Still, in the wake of Title IX, the 1972 federal legislation mandating gender equity in college sports, opportunities are increasing in record numbers for female rowers on the lakes and rivers across Southeastern Pennsylvania, South Jersey and the country.
This weekend, 115 teams and thousands of rowers - many from top collegiate programs - will converge on Philadelphia for the 64th Dad Vail Regatta on the Schuylkill. The showcase women's event, the varsity eight, will feature 42 teams. In 1976, when women started rowing in the Dad Vail, nine teams had their choice of two events. Today, there are nine women's events, same as with the men.
"We're getting more women, and the quality of women has increased each year," said Bob Morrow, who has served as the regatta's secretary since 1990 and was the event's vice president before that. "A lot of money is going toward women's rowing programs to achieve gender equity."
In recent years, colleges with football programs have complied with Title IX's scholarship requirements by adding women's crew. According to the NCAA, there were 21 Division I women's crew teams and 672 participants in 1989-90. By 2000-01, those numbers had swelled to 80 teams with 4,376 participants.
"Some of these big football programs you can't counteract with a [women's] golf team or volleyball team," said Atlantic City High coach Kathleen Boyce, who rowed at Rutgers in the late '80s and early '90s.
"If you start a crew team, you can have 60 or 70 athletes, and Olympic or national-team athletes coaching them. There are fantastic opportunities."
Those opportunities are spreading rapidly. The University of Kansas women's varsity crew program is in its eighth year, but has been ranked in the nation's top 25 the last three years. This year's varsity includes senior Michelle Santangelo, from Atlantic City High, and sophomore Kristen Williams, of Holy Spirit High in Absecon, Atlantic County.
"People think it's a desert out here," Kansas coach Rob Catloth said. "We're the No. 1 producer of wheat, and the water has to come from somewhere. Eastern Kansas is covered with lakes and rivers."
Boston College coach Steve Fisk said women's crew received an additional boost when the NCAA began conducting official national championships in 1996.
"A number of schools have gotten fast pretty quickly over the last four or five years," said Fisk, whose varsity eight will defend its Dad Vail title this weekend. "It's gotten very competitive. Teams are going around the world to find proven talent."
Talent, seemingly, is everywhere in the Philadelphia area, which many college coaches consider a hotbed for rowing. They can fish the Schuylkill and the Cooper River in Camden County for scores of quality collegiate female prospects.
In 1999, the junior four from Bachelors Barge Club placed second at the national championships. The members of that boat - Baldwin School's Catelyn Coyle (Virginia), Harriton's Liz Miller (Miami), and Lower Merion's Kate Freeland (Trinity) and Julia Gelfand (Duke) - are among the dozens of area athletes competing this year at colleges across the nation. The coxswain, Lower Merion's Ariel Djanikian, is steering a boat in the men's program at Penn.
Scholastically, new teams seem to surface every year.
Mount St. Joseph Academy in Flourtown resurrected its program in 2000 after a 24-year layoff; it achieved varsity status this year. The team has 65 members and its own boathouse in Conshohocken. Six members of last year's varsity eight now row in college.
Bishop Eustace in Pennsauken, Camden County, started its program last year with just two girls but has 47 this year. Head coach Harry Carroll, who rowed for St. Joseph's Prep out of Penn A.C., already is hearing from colleges about some of his talented rowers.
"Once they knew we had 50 girls coming out, Kansas State contacted us," Carroll said. "The explosion of growth on the girls' side has been nothing short of amazing, and it's a long time coming. It's going to explode. It will be mind-boggling to look back five years from now."
It seems natural that the sport should thrive here. Rowing has been revered in the Philadelphia area since the mid-19th century. Boathouse Row along Kelly Drive is a vibrant symbol of the city's strength and beauty, and the Dad Vail and Stotesbury Cup regattas are two of the oldest, largest and grandest events of their kind. Thousands of fans, many in tents, will line the banks of the Schuylkill not only to witness competition over the next two weekends, but also to savor the festive atmosphere.
"Dad Vail is the goal we start talking about in the fall, and that's where we hope to peak," said Christine Deatrick, the coach of the Temple women's crew team. "That's what we aim for all year. It's the perfect race at the perfect place."
The Dad Vail is one of the featured races on the collegiate calendar. The Stotesbury Cup has been held on the Schuylkill every year since 1927. The event, the largest and oldest scholastic regatta in the nation, is set for May 17 and 18. It is hosted by the Schuylkill Navy of Philadelphia, which includes the 10 clubs on Boathouse Row, and is the oldest amateur athletic governing body in the United States
"Philadelphia has always been a traditional center of the sport," said Fisk, who grew up near Rochester, N.Y., and rowed at Fordham. "Philly and Boston are considered the two hotbeds because of the tradition and the clubs. There's more of a collegiate presence in Boston, but there are more clubs in Philly."
The Cooper River also is considered one of the nation's top facilities; it has hosted both the national scholastic and NCAA championships. Mercer Lake, in West Windsor, N.J., outside of Princeton, hosted the Zurich Rowing World Cup last year.
"We've got the tradition," Carroll said. "When you mention rowing, people want to come here. Boathouse Row is an experience nobody else has. Seeing the outline of Boathouse Row as the sun rises over the PSFS Building, everybody loves it.
"Their hands get blisters and calluses and bleed. It doesn't bother these kids, it doesn't bother these girls. The girls are bubbly and can't wait to get out there. They wear their emotions on their sleeve, and it's so much fun to watch."
Philadelphia also has a thriving collegiate women's rowing community - Drexel, La Salle, Penn, Temple, St. Joseph's and Villanova all offer varsity crew.
Villanova, which doesn't provide scholarships, placed fourth in the Big East championships April 28 with its varsity eight.
"Tons of our kids never rowed before," said coach Jack St. Clair.
"We recruit on campus and put up signs at freshman orientation. You look for athletes that maybe were good basketball players, or in soccer, cross-country or track and field. My best ones have come from those areas."
And those that discover crew tend to stay with it.
"Title IX has helped for women because it's a lifetime sport," said Episcopal Academy coach Molly Konopka, who rowed at Penn. "There are people who row well beyond middle age. It's one of the few college sports you can stay with."
Said Carroll: "I've had parents come up to me and say they've never seen their kid this motivated about a sport. Once they row, something happens."
Contact Ira Josephs at 610-313-8002 or firstname.lastname@example.org.