College. I learned that learning is what you make it, what you make of it, what you make with it. Learning isn’t what others make for you.”

“ON THE PASSING OF JACK KLUGMAN” Posted December 28, 2012. “We Allentowners of the getting-started vintage received a singular education, if only because in the absence of most of the usual collegiate accoutrement, so much of what we learned we learned from each other. It was a priceless opportunity. ‘The experience was so important to everyone, so developmental, you couldn’t buy it again,’ Jerry Wilkinson says. And what college these days would try to sell it anyway?  Come to our school. We have nothing.”

“THE YEAR THE CENTAURS PLAYED THE FIGHTING IRISH (yes — in football!)” Posted Janaury 7, 2013. “ ‘When you first got to the school,’ Wayne Rizzo says, thinking back, ‘you’d look around and it was, “Geez, this really IS in the middle of nowhere! How am I going to survive four years at this place?” But you did. And by my second year I wasn’t thinking about it being in the middle of nowhere anymore. Or that we were missing out on the stuff other places had.’ ”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rough Water ….

SEP

19

2009

5:29 pm

Saturday, September 18, 2009
TODAY’S WORKOUT
2 x 5,000 meters
Split: 2:20
Strokes per minute: 16-22
Rest: 3 to 5 minutes
Drag: 110
Compliance (1 = awful; 10 = great): “6”
Total meters rowed: 23,400

Astute followers will know that today’s workout was supposed to be yesterday. Astuter followers with math skills will know that I bagged most of the second 5,000 meters.

This just barely a week in.

I need to talk to my coach. But first, meet my coach: Tom Corcoran, age 27. He rowed at Chestnut Hill Academy in Philadelphia and at the University of Pittsburgh. He has a law degree. He’s been a foot soldier in some local Pennsylvania political campaigns in the past few election cycles, but what he really wants to do is coach rowing. Listen to him talk about it, see the sparkle in his eyes as he does, watch how the sport itself brings him to life, and you can only envy the passion he clearly feels.

You can read what he blogs about here. I particularly like in his first entry where he talks about how in the sport of rowing one needs to make it as a coach from either inside the sport, or out. Tom’s starting on the outside, looking for the in.

Right now he’s the brand new coach of the girls program at a high school in New Jersey and my own personal guru. I asked him to set me up with an every-other-day regimen. I long ago decided that back-to-back days was counterproductive. I asked him to keep in mind that I’m almost 57 years old and that I have heart disease. He said we can adjust as needed. Well, adjustments are needed!  More about that once I talk with him.

Before I forget. Read any good books lately? This summer I rowed through “Kelly: A Father, a Son, an American Quest,” by Daniel J. Boyne. The story of the rowing John Kellys, senior & junior, of Philadelphia.

This from Publishers’ Weekly on the Amazon site:
“In a time when rowing rivaled boxing and baseball in popularity, Jack Kelly (1889-1960) was its greatest champion. … Boyne chronicles Kelly’s rise from modest beginnings as the son of Irish immigrants to Olympic gold. … [Y]ears of training on Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River made Kelly the fastest rower in the world, but prejudice barred him from England’s prestigious Henley Regatta. That sleight, never forgotten, lead him to push his son Kell into the sport, and ultimately to win the Regatta in 1947.”

John the Dad was also of course the father of Grace Kelly, of whom no introductions are needed. Keep in mind that for an Irish Catholic kid like myself growing up York, Pennsylvania, which orbited within the gravitational pull of Philadelphia, the Kelly’s story, especially Grace’s, was merely the stuff of legend. What I liked so much about “Kelly” is that Boyne says at the get-go that much of the entire point of writing this book was to bring to the front the ROWING story. Grace, for maybe the only time in her life, is a bit player.

And now for some Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon (another son of Philadelphia, come to think of it). In MY book, “My Father’s Heart: A Son’s Reckoning With the Legacy of Heart Disease,” when I write about my 20-plus year love affair with the Concept2 rowing machine, I talk some about how the Vesper Boat Club from Philly went to the Tokyo Olympics as the U.S. Eight, won the gold and then a few months later some of the crew were celebrity guests at a big-deal gala in my hometown. If only I’d know this when I was writing “MFH”: Kelly the Son, by then in his early 40s, put that team together, presaging the large-net methods the U.S. now employs when forming national teams.

Row, He Said, Again

SEP

16

2009

1:17 pm

Wednesday, September 16, 2009
Today’s Workout:
3 x 2,000m
Split: 2:15
Strokes per minute: 18 to 22
Rest: 3 to 5 minutes
Drag: 110
Compliance (1 awful to 10 great):  “10”

Monday, September 14, 2009
Today’s Workout:
10,000m
Split: 2:25
Strokes per minute: 16 to 22
Drag: 110
Compliance (1 awful to 10 great): “7”
Total meters rowed: 16,000m

As Dolly Parton used to sort of sing it: “Here I row again.”

The C.R.A.S.H.-B.’s, the World Indoor Rowing Championships, this year are on Valentine’s Day. This must be love. I have run a marathon. I have done a triathlon. What I have never run/done is one of them again. But after doing the C.R.A.S.H.-B.’s back in February, I have decided to come back for more. Good idea? Hold that thought.

Back when I worked at what was then called American Health magazine, when I was an editor for a group of weightlifting/workout magazines, even when I was the sports editor of the first incarnation of The Wall Street Journal’s sports page, we used to run the occasional essay/article on “How I Did My First (fill in the difficult athletic challenge of your choice here).”  But I always thought a better, more instructive, more telling essay/article would be “How I Did My SECOND (fill in the difficult athletic challenge of your choice here).”

A first ANYTHING is never not fun, never not exciting, never not a stand-the-hair-up-on-the back-of-your-neck experience. “It Feels Like the First Time,” Foreigner declared. Well, no. It never feels like the first time again, does it? BECAUSE YOU ALREADY KNOW WHAT IT’S GOING TO FEEL LIKE.

And so it will be with this second row, me on the Concept2, blogging “My Rowing Heart: The Repachage.” I know how much work this is going to be. I know how much this is going to hurt. The accomplishment will be in knowing all that and still doing it anyway.

Not that it won’t be fun. Not that it can’t be fun. I just need to keep in mind that whatever it will be, it will be different from the first time.  

So here I row again.

(For this row this year I have a coach to guide me. Tom Corcoran, the new head coach at a high school in New Jersey, he is also my wife’s cousin’s son. Official introduction coming soon. In the meantime, here’s his blog, and here’s the workout schedule he’s devised for me.)

R#3; 9:40 a.m.; Raceline C; Erg 76

FEB

27

2009

1:12 am

Sunday, February 22, 2009
Meters rowed: 2,000
Time: 7:45.03
Pace: 0 to 500m: 1:50/51; 500 to 1,600: 1:59/2:00/01; 1,600 to 2,000: sub-1:50
Total Meters Rowed * : 2,000

Truth in headlines (take your pick):

Stroke! ‘Rangy’ Rower Powers to Personal Glory at Championship

McKee, Sticking to Plan, Hits Marks Throughout 2,000m C.R.A.S.H.-B.’s,
Clocks an expected 7:45.03 in Vet Men 55-59 Class in Setting New P.R.

Or

Stroked: Ragged Rower Hangs on at Indoor Championships

McKee, in C.R.A.S.H.-B Debut, Somehow Avoids Embarrassment,
Finishes Well Behind Winner in an Old Guy Category

Or

McKee at C.R.A.S.H.-B.’s: “I Had a BLAST!”

Like I said: Take your pick; they are all true.

I am going to do my best now not to sound like the wide-eyed rube newly arrived in the big city as I try to describe the C.R.A.S.H.-B.’s and my reaction to it.  Meaning I’m not going to say, “Wow, it was really cool!” Or, “ I had a ball!” Or, “Golly, the way you can watch the races on the scoreboard with those little boat-thingies is really neat.” Or, “The organization is stunning.”

I’ll say none of the above. Though each is true, too.

I’ll just say this: This was my first C.R.A.S.H.-B.’s, but I had been there before. At the National Volleyball Championships, banged out in an airplane hangar near Memphis, Tennessee. At the National Juggling Championships, tossed in the humid air of a sweaty gym at SUNY-Purchase. At the National Jousting Tournament, on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.; at the World Tiddlywink Championships, at M.I.T. I have followed friends (including eventual winners) in marathons in Fairbanks and Anchorage, Alaska.  Numerous times I have watched the passing parade of the New York City Marathon from Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn, only blocks from my Boerum Hill house. And a couple of times I have followed friends borough by borough and then somehow found them in the post-race holding pens amid the milling about of thousands of aluminum-foiled, worn-out runners.

The C.R.A.S.H.-B.’s were just like all of those events. And all those events were just like the C.R.A.S.H.-B’.s. A gathering of the faithful, of the true believers in a religion known only to the lucky few, who for one magical day have come together in a swirl of energy to create their very own center of the universe.

Each unique; all the same.

At the C.R.A.S.H.-B.’s, this experience of an alternate solar system was only enhanced by the Agganis Arena itself — with the 100-plus Concept2s on the floor, it seemed the pull of their gravitational force was holding all the rest of us in orbits even to the far reaches of the stands.  For this alone the past six months of C.R.A.S.H.-B prep were worth it.

One wide-eyed observation. I’m sure in the old days of the Charles River All-Star Has Beens there really was that anarchic spirit that is now so fondly remembered. These days there are too many competitors, requiring too much organization to leave much space for that. (And what would the originals make of the VENDORS in the hall SELLING stuff?) But I could still feel it. Some of it, at least, that original energy, the initial dream. It could have been so easy to have lost that, but they didn’t. Kudos.

As for me. We must start on Friday night. I was in Brooklyn by then, up from York, Pennsylvania. On Saturday I would drive to Boston. But to kill time on Friday I went to see “The Wrestler.” Bad idea. Should’ve picked “Slumdog Millionaire.” I didn’t at that exact moment in my life need to watch the story of an aging loser athlete who nearly dies of a heart attack. (and probably does if the movie lasts another 30 seconds.)

Because by then I had pretty much convinced myself that if I did the C.R.A.S.H.-B.’s … I was going to die of a heart attack. And I am being as serious here … as a heart attack.

I really did think this, and I had been by then for a few days.
Why was I dong this?
What was the point?
How NUTS was I to think I could pull this off?
Where did I get off thinking I could do this?
And now I was going to die on behalf of the answers.

I had myself completely psyched out. The race was going to take me — not to mention my heart and its two 20%-percent-blocked arteries — to a place neither of us had ever been before. I mean, it could happen, couldn’t it?  This was all new, and quite suddenly, new terrain for me. Rarely, if ever, do I think of my heart in this way. I do think of it often, but always as this … thing … pumping within me that I, me, myself am keeping alive by getting on that rowing machine. Now here it was, this … thing … that was going to kill me. And a burned-out wrestling Mickey Rourke with a six-inch incision on his chest was no help at all. Neither even were a few long eyefuls of an aging stripper Marisa Tomei in various states of near-complete undress. I mean, geez. Walking home with my face buried in my coat against the cold and gloom, I searched for a believable reason I could use to tell people why I had blown off the race and the past half year of my life.

Then, once home, I decided (uncharacteristically) to check my email before going to bed.  One was from a John Butsch of the Chicago Indoor Rowing Club, enthusiastically asking if I still planned to be at the race, and even more enthusiastically bubbling on a bit about how great was rowing and that more Paralympian and adaptive rowers were getting into it, and wasn’t THAT great?

Yes, it was, I suddenly realized.  And I realized this, too: Steve, get over thyself.

I’m not now going to say that I snapped out of it because, by golly, if these adaptive rowers could C.R.A.S.H.-B., then I could, too. That’s too easy, not to mention insulting. No. They simply reminded me why I had decided to C.R.A.S.H.-B in the first place. Just to do it. Just to try it. And just to be alive in the moment of the attempt.  I went to bed and slept great.

More of what I won’t be writing: A stroke-by-stroke analysis of the race. The headlines actually do tell the story.  And those little boat-thingies ARE really neat.  I wouldn’t have minded a 7:40; I think I could have.  But I am THRILLED with my time and my 24th of 32. My two big worries were nonfactors: I didn’t go out too fast, and I didn’t get distracted by the rowers on either side and take on their stroke count. I never even knew they were there.  One thing I would do differently? I wanted to row the middle 1,000 meters in “sub-2:00.” But if I really meant that, then I should have said that: “1:58/1:59.” Because looking at that little boat-thingie computer race, it’s clear I was psychologically content with 2:00. And I shouldn’t have been.

Now, meet my coxswain, Katie McDonald. In 1983 I followed Katie borough by borough in the NYC Marathon as she qualified for the first-ever U.S. Women’s Olympic Marathon Trial, in 2:48.16.  Katie is one of the many women athletes now of  a certain age who back in a certain era laid the foundation for what women’s athletics has become. More, in 1981 Katie won the Atlantic City Marathon and took a straight-up, over-the-table, give-it-to-me winner’s check, the first of its kind. This may sound quaint now, but it was quite the deal then. Katie brought all this with her to the C.R.A.S.H.-B.’s. And before my Vet Men 55-59 race she celebrated as she watched the Vet Women — “all these pre-Title IX women, Steve” — parade onto the floor.

Then it was my turn. Katie’s father died of a heart attack when she was 17. Perhaps I should have mentioned that before. I gave Katie an index card with some instructions. I asked her not to yell. I sat down on Erg 76 and Katie ran through the checklist. Then I rowed, Katie quietly keeping me to the straight and narrow of the pace I wanted to hit. I felt great. I knew I could do it. The only sound I heard for my 7:45.03 was Katie’s voice. With 400 meters left, when I wanted to go with whatever remained, get under a 1:50 pace if I could, Katie read exactly from the card: “Go, Steve. In capital letters, GO!”

When it was over and I was still sitting on the erg, I turned to Katie and hugged her. “Let’s see my Dad do that,” I said. I knew Katie of all people would understand.

* In competition

Here, right now …

FEB

19

2009

4:22 pm

Thursday, February 19, 2009
Meters rowed: 5,000
Time: 23:00
Pace: 2:15-16
Total Meters Rowed * : 343,178

So, here we are, 160 days since this all began. A final 5,000 meters and I finish up at 343,178 total meters rowed. That’s 213¼ miles (!) for those of you scoring at home. Honestly, I’m usually not one to get caught up in the mathematics of all this — the numbers, the times, the stats. Really, I’m not; I find they can too easily distract from the larger point, the getting out there, the doing of it. But for getting to the C.R.A.S.H.-B.’s it seemed an appropriate exercise to maintain. Still, geez: 213¼ miles! Glad I waited until now to make the conversion. From our house in York, Pennsylvania, to our place in Brooklyn, New York, followed by a circling of most of the 24-mile island of Manhattan.

It was windy on the Woodspring today.  I considered keeping the garage door closed, but no, I couldn’t. Not today, this final workout day before the C.R.A.S.H.-B.’s. The wind made it feel cold, though it real wasn’t, as the breeze swirled stray pieces of paper and a few leaves around in a circle on the middle of the floor. In truth, there was nothing at all remarkable about today’s pull, just another 5,000 easy-does-it meters on my faithful Concept2. Except that this was the last one before, before … you know.

I don’t need to do the C.R.A.S.H.-B.’s. Not really. Because I have accomplished all my goals I put to myself when I got started back on September 12. I wanted to get to the C.R.A.S.H.-B.’s as prepared as I could be while still living in the real world. Put in as many meters as I could. Do as much sprint training as I could. Get my long rows as far out there as I could. And I did. Could I have done more? Sure. I could have signed on with a coach. I could have added in some weight training. Maybe I should have. But you can do something for the first time only once. The way I did this first C.R.A.S.H.-B.’s was EXACTLY the way I wanted to do it. And there within is my accomplishment.

These past few days I have found myself thinking of the marathon I ran, back in September 1982, the Equinox Marathon in Fairbanks, Alaska. I had made those 26.2 mountainous miles my target probably 15 months before, not long after I had been hiking north of Fairbanks and found myself sucking wind as my heart pounded and the sweat ran of the tip of my nose. I was the guy who had watched his father die of a heart attack, who had promised himself he would always be in shape. Unable to complete that hike I realized that the occasional game of hoops wasn’t going to cut it, fitness wise. I was 28 — which suddenly seemed very close to 30. The next day I was out the door running, and a month or two later I made the Equinox my goal. Thus was the beginning of a beautiful relationship with being in shape that has led me to here, right now, three days to the C.R.A.S.H.-B.’s.

I remember now what I was thinking back then with the Equinox only days away. That I didn’t need to run it. No. The running of those 26.2 miles isn’t what mattered. It was the preparing for them. It was knowing that I had got myself ready, that I would be able to do it. There is wonderful satisfaction in that; indeed, a great victory.

Of course, I then did still run that Equinox.  Next up: the C.R.A.S.H.-B.’s.

* As of September 12, 2008

What I'll Miss ….

FEB

16

2009

6:11 pm

Sunday, February 15, 2009
Meters rowed: 5,477
Time: 25:00
Pace: 2:19
Total meters rowed * : 338,178

Appropriately, perhaps, I have had another Lolo Jones sighting. Do you remember Lolo? I have written of her before — twice, in fact. Lolo was the U.S. hurdler at the Beijing Olympics who won the gold medal in the nine-hurdle event, if only there had BEEN a nine-hurdle event. Alas, she hit that ninth hurdle hard, and — Just. Like. That. — the work of a lifetime went unrewarded. I see now where Lolo is back on the track, the indoor circuit. This past weekend she lost a race when she, yes, hit a hurdle and fell. Two days later at another meet, she won, in the best time of the year. Go, Lolo, go!

It is the journey, not the destination. This is what I think of when I think of Lolo.  I mean, once I get done just, uh, looking at Lolo. I think of Lolo, and of Arthur Ashe, too, as it is he, I believe, who is the author of that wonderful piece of advice. The journey is the destination. It can’t be about the reward, it must be about trying to get the reward. That has been my approach these past six months prepping for the C.R.A.S.H.-B.’s. And I am better for it.

For ten days, two weeks now, with the C.R.A.S.H.-B.’s nearly upon me, I have felt myself in a certain kind of mourning.  Not because the C.R.A.S.H.-B.’s promise their own particular agony. (Well, OK, yes, that is part of the reason.) No, really, it’s knowing that once the C.R.A.S.H.-B.’s aren’t out there waiting for me, these past six months will be over, done, finished. And I will miss them. I miss them already. I miss their, their … purposefulness. How they created a reason for me to get out to the garage, my boathouse, to sit down on the Concept2 and … pull. To pull sometimes as hard as I could, or for as long as I could. I wouldn’t have done that without the C.R.A.S.H.-B.’s.

Oh, yes, I would have got out there. I would have pulled, worked out, put in the time, hammered it out. Of course I would have. I have been for too many years to stop now. But the looming specter of the C.R.A.S.H.-B.’s made it all somehow different, important, necessary … somehow of greater consequence than it really was. I miss that feeling, those feelings, already.

* As of September 12, 2008

Life. Time. Trial.

FEB

12

2009

10:58 am

Thursday, February 12, 2009
Meters Rowed: 2,000
Time: 7:43
Pace: 1:55 / 2:00 / 1:55: / 1:51-2
Total Meters Rowed: 332,601

Time Trial!

I figured I needed one ahead of the C.R.A.S.H.-B.’s. Today still gives me 10 days rest/recovery. Bottom line? Seventeen seconds better than the last trial. But I promise to be more sanguine with this report than I was with my report on that first one!

I caught myself off guard right at the start. Three quick half-strokes to crank some momentum, to get me off the bocks, and just like that I was at 1:45, 1:46, and hummin’. That scared me.  This is my biggest fear of the coming C.R.A.S.H.-B.’s: That I’ll get pulled into the adrenaline rush of the start, of the excitement, the SCENE, the VORTEX, and get way out in front of myself, guaranteeing that I’ll crash and burn on the back nine (to throw in a first-ever golf metaphor) and come crawling in, gagging and choking.

But whereas I knew 1:45 was too fast, 1:55 felt good (as opposed to my aimed-for 2:00), and so I decided to keep it there. Around the 750-meter mark I grasped a great good gulp of air that served to relax me, and with that I was CRUISIN’!

And then all of a sudden, at 1,000 meters, I fell to 2:00, right off the cliff. The next 500 meters were horrible, a never-ending story, as I fought the Concept2 and battled my brain, trying to keep it close to 1:55.

But then, by the time I got to Phoenix at the 1,500-meter mark, I was dialed in again, feeling … GREAT.  I have no idea why. You tell me. No, don’t.  Some questions aren’t meant to be answered. But it was ThatQuick, from awful to wonderful, a light switch flicked. Clap on! I decided to see if I could bring home the last 500 meters at 1:50. No. I could get there, but I couldn’t hold it there.

Still, the final 250 meters flew by, aided by some begging from me that the meters keep building. I mean, the faster you can go the sooner it’s over, right? Doh!

So, let’s review: Up, higher up, down-down-down, up, still up, now-just-sort-of-up, trying-trying-pleading, over, spent, exhausted, gasping. All in a lifetime of 7:43. This is why we do this, isn’t it, this rowing thing?

1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12 (but who's counting?)

FEB

10

2009

12:08 pm

Tuesday, February 10, 2009
Meters Rowed: 5,000
Time: 23:17
Pace: 2:20-ish
Total Meters Rowed * : 330,601

The C.R.A.S.H.-B.s are in 12 days.

Sorry, but that’s the only thought I can conjure.

Twelve days. XII. A Dirty Dozen.

* As of September 12 (this is COMPLETE coincidence, honest; I didn’t see the connection until after the fact), 2008


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