Bruin Crew Is Strictly for Amateurs : No Scholarships, Paying Spectators or Pro Contracts, Just Hard Work

Times Staff Writer

If you think rowing a boat is hard work, think of all the effort it takes to keep the UCLA men's and women's crews afloat.

Rowing is one of the last collegiate sports that is truly for amateurs. Neither of UCLA's head crew coaches, Jean Reilly for the women and Zenon Babraj for the men, has a single scholarship to offer prospective rowers.

Unlike football or basketball, crew is a non-revenue-producing sport. You can't ask spectators to pay to watch a race at a public place such as La Ballona Creek near the UCLA boathouse in Marina del Rey. Rivers and lakes are the places with enough space for 2,000-meter races and they can't be closed off to sell seats.

Crew not only doesn't make money, it takes money to keep the sport going. One of those sleek eight-man shells can cost from $12,000 to $20,000. Oars cost about $200 apiece.

$7,000 for Women's Coach

Coaches' salaries aren't much of a problem. Reilly, who rowed for UCLA in the late 1970s and works full time as a paralegal for a Westwood law firm, said she makes about $7,000 a year as a part-time coach. Babraj, a former oarsman with the Polish national team who is in his first year at UCLA, has a full-time position. He said his yearly salary is about $30,000.

But there are problems. Money has to be raised each year.

This year, about 40 girls from the crew program temporarily worked as inventory takers at a couple of Westside department stores, Reilly said. Each earned between $5 and $6 an hour for the team.

Reilly might not have been able to coach even part time for the last four years if she didn't work in Westwood for sympathetic employers and live in an apartment house in the marina that is right next to the UCLA boathouse.

Up at 5 a.m.

Her law office is close enough to the UCLA athletic department that she can run over and do some crew business on her lunch hour. Her apartment is close enough to the boathouse that she can roll out of bed at 5 a.m. and still make a 5:30 crew practice.

That's just on weekdays. On weekends there are races.

The 33-year-old Babraj (pronounced BOB-rye), who defected from Poland in 1984, might not have had a UCLA crew program to come to if it had not been for the support of the Fans of UCLA Rowing (FOUR). (The acronym is descriptive of crew, which has races for shells with four as well as eight rowers.)

UCLA was on the verge of canceling men's crew last year because of financial difficulties. But FOUR increased its fund-raising activities and the program continued.

Babraj, who was head rowing coach for the Warsaw club, SKRA, for five years before he left Poland, said that FOUR "really saved the program. It was on line to be cut, but they brought me here and their goal is to build a permanent endowment" for UCLA men's crew.

Winning Records

For programs that are run on a shoestring compared to football, the UCLA men's and women's crews have been paying large dividends this year.

In the Pacific Coast Rowing Championships in Sacramento last month, the Bruin women's varsity eight finished second to mighty Washington, then five-time defending national champion, and advanced to the 1987 women's national championships, held last weekend, also at Lake Natoma in Sacramento.

Washington's eight made it six straight national championships last weekend, finishing ahead of Yale and Radcliffe.

The UCLA women didn't make it to the final race but finished first in the consolation race, besting Georgetown and Stanford. It was only the second time since 1975, when women's crew became an intercollegiate sport at UCLA, that the Lady Bruins made it to the nationals. In 1978 UCLA's varsity eight finished third in the nation.

Men Took First

At the same Pacific Coast championships, Babraj's varsity eight finished in first place--besting Cal, Stanford and Washington in that order. It was the first time since 1971 that a crew other than Washington or Cal had won the event.

By winning the Pacific Coast title, the UCLA men qualified for the national championships, which will be held June 13 and 14 at Cincinnati. There, Babraj, also an assistant coach with the U.S. national team, will be able to socialize with crewmen he used to coach.

Brown, winner of this year's Eastern Sprints, has also qualified for the nationals, and Babraj was coach of the Brown freshmen and an assistant varsity coach there last season. His Brown freshman eight and four both finished first at last year's Intercollegiate Rowing Assn. championships. Before going to Brown, he was head coach at the University of Cincinnati for a year, and in 1984, his first year in the United States, he was a varsity assistant and freshman coach at the University of Washington.

Babraj was cautious about his eight's chances at the nationals in Cincinnati. "We would like to be competitive, and I'm sure we will be," he said.

Winning Time

Top crews usually row 2,000 meters in about 5 minutes, 50 seconds, he said, and at the West Coast championships, UCLA finished in 5:53 against a head wind.

But he said that one of the East Coast crews will be favored in the nationals. "A race is psychological at this level and the East Coast will be favored because of their tradition and the intensity of competition."

Even if the UCLA crew comes up short at Cincinnati, Babraj has brought the program a long way in one short year. Last year's Bruin eight finished fourth in the West Coast finals. He said that the best finish ever by a UCLA varsity eight was in 1970, when the Bruins came in fourth at the Intercollegiate Rowing Assn. championships, a preliminary to the nationals.

Babraj didn't expect to be a rowing coach after he left Warsaw on a purported holiday to Switzerland but headed instead for Vienna and asked for refugee status.

No Future in Poland

"I did not think I had any future in Poland," he said. He also didn't think he had any future in rowing when he emigrated to the United States.

"I did not really plan to coach rowing. I was thinking of working on a fishing boat in Alaska to get a stake in this country."

He visited the University of Washington shortly after he arrived in the United States, just because he wanted to see how Coach Dick Erickson trained his crews. But he stayed around for a year after Erickson asked him to coach the Washington freshman. Babraj's U.S. coaching career was launched.

Babraj said that his and FOUR's goal is to build a permanent endowment for UCLA men's crews. He said that West Coast rowing powers Berkeley and Washington have ample endowments and that their boathouses make UCLA's facilities at Marina del Rey look as if the Bruins are "poor neighbors."

National Championship

Another goal is to build toward a national championship, Babraj said. And strong crew programs such as Harvard's have a head start on UCLA. Harvard, he said, "has been rowing for over 100 years." The first UCLA men's crew took to their oars in 1933.

But a national championship for UCLA "can happen," he said, and rowers are used to hard work.

"Rowing is very much connected with the educational system, with the university. You give (crewmen) alot to take with them in their lives," he said.

"There are no final goals (such as a professional career), and there is not much recognition. You have to overcome weakness and lack of motivation, and you have to overcome pain. You are responsible not only to yourself but also to other people. Your team won't win if you don't do your best."

Four Seniors

Babraj will have a good foundation to build on for next year. Only four rowers on this year's varsity eight are seniors: Bruce Appleyard, Chris Hirth, Richie Sax and Mike Still. The other four are sophomores Mike Farrell, Mike Stralka and Brad Winners, and junior Dave Webb. Junior Jay Tint is the coxswain.

Coach Reilly is more fortunate. Her varsity eight's only seniors were Barbara Frye and Emily Roske. The rest of this year's eight included juniors Kari Dunn, Kristen Mueller and Shauna Reiswitz and sophomores Leanne Crain, Cathie Heacox and Mickie Merrifield. The coxswain was junior Marisa Hurtado.

But Reilly won't be staying around to do any rebuilding on next year's crew. She is leaving the program and plans to enter graduate school next fall to study for a master's degree in business administration.

She expects her assistant coach, Kelly Salonites, who works as a tutor for the UCLA athletic department, to take over as head coach. Reilly also hopes that the women's program will some day have a full-time coach.

Must Catch Up

Reilly said the UCLA crew programs have a lot of catching up to do if they want to get ahead of the Washingtons and Cals or the Harvards and Yales.

She said that Washington's women, now six-time defending champions for varsity eights, have more than 50 years of tradition and that their head coach, Bob Ernst, is also coach of the national team, which won a gold medal in women's open eights at the 1984 Olympics.

At Harvard and Yale, rowing is "a family affair," she said. The families that support those Ivy League crew programs also don't mind shelling out money to maintain top programs.

At those schools, Reilly said, "they have waiting lists of people who want to donate shells."

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