In the vast expanse of my work at KU, it has always been my greatest pleasure to make photographs of the sports that rarely enter the minds of most fans. Certainly rowing is one. As much fun as it is to cover basketball in a packed Allen Fieldhouse, true satisfaction comes in making photographs long before the sun rises on the Kansas River with the KU rowing team.
The history of rowing is long and storied. What began as a means of transportation and warfare soon became a competition. Egyptian history notes feats of rowers in competition as early as 1420 BC. Modern rowing dates back to 1715 on the River Thames in England. The history of American rowing for years seemed rooted only along the East Coast.
If not for Title IX legislation, rowing might never have taken hold in the Midwest. That would have been a shame. In the big-time world of college athletics, there is something still very pure about rowing programs like the one at Kansas that started in 1995.
These are student-athletes in the truest sense of the word. School truly comes first. Most team members come to rowing from other sports. Coaches recruit from track and field, basketball and even the sidewalks along Jayhawk Boulevard on campus with the hope of finding tall and potentially powerful rowers who bring strength, leverage and endurance to the boats. Technique is critical. At 2,000 meters, the events are long enough to demand great aerobic endurance yet short enough to demand rowers to dig deep into their anaerobic thresholds to endure the pain of a sprint.
Since KU rowers come from such varied backgrounds, class schedules force coaches to schedule practice at a wide variety of times. The morning sessions that begin well before dawn are my favorite. While Tuesday’s clouds and rain kept the sun from bringing colorful brilliance to the photos, the time on the river was great fun as always.
The quiet of the morning is pierced only by oars rotating in their locks and the hushed flow of water rushing past the boats. As muscles loosen and long limbs up the stroke rate, the sudden surge of a boat being lifted by the power of the eight women is a shockingly sweat sight. The coxswain’s voice inspires, urges, cajoles and demands the rowers’ best. Time and distance seem to flow by rapidly. Before I know it the time has come to dock and let these athletes morph back to the life of a student. The sun has has not fully risen as rowers run to their cars to make eight o’clock classes.
In my cameras reside the memories of dawn’s early light illuminating what will always be a truly beautiful sport and the women that make it very special.