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Slim Shells Build Hard Bodies : L. B. Rowers Pump Oars on Quiet Journey to Fitness

Times Staff Writer

Morning is breaking, but it’s a struggle. The water, under dark clouds, is still asleep, a black and green wrinkle-free sheet. Gliding through it are boats that look like long, skinny sticks, so shallow that the people in them seem to be sitting on the water itself. Long oars with bright blades dip beneath the surface. Soft “slap, slaps.” Birds, unseen in a gray mist, sing. Peace.

It is 6 a.m. at the Long Beach Rowing Assn.'s boathouse, prime time for rowers--collegiate-looking types who are Olympic hopefuls training for the national championships, and older fitness fanatics who row out anxieties before going to work.

Everyone looks kissed by golden health. Bodies are taut, eyes clear.

The boathouse is next to the Marine Stadium, a 2,000-meter stretch of channel. Ritzy homes, still dark at this hour, line the banks.

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This has been a rowers’ heaven since the 1932 Olympics, when oil derricks and bleachers were where the houses are now and 100,000 fans watched the Olympic rowing, some even climbing the derricks for a better view.

Breeding Ground of Olympians

The Cal State Long Beach crew rows here, where international races have been held and where Olympic rowers have been developed. Larry Goodhue, president of the 250-member rowing association, says it is the fourth largest rowing facility in the country, behind the ones at Princeton, Harvard and the University of Washington. Members range in age from 14 to 80.

The morning ritual is under way. Oarlock, the boathouse cat, scurries from the building where the gleaming shells of carbon fiber or wood are stacked to the ceiling and oars hang like billiard cues.

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Ted English, 57, of Downey, an insurance broker whose great-great-uncle was a professional rowing champion in Canada in the 1880s, lifts a shell and, balancing it on his head, walks down a ramp, past a “No Fishing” sign, to the dock.

Shoes, in pairs, are scattered on the bleached planks.

English sets the shell in the water and prepares to get in, carefully, because these delicate boats tend to tip. He attaches an oar and locks it, then reaching over he attaches the second oar. Holding both oars for balance, he eases into a sliding seat and slips his feet into the shoes that are permanently affixed to the bottom of the boat.

He is ready to huff and strain and ask, “Why am I out here?” But he knows. It’s the feeling, he says, “of being part of the boat, sliding through the water.”

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He pushes away from the dock and rows. “Slap, slap.” Ripples appear and disappear. To the south, the day’s first traffic rumbles over the 2nd Street bridge. The last vestiges of night, street lights beyond the shore, still burn yellow.

Trim and muscular, Chris Gabriel, 25, of Naples is hosing saltwater from his shell, his workout over. He says he took up rowing in January. For him, it’s a great way to prepare for a day’s work as a structural engineer at the Port of Los Angeles.

“This gets me pumped up,” he says. “Most guys stumble in (their office) with coffee and cigarettes. I’ve already been rowing for an hour; I’m ready.”

Larry Hamilton, 38, a firefighter who lives in Long Beach, is another rowing newcomer. He started in February, For him, running and bicycling weren’t enough.

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“This is as close to a total body exercise as I could find, cardiovascular- and strength-wise,” he says.

But it is becoming more than just exercise. With the sport’s hooks firmly sunk in him, and now that he no longer falls in the water, Hamilton wants to race.

He gets in a quad, a four-person boat (there are single boats, doubles and eight-person boats, ranging in length from 25 to 60 feet) and awaits a lesson in sweep rowing. In sweeps, each rower has one 12-foot oar. In sculling, a rower has two 10-foot oars.

In a motor boat, Jan Masgazski, the rowing association’s coach, follows the shell and tells Hamilton how to maneuver the oar. Hamilton, his body going back and forth on the sliding chair, concentrates, trying not to destroy the rhythm the other rowers have affected as the shell glides under a bridge and past moored pleasure boats named No Knot, Party Hardy and Sea of Love.

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“Loosen up your arms, very good, very nice,” Masgazski says.

For the rowers who will compete in the nationals later this month--the men at Indianapolis and the women at Corning, N.Y.--the sport is not as peaceful as it appears from shore.

“When the technique is right it looks effortless, but it is very painful,” Monica Havelka, a tall woman of 30, says as she washes her shell. “You fight with your mind and body just to stay with it.”

Havelka, who like almost everyone here rows every morning, was on the national team last year but is not assured of making it again. “It all depends on how you perform at the trials,” she says. “One bad day and you can be cut.”

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The exertion required to race a boat 15 m.p.h. at 35 oar strokes a minute is evident when Steve Brown, 31, of Fresno and Kevan Vance, 27, of Hermosa Beach return from an hour in their doubles boat.

They are drenched with sweat.

“It’s nasty, nasty, nasty,” says Brown, a tall, lean picture of health. “Your whole body is just on fire. There’s a strong compulsion to stop.”

But they never do.

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“It’s an aesthetic experience,” Brown says. “When you’re rowing right, and your partner’s doing the same thing and your oars are going in and out of the water at the same time, it feels very nice.”

‘Upper-Crust’ Image

On the dock, Brown says it was the “upper-crust” image of rowing that hooked him--"such a nice, clean-cut crowd.”

And Vance, his biceps pumped from the last hour, says: “You do it because you love it. It has to be that way; there’s no money involved.”

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Laura Byrnes, who is wearing shorts and a purple top and displays arms that have been made firm by rowing, struggles to position her boat for washing. “Oops, I forgot my oars,” she says, and runs down to the dock to get them.

When Byrnes, a junior at Cal State Long Beach, started rowing here last December, she thought the nice, clean-cut crowd was a little crusty. “Nobody would say ‘hi’ out there,” she said. “They told me, ‘This is a serious sport.’ ”

Convinced now that everyone is friendly, at least out of the water, she rows herself each day into a state that she says is somewhere “between bliss and euphoria.”

It is now 8. All the shells have been desalted and re-stacked in the boathouse. Out on the water, powerboats, banned each morning until now, take over, pulling skiers and rudely awakening the water, now blue under the sun. The peace is shattered.

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