May 2, 2012
By Gregg Bell - UW Director of Writing
Click here to receive Gregg Bell Unleashed via email each week. SEATTLE - It's special, this first Saturday in May.
Sure, Kentucky has its Derby. But Washington - the Northwest, all of the water-loving world, for that matter - has the Windermere Cup.
"The venue that we have and the timing, the first Saturday in May, there is something really magical about it," says Bob Ernst, UW's legendary director of rowing.
The native of Edmonds, Wash., has been leading Husky crew since Gerald Ford was president. He knows more than anyone how the Windermere Cup is so much more than a crew regatta.
It's a spectacle.
What other event races among dinghies and party yachts, then down a narrow chute with tens of thousands roaring and boats bumping like stock cars at Talladega? What other event has witnessed a possible defection attempt, a visiting coach slug a rower, roaring parties on land and at sea - and even once thawed some of the Cold War?
As Ernst loves to say, "It's the greatest free show in Seattle."
This week's arrival of Argentina's national men's team, the women's national collegiate-champion boat from Otago University (founded 143 years ago as New Zealand's first), plus Oregon State and Virginia marks the 26th year Washington has hosted the Windermere Cup.
That's 26 rollicking years UW - through the indispensible financial support of Seattle's Windermere Real Estate and the cooperation of the Seattle Yacht Club -- has invited the world's best rowing teams Seattle's Montlake Cut for a spring racing day like no other.
Since 1970, UW rowing has held a race in conjunction with the ceremonial first day of Seattle's boating season. The creation of the Windermere Cup for 1987 gave this day the international cache that has since vaulted the regatta to among the most prestigious - and unique - in the world.
Michael Callahan, coach of UW's defending national-champion men's crew team, turned to Windermere Real Estate president John "OB" Jacobi and Admiral Dick Bell of the Seattle Yacht Club while seated at the same table Wednesday morning inside UW's Conibear Shellhouse.
Then he earnestly thanked them.
"We provide the student-athletes," Callahan said. "You provide one of the most amazing races and amazing atmospheres that are out there in collegiate rowing and in rowing in the world - besides the Olympics and maybe the Henley Regatta.
"It's so spectacular."
The racing course alone for the 24 races involving more than 800 rowers from juniors to 50-plus-year-olds beginning at 10:20 a.m. Saturday is unlike any other in the world.
Rowing is a sport usually performed in front of a handful of family members and friends of the competitors.
Not at Washington.
The Huskies' two-kilometer course starts among those party boats and yachts tied to and anchored around a signature log boom out on Lake Washington. The yacht club's 250-member Windermere Cup committee began coordinating with UW and the Seattle Police Department and Mason Construction of Seattle 12 months ago for Thursday's installation of the log boom.
The course goes west under the Montlake Bridge between grass berms that fill with tens of thousands of race fans on either side of the Cut, providing a signature, stadium effect to Husky crew races.
Visiting Soviet rower Andrej Vasiljev was wowed by the crowd that went bonkers throughout the first Windermere Cup, in 1987.
"I never heard a single word of the coxswain during the race, the people were so loud," the then-world champion said that day. "Even the finals of the world championships are not as impressive as this."
Then there's the racing itself. The cut's narrow channel makes maneuvering for position as boats approach the finish line perilous and chippy. It's like NASCAR on a canal.
"It's a celebration unlike anything else in rowing," Callahan says.
More than 10,000 athletes from around the world have come to the Montlake Cut each May for the last quarter century to race the Huskies. Cambridge, Oxford, Notthinghamshire from England. Australia, New Zealand, Italy, China, The Netherlands, Lithuania, Poland, the Czech Republic, Croatia, New Zealand, and Brazil.
Some seemingly didn't want to leave.
The first Windermere Cup was dominated by the Soviet Union in 1987, two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The coxswain for the world champion Soviets - accidentally, or so the story goes - boarded one of the police boats that was escorting the U.S.S.R. crews out to and through Montlake Cut that week. A mini international incident ensued among local and Soviet authorities, as some assumed the coxswain was trying to defect during the Cold War.
Karen Baebler is UW's assistant athletic director for sports operations. She's been putting on the last 15 Windermere Cups. She remembers that "everyone was freaking out" when that Soviet got on the police boat.
But by the end of that first Cup, detente ruled. After the final race, the losing UW team took off their shirts and gave them to the Soviets. The Soviets reciprocated then traded seats with the Huskies. Each team's shell rowed back to the dock with four Soviet and four UW athletes aboard.
NOT SO CALM BEHIND THE SCENES
The gregarious, glib Ernst was uncharacteristically understated when he said on Wednesday: "There's a lot of work that goes into this event every year. ... We owe everyone a lot of thanks."
Inviting and hosting international teams for the Windermere Cup isn't exactly like bringing Eastern Washington across the state or San Diego State up the coast to begin a football season.
Tuesday offered a glimpse into the, uh ... fun sometimes involved in pulling off this event.
Baebler drove from campus to SeaTac Airport for what she expected to be the morning arrival of Argentina's national team. To break down some of the language barrier, she brought with her Natali Coronel, a freshman on the Huskies' women's tennis team who is from Lomas de Zamora, Argentina, to help welcome and acclimate her countrymen and women.
But only 13 of 26 in the team's traveling party made it from their Buenos Aires flight through U.S. Customs at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport in time to catch their connecting plane to Seattle.
Baebler and Coronel waited two more hours for the later flight from Dallas to arrive with the rest of the Argentinean team. They left the airport in vans that drove to the UW campus area. Baebler lost one van full of rowers who don't speak English when she turned right on red at a traffic light - it seems that's a no-no in Argentina. After a chaotic hour or so, Baebler tracked down the wayward van on campus and eventually got the team to its accommodations at the Silver Cloud Inn just north of the University Village shopping center.
How did Argentina get invited? Ernst and Callahan scout potential teams during their summer travels to crew races around the world. Olympic years such as this one are particularly tricky because many national teams' training schedules prohibit them from coming to the Windermere.
For this year, Ernst targeted Argentina relatively early, after he saw how well it performed in October's Pan Am Games. That made life relatively easy for Baebler.
Other years she's had international crews back out and had to fill in others as late as February, "which I hate," she said. Italy was one of those substitutes in the last decade, after Baebler's made a series of late-night or early morning calls.
In 2000, the Egyptian national team visited, and its coaches seemed more like Secret Service agents. They seemed short on crew knowledge but long for keeping close, almost-creepy tabs on their athletes plus everyone around them. And the women on the Egyptian team never left their hotel rooms, except for official race events.
Jill Jacobi Wood, president of Windermere's services company and client services who has been planning the Cup for years, remembers an earthquake during one team banquets her company puts on each year. All of this wouldn't happen without Windermere.
The Jacobis' father John owned Windermere Real Estate when he worked with Ernst and former UW coach and rowing icon Dick Erickson on the first Cup in 1987. The company, founded in 1972, became the third-largest real-estate company in the country five years ago, and OB has taken it over from his father.
The owners of all 120, individually operated Windermere franchise offices throughout Washington chip in to pay for putting on the Cup. They fund all expenses of the visiting teams.
No wonder Glen Sinclair, coach of Otago University, went out of his way Wednesday to thank Jacobi for getting his team here from New Zealand. Windermere pays for the international flights, meals and hotels for team parties of about 25. Teams used to stay in UW's dorms, but the massive housing shortage on campus recently pushed the visiting rowers off campus. The company also pays for the week of team events, boat tours, dinners - even a grade-school rowing clinic held at Conibear Shellhouse in conjunction with the Cup.
I asked Jacobi and his sister how much Windermere spends each year on the Cup, on a sport that isn't exactly football or basketball or mainstream anywhere else but perhaps Seattle, Boston and England.
"Hundreds of thousands of dollars," they each said. "Each year."
"It feels really good," Jill Jacobi Wood told me.
"WE'RE LOOKING FORWARD...TO SEE HOW MUCH WE GET OUR BUTTS KICKED BY U DUB"
Saturday's races begin at 10:20 a.m. with the mixed four boats for 50-year-olds and end with the Women's Windermere Cup at 11:35 a.m. and the men's Windermere Cup at 11:45. After that is the Seattle Yacht Club's Opening Day boat parade. Competitors will be from the Green Lake and Deep Cove rowing clubs, to junior and high school boats, to Washington State University and the club team from Virginia.
The Cavaliers are just the third college club team to be invited to the Windermere Cup. And they are honored. Sort of.
"We're looking forward to thoroughly testing our championship lineup this Saturday," UVA coach Frank Biller said, "to see how much we get our butts kicked by U Dub."
The Huskies men's varsity eight, seeking to peak before next week's Pac-12 championships, have won 18 of the last 20 Windermere Cups. The only exceptions: when the Russian national team won in 2006 and Croatia's Olympic boat won in 2001.
The Huskies' women's varsity eight have won six of the last eight Windermere Cups. The Russians won in 2006 and the Czech Republic was victorious in `04.
Argentina finished second in the recent Pan-American Games to the United States' national team.
"It's an honor to be here. We feel very welcome here," Argentina coach Mario Espinosa said through a Spanish interpreter. "We very much appreciate the opportunity to come."
Argentina top rowers are in Europe preparing to represent their country in this summer's London Olympics. The rowers at UW this week are competing to be on Argentina's crews at rowing's World Cup and the next Pan Am Games.
"Argentina themselves are a very, very proud rowing nation and are very strong. They field some of the best rowers in the world," Callahan said.
"We are very excited to have them here."
Hey coach, the feeling - among the visiting competitors and Seattle's water-loving people alike - is mutual.
About Gregg Bell Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for The Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.