Last Sunday, Laura and I arrived at the KU rowing boathouse in Lawrence’s Burcham Park. The facility sits along the Kansas River just north of downtown. We were photographing the annual Jayhawk Jamboree, an afternoon-long rowing event for men and women with races ranging from 4,000 meters to 30o-meter sprints. With food, drink, bands and activities galore, the event always is fun for the rowers, their families and friends of rowing.
Yet, one forlorned man stood staring at a Tulsa boat. The front third of the boat lay broken off on the ground beside the rest of the carbon fiber shell. The team’s rigger certainly was not having fun as he picked up the pieces of the shattered shell and explained how the boat broke loose on the trip from Oklahoma.
On April 8, 1971, I was two days away from my 20th birthday. On my way to Lawrence for an assignment, I came upon a group of forlorned men just three miles east of the old Kansas Turnpike service area. The Washburn University rowing club slumped in shock beside their splintered boat laying in the median of the four-lane highway. Strapped to the roof of a station wagon, the high winds of the Kansas spring caught the eight-rower shell and snapped it loose with disastrous consequences.
These were the earliest days of rowing in the Midwest. The budget for the club was whatever the team could raise to support their emerging efforts to help the sport find a place in the consciousness of Kansans. Tulsa’s broken boat was just one of many stacked on the specialized transports that are now pulled behind pickups to regattas.
On that April day, the loss of their new boat devastated the Washburn rowers. Yet, as athletes always seem to do, the team carried on to the regatta in Springfield, Illinois. There the Washburn club found a boat they could borrow to compete for the love of their sport.