The slim, 60-foot racing shell glides seemingly without effort against a backdrop of steep basalt cliffs. Eight women, each pulling on a 12-and-a-half-foot oar, provide the power. The rowers sit one behind another in individual seats that roll on tracks. In unison they reach forward and pull back, using their legs for leverage. Facing them in the boat’s narrow stem, the coxswain barks the cadence.

“Lock . . . send” and “power ten, on this one.”

Given its landlocked location, people are surprised that Washington State University has an intercollegiate women’s rowing program. Once a club sport, it was elevated to varsity status in 1990 as part of Title IX gender-equity legislation.

WSU rows on the Snake River, a few miles upriver from Lower Granite Dam. The 2000-meter course, shell house, and docks are at Wawawai Landing on the river’s north side. At this point, the river is one-half mile wide.

In more than 20 years as a rower and coach at WSU, Tammy Crawford hasn’t found a more scenic place to row. The river is undisturbed except for the occasional steelhead fisherman. “We have it all to ourselves,” she says. “It’s one of the best kept secrets.”

The isolated setting offers few distractions aside from nature itself, says Emily Tribe, a junior rower from Melbourne, Australia. She and 44 teammates make the 16-mile, 25-minute commute from Pullman in three vans, the last leg winding down Wawawai Canyon.

The sport “selects people out,” Crawford says. Rowers are competitive individuals willing to challenge themselves and others athletically. They are stable, dedicated, and smart, as the varsity’s 3.10 grade-point average last year shows.

Limited to 156 days of rowing by the NCAA, WSU competes in the fall and spring. The winter focus is on conditioning on campus.

Only 5 percent of the team rowed before college. The experiences of the others include the traditional high school sports, as well as water polo, rugby, hockey, netball, canoe paddling, even rodeo. Twenty-seven of the rowers are Washingtonians. Some, like Tribe, are international, from Canada, England, Slovakia, and Sweden.

As they disembark from the vans, one is struck by their fitness and height—5-foot-9 on average. After a half-mile jog down the road paralleling the river, they stretch and bend in a circle in front of the shell house as Crawford reads the day’s schedule aloud. Then they are on the water. The coach trails them in a power launch, a blow horn to her mouth. “Square your shoulders . . . row your blade into the water, not away from it . . .”

Because rowing is more timing and rhythm than just strength, top athletes sometimes become frustrated, says Crawford. They want success early. They must learn to be patient and accountable to their teammates. The hardest thing for Crawford to teach her rowers is that they have more to give mentally and physically.

She places the most powerful rowers in the 4, 5, and 6 seats, the middle of the shell, ”the engine room.” The rower in the “stroke,” or 8, seat—closest to the coxswain—has to be a racer, mature, not one to panic. Number 7 helps set the pace and rhythm. Skilled, smooth rowers occupy seats 1, 2, and 3. They compensate for their smaller stature with finesse. The coxswain, “the director of the orchestra,” carries a huge responsibility. She must get the boat to the starting line on time, execute the race strategy, and steer a straight line.

On race days, Crawford stays on shore, waiting at the finish line.

She entrusts the shell to coxswains like Tricia Goodell. Asked about race strategy, the 5-foot-3 former soccer player draws a line down the center of a piece of paper to illustrate 2,000 meters. She adds hash marks at 500-meter intervals.

“The first 100 meters are intense. The adrenaline is rushing,” she explains. The rowers pry the shell away from a standing position with five short, sharp strokes as they try to jump out ahead of the other shells. As their craft begins to move, they increase the number of strokes taken each minute to 40 or more. The next two minutes are like a sprint. Then the team settles into a rhythmic, but demanding, pace of 33 strokes per minute for the “body” of the race.

Near the halfway mark, Goodell calls for “a flutter.” The rowers pick up the tempo. Around 1,500 meters, they do the “Washington State Cougs” spell-out—20 intense strokes, heading into the final 300-meter sprint. At top speed, the shell is moving at around 42 strokes per minute. The rowers want to come across the finish line as powerful as possible.

Rowing is a gutsy sport. Midway through the race the rowers hurt like hell. They push on. Six-and-a-half minutes can be an eternity.

“By the end of the race, you’re spent,” Tribe says. If you win, you’re still exhausted, but you don’t feel the pain as much.”

“It’s a great art, rowing is. It’s the first art there is. It’s a symphony of motion. And when you’re rowing well, Why, it’s nearing perfection—And when you reach perfection, You’re touching divine.”

—GEORGE POCOCK, from “Ready All”: George Yeoman Pocock and Crew Racing, by Gordon Newell