Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Tampa Mayor's Cup

I have mentioned before that Maurizio and I are attempting to start the first real rowing team in Colombia.  There is a club in Medellin that hosts a number of water sports and owns a few rowing boats, but as far as we can tell, it is just recreational rowing.  Our plan is not only to produce competitive rowers, but to take them to competitions in the United States and elsewhere.  In order to achieve this dream, we have been in at the process of acquiring used equipment from the US and having it shipped here.  This has put us in touch with all sorts of people in rowing communities, from Jamie Stack on the Cooper River to Robert Englehardt of Pioneer Valley to Bob Klinger of Klinger Engineering, and recently we have also become good friends with Tom Feaster of US Rowing.  It was Tom who invited us to Tampa near the end of March, to pitch our idea to 25 members of US Rowing, and to participate in the Tampa Mayor's Cup while we were there.

We debated for a long time, because I could not take off from work, so it would have to be just a weekend visit.  We had also been invited to row in a double, which is a difficult boat to manage if you have never done it before.  I had rowed one once, during my undergraduate days, and Maurizio had never been in one.  However, the timing was good, because that Monday was a holiday, and the opportunity to spread the idea to officials from US Rowing seemed an excellent one, so ultimately we booked the flights and prepared ourselves to go.  Tom was thrilled, and he began immediately to tell everyone that his regatta was now international!

Hello, Old Sport
Because we had waited so long to book, there were no other seats available on the plane except in first class, so we resigned ourselves to thoroughly enjoying our champagne, mixed nuts, and fancy meal.  We even sent a video to Maurizio's friend, Fred, in England, to show off our jet-setting lifestyle.  When we landed in Miami we made our way to the rental car place, where we had booked a car for one price but were, of course, given lots of extra expenses on the day.  For example, we were told that we had to purchase a SunPass (the Floridian equivalent of an E-Z Pass, for my New Jersey readers), because all tolls in Florida were now digital and they would no longer accept cash.  I argued about this for a while, asking what tourists and out-of-towners did when they came into the state.  Finally we were bullied into buying one, and of course at the first toll we saw that they did, indeed, accept cash and the man had lied to us.  Nevertheless, we collected our red Hyundai Sonata and I settled in for the long drive along Alligator Alley to Tampa.  (I had to drive, because we had rented the car on my NJ license.) The drive was an easy one, mostly consisting of highways where there was nary a police officer in sight, so we maintained a speed between 80 and 90 miles per hour, and we never saw a single alligator.  However, because we had been delayed at the rental place, and because Maurizio had misread the arrival times, we were going to arrive a couple of hours later than anticipated at Tom's house.  Indeed, we did not get there till 11 pm, having stopped only for a few minutes to snatch some dinner at a Taco Bell, which Maurizio intensely regretted.  Our host had graciously stayed up late to receive us, but there was only time for him to say hello, apologise for us having missed his Colombian wife, who had herself gone to Miami that same day, and show us into a luxurious guest suite in his house, before we all headed to bed.  We had an early morning next day.

After a quick breakfast of Raisin Bran and coffee in Tom's kitchen, we followed him over to the Hillsborough River, a beautiful expanse of water that runs from the Green Swamp to an outlet on Tampa Bay.  It was a lovely morning, dark but warm, with the promise of a stunning sunrise on the horizon.  There were lots of boat trailers on the gravel next to the grassy park, and a number of blue-clad rowers from Tom's team, the Stewards Foundation, were warming up on ergometers and setting out food on tables inside the boathouse.  Tom introduced us to the high school coach, Mike, and to some of the parents and masters rowers on the team, including a Colombian lady and her daughter, and two of the rowers we would be racing later in the day.  We had hoped we would get a chance to practice in the double before the actual race, but Mike informed us that there were no spare sculling oars to be had.  I spent about 45 minutes asking all of the high school rowers what it was like to row a double, and what advice they would give to newbies--some of them were highly encouraging, while others laughed and said, "just try not to flip over!"

See the Colombian flag??
After watching some of the early races launch in the golden light of the rising sun, we took the shuttle van over to Davis Island, which was next to the finish line, and from which Tom would be announcing the races.  He had a prime perch on a moored boat next to a dock that stretched out into the river about 20 strokes from the finish line.  We stood there with him for a while, watching high school eights and masters sculls and a few other competitions go by.  On that side of the river there were some parent tents full of food for the rowers, and an army recruitment tent, showing at least one of the sponsors of the race. There were a few shirt vendors and people selling programmes.  We didn't buy a programme, but we did take one of the posters listing all of the competitors.  They hadn't properly registered us as the Muña Rowing Club, but they did have the Colombian flag next to our entry!

Around midday we went back to the boathouse to prepare ourselves to row.  We were given a Wintech double and some brand-new Concept II oars, though I have to say we did not much enjoy the latter.  They had those hard-plastic handles that make grip nearly impossible if your hands are even slightly wet, and in that Floridian humidity, we were sweating from every part of our bodies before we even got to the start line!  Once we were off the dock without flipping over, I became extremely nervous about steering us properly through the course.  I kept stopping abruptly to change our point, and we would clash blades.  I think Maurizio was a bit frustrated with me, because of course he was all calm confidence and had no doubt that we could go straight and fast the whole way.  Practice proved otherwise, and after narrowly making it through the fourth bridge we found ourselves accidentally out in the middle of a wide bay where we were probably not supposed to be.  A US Rowing official sped over in his boat and called out with a heavy Australian accent, "there's always one.  I guess that's you guys."  We discovered that the other person in his boat was actually Steve Boyce, from whom we had purchased a double a few weeks earlier (which the wonderful Chris from Penn AC transported up to Massachusetts for us).  We briefly said hello and told him who we were, and then they showed us where to turn (a tricky business in that windy bay!), and we made our way to the start line.

Catching a crab at 250 meters to the finish
Once there, we spent some time trying to get lined up, but there were four boats to arrange and a lot of wind and current to deal with, so every time one or two of us had the right line, someone else was blown off of it.  We had the inner-most lane, closest to the shore on the right-hand side, and I knew both of us had a tendency in singles to veer toward the right, so I wanted to angle slightly toward the left to make up for it.  When they finally started us, we were a bit close to the starting buoy, but we managed to get over it without incident.  The boat next to us, however, was swerving straight into our lane, and as we were keeping up with them, I turned us a bit to the right in order to avoid a collision, which I knew would result in capsizing.  Unfortunately, being new to steering and rowing in a double, I pulled us a bit too far over.  Suddenly there loomed above us the shape of the Fire Brigade boat, which was parking itself at a dock and was therefore perpendicular to the race course.  We had to stop and regain our point so we could avoid it, but we picked up again rather quickly.  Then, about twenty strokes later, a speedboat passed on our left-hand side.

Wait...what?  A speedboat?  In the lane which our competitors had been using moments before?  Apparently it had ignored the marshals’ request not to come up the race course, and they had no legal power to stop it.  The surprise was such a shock that we stopped rowing again, and the wake rocked us about dangerously.  Once more, we had to restart, and this time we managed to stay roughly on-course, but we had fallen behind the two boats immediately next to us.  There was one more in the far lane, and we were still ahead of them, so it became our goal to maintain that lead.  The race was only 1,000 meters long, but we had time to suffer one more incident about twenty strokes to the finish line.  We were passing the dock from which our friend Tom was announcing the race, and I made the mistake of saying cheerfully to Maurizio that we were “at the dock,” which he misinterpreted as us having crossed the finish line.  He stopped and turned to look, and we caught a major crab on the stroke side which almost dumped us into the river (Tom later told us he thought we were done for at that point!).  Fortunately, we were able to recover and cross the line, AHEAD of that final boat.  So, we had successfully rowed in a double, had NOT capsized, and had not come last in our race.  A major achievement!  (The boat we beat contained the two women we had met earlier in the day, and they were not particularly happy, because they knew we were complete novices in a double.)

Maurizio and me with Tom Feaster
Moderately pleased with ourselves, we made our way back to the docks and onto dry land.  We rejoined our friend on the Island, and spent the rest of the day watching other races and meeting some more of the organisers of the race.  We were minor celebrities at the event, because we were the only international crew, so everyone had heard of us.  At the end of the day, though, we met a real celebrity, as Paralympian Eric McDaniel was there to hand over the team cup.  I stopped to talk to him, to ask if he knew Olympic gold medallist Meghan Musnicki (with whom I used to row) or Lauren Schmetterling (whom I used to coach).  He said he knew both of them, but also explained that he had had a stroke and that it was difficult for him to talk quickly.  Still, as we conversed, I could clearly understand everything he was trying to communicate. He even introduced me to his little black seizure dog, Jamaica, who is helping him to regain mobility and speech.  Later, we got an opportunity to go into the room where the 25 US rowing officials were debriefing, and we pitched our idea to them.  We didn’t want anything from them at the moment, but we wanted them to know we existed and to be prepared to support us in the future. We also made the suggestion that the high altitude of Tominé would make it an ideal Olympic training spot.  They seemed impressed by the idea, and eager to keep in contact, which meant our trip had been a great success.

The organisers of the event
That night we went to Hooters for dinner, at Tom's suggestion, and I got to drink a cider while the boys finished off a few pitchers of beer and we all talked over ideas for developing the rowing club.  We got home with just enough energy to shower and collapse into bed, because the next morning we would be rowing again.  We had agreed to come out to join the masters' doubles practice with the team, so that we could learn a bit more about these little boats and have a coach present to give us some tips.  We fared much better than the previous day, though the twisty river and numerous bridges still stymied us a few times.  There was a stand-up paddle boat competition that day, so when we came back from the row we went around to the Island again to watch some of the races.  We were introduced to the mayor of Tampa, as well as a few more of the important people behind the club and the races.  Finally, we decided it was time to head back to Tom's house to shower and pack, as we were driving back to Miami that day.

(I'll tell about the rest of our trip in the next post!)

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