Robert “Bob” Appleyard (’75 Zool., ’79 MS Environ. Sci., ’86 PhD Vet. Sci.) rowed with Cougar Crew all four years of college, coached Washington State University’s women’s crew team for a year during graduate school, and went on to become a longtime race official with the United State Rowing Association (USRowing) and International Federation of Rowing Associations (FISA).
In 2023, he gave the keynote address during Cougar Crew Days. Find his speech below.
Read about Appleyard’s career in “Different strokes.”
We’ve been celebrating the first 50 years of Cougar Crew, and my task this evening is to reflect back over those years, and tell you a bit about college rowing then and now, as we prepare to then look forward to our next 50 years.
Let me start by saying that collegiate club rowing is all about competition. This was certainly true for Cougar Crew. Even when we took our first tentative strokes on the Snake River in the fall of 1971, we thought of ourselves as Cougars, competing for Washington State University.
College rowing started with the Harvard-Yale boat race in 1852, which was the first intercollegiate competition in any sport in America. So, the traditions in rowing run deep.
Many of you have probably read The Boys in the Boat, which speaks of those traditions in the 1930s, when that story took place. The centers of American rowing were Philadelphia and Boston. Rowing was viewed as a sport mainly for the Ivy League and for the elite New England prep schools that fed schoolboys into those colleges.
The traditions evident in that story were still dominant in the 1950s, which is when a young Dick Erickson was competing for the University of Washington, and Randy Jablonic was competing for the University of Wisconsin. Both went on to then coach those two teams through the 1970s. These two UWs, Washington and Wisconsin, were among the few schools from outside of the Ivy League that had established a strong rowing program during the first half of the last century.
Both of these UW programs are integral to the origins of Cougar Crew, as chronicled in Dave Arnold’s book, Pull Hard. Our first rowing shells back in 1971 were Pocock 8s built in the 1950s for Washington, on loan to our newly formed crew. And our first coaches, Bob Orr and Ken Struckmeyer, were alumni from Washington and Wisconsin, respectively.
We only had a few 8s in our boathouse located next to Boyer Park, built with cedar hulls and canvas decks. The oars were wood, and the blades were long and narrow. We had a large can of Crisco nailed to the door of the boathouse, from which we would slather a generous finger scoop onto the leather sleeve on the oar shaft as lubricant against the metal oarlock, and adjusting the rig was accomplished by inserting one or two tongue depressors between the side of the hull and the metal plate of the rigger.
There were no electronics. The coxswain used a small cardboard megaphone attached by a metal band around their head, and while rowing the cox would get our attention by pounding wooden knockers, which were two wood pegs through which the tiller ropes were attached for steering, against the side of the hull. I can still hear that sound today. To give us a stroke rating the cox would manually time three strokes using a stopwatch. I think it was Mike Klier (’75 Physics) who came up with the idea of taping the stop watch to his thigh to accomplish this more efficiently while racing.
And, of course, there was no Internet and no cell phones. One of our embedded memories from those first years was the many times we were caught on the water by a storm, since down in the canyon you can’t see an approaching storm front until it’s on top of you. We could get a weather forecast off the radio, but they weren’t very specific. And as Coach Orr almost always declared, “It’s rowable water.” So out we went.
Having real-time weather information in your hand is one of the technological game-changers that differentiate rowing today from our first years on the Snake in the 1970s.
What else has changed? Boats and oars are no longer made of wood. Blades are shorter and wider, and you have the choice of several different designs. Oarlocks and foot stretchers are adjustable, allowing customization of the rig to water conditions and to individual rowers. In 4s, the coxswain is generally lying in the bow instead of sitting upright in the stern, and each boat is wired with speakers below the seats. Use of the CoxBox is now ubiquitous, and stroke rate is now just one of many performance metrics made available to the cox.
But one thing has not changed. Back in the 1990s, some naval-engineering types applied newly developed computer models to determine the optimum shape for a rowing shell, and discovered that George Pocock had already figured that out decades earlier.
So the materials from which boats and oars are made have changed and continue to evolve, and modern electronics and GPS technology are now being employed to measure what we used to just observe and sense. But the overall design and shape of the boat have changed very little, and one of George Pocock’s aphorisms, “It’s the men who make the boat move,” still holds. Rowing is still rowing.
The traditions that had dominated the sport through the 1960’s began to change in the ’70s. For one thing, Pocock’s admonition that it’s the men who move the boat had to be updated. The WSU women’s rowing club started in 1973, and it was during this era that men’s crews began using a female coxswain. Here at WSU, we also recruited our first women coxswains for the men’s team, Kathy (Figon) Kaatz (’76 Land. Arch.) and Sue Allen (x’77 Home Ec.), in 1973.
Although our competitive focus was always to beat Washington and get a dog shirt—because betting the sweaty shirt off our back was an honored tradition—we were perhaps more realistically looking to beat the other club teams in the Northwest, including Western Washington, UPS, PLU, and Seattle Pacific. All had started either a few years before or just after ours did.
We didn’t know it then, but we were at the start of a major expansion of collegiate club rowing across the United States. Programs like ours were starting up at locations that were definitely outside of the traditional rowing centers, such as the University of Nebraska. A friend of mine from the officiating ranks is a founding member of the Cornhusker Crew, and the stories we have swapped from those times are surprisingly similar.
Our first exposure to this expanding world was provided by a 1974 invitation to compete in the Midwest Rowing Championships, hosted by the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Coach Jablonic had just started this event to support and develop the club programs that were then coming into existence. This was the scene of our first “big win,” with victories in both the varsity lightweight 8 and 4, beating Minnesota, Notre Dame, and Purdue; and the heavies taking second, behind Wisconsin, in both the 8 and 4.
The Midwest Championships were emblematic of the type of regattas that dominated college rowing in the 70s. Our competition schedule included the Corvallis Invitational, the Stewards’ Cup in Seattle, and the Western Sprints. These were all-comer gatherings which included all the Northwest and West Coast rowing teams, from varsity programs like Washington and Oregon State to the newest club teams like ours.
I find it personally ironic that I became the head official for the Midwest Championships after I moved to the Midwest in 1995. We continued to have full support from the University of Wisconsin coaches who set up the course and provided logistics for regatta operations. Except for when we had to occasionally cancel racing in this late-April regatta due to blizzard conditions, this was a thriving and highly competitive regatta with teams from Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Illinois, Indiana, and even Colorado participating. The majority were club teams operating under the auspices of their university recreation department.
It was during this time that a group in Cincinnati was sponsoring an annual regatta which they called the National Collegiate Rowing Championship. This was the de-facto national championship for women’s crew. Major men’s programs also competed, although the men still considered the annual IRA regatta, run by the Intercollegiate Rowing Association, as their true national championship.
The IRA is steeped in tradition, after first forming in 1895. This was the regatta to which Washington and Cal-Berkley would travel cross-country to compete in, as described in “The Boys in the Boat.” And it was a 1979 IRA win in the varsity 4 by WSU’s “Meat Wagon” that brought the first national championship victory for WSU crew, a mere eight years after first hitting the water on the Snake. This was followed a year later by a second IRA win for WSU men’s crew in the pair in 1980.
Perhaps more improbable than these WSU wins in the IRA, I was asked to take over as the head official for that regatta in 2004. Improbable, because at the time the IRA stewards and event officials were drawn almost exclusively from “old oars,” who had graduated from the Ivy League. I eventually came to understand that I was in the first group of outsiders, brought in from non-traditional programs, to not only replenish the aging ranks, but also to acknowledge the considerable expansion of collegiate rowing that had taken place over the past 20 years.
1997 was the year that women’s collegiate rowing reorganized as an NCAA championship sport. That brought an end to the Cincinnati regatta, and the rowing world then watched two events, the NCAA, limited to women’s varsity programs, and the IRA, as the season-end collegiate championships.
The IRA continued with open entries for both club and varsity programs in the men’s events. This continued through 2007, but then the coaches voted to limit entries to just varsity programs administered through their school’s athletic department. This was due to some who felt that it was important to run the IRA more in line with an NCAA championship, even though men’s collegiate rowing continues today as a non-NCAA sport.
While this decision was a disappointing blow to the club programs that used the IRA as a season-end goal, we have to applaud a group of coaches headed by Greg Hartsuff from the University of Michigan, who quickly formed the American Collegiate Rowing Association, or ACRA. This became the home organization for college programs, both men and women, that are not eligible for either the NCAA or IRA championships.
Since 2008, ACRA has served as a true national championship for collegiate club rowing. It is very competitive with worthy opponents such as Michigan, Purdue, Virginia, UC Irvine, Orange Coast, and many others. ACRA currently lists 150 schools from across the country as members. This roster reflects the growth in collegiate rowing that has occurred over the past 50 years.
We can now see that our beginning in 1970-1971 occurred at the very start of this expansion. A personal observation is that as I became more involved in events such as the Midwest Championships, the Eastern Sprints and the IRA, coaches would ask me where I was from. After clarifying that I was not from Washington, but from Washington State, more than a few not only acknowledged hearing of WSU crew, but would then ask, “How is Struckmeyer?” Our accomplishments from those early years are both known and respected within the rowing world.
This brings us to today. There are now three collegiate rowing championships. Programs which are administered through their school’s athletic department compete in either the IRA or the NCAA. All others compete in ACRA.
We no longer have the large all-comers regattas like the Stewards’ Cup, Midwest Championships, and Western Sprints. NCAA women’s programs compete among themselves through the spring season, as do the IRA eligible men’s programs, all to establish rankings that lead into the championship at the end of the season.
Those regattas from years past that had contributed to the growth of the sport stopped running after the “varsity programs,” those supported through their athletic department, pulled out. Nowadays WIRA, the Western Intercollegiate Rowing Association, is the one event that brings together all the west coast club programs, including WSU, to compete.
I had always enjoyed those large regattas that brought together programs both large and small. The nearest events we have to those now occur in the fall. Fifty years ago, there were no head races for us to enter but, especially over the past 20 years, fall head racing has become firmly established with venues and events throughout the country. Because these do not contribute to rankings for the spring championships, they still draw together a greater mix of programs, somewhat like those spring regattas of yesteryear.
What about the future?
Rowing is steeped in traditions that inhibit radical changes from occurring. For example, if you tune in to the rowing competition during the Paris Olympics in 2024, all will look the same with crews racing the standard 2,000-meter distance.
But let’s look ahead to 2028, when the summer Olympics will be held in Los Angeles. The 1984 course on Lake Casitas, on which Paul Enquist (’77 Mech. Eng.) and Kristi Norelius (x ’77) won Olympic gold, is no longer available due to environmental restrictions. So current plans are to hold the traditional rowing competition in the Long Beach Marine Stadium, which hosted rowing for the 1932 games. But this venue can no longer accommodate a 2,000-meter course, and the distance will be shortened, perhaps to 1600 meters.
And, in 2028, current plans are for the rowing competition to then switch to the Los Angeles beaches. Think of beach volleyball compared to the traditional game held on a regulation court indoors. Blaring music, announcers whipping up crowd excitement, and TV cameras providing up close and personal views of the athletes. In 2028, Olympic rowing may include beach sprints. I won’t try to explain these here, but recommend that you look at the World Rowing website and watch some of the videos they have posted there. It’s pretty wild. To remain relevant as an Olympic sport in the 21st century, this is what is required.
That said, I think it is a safe bet that collegiate rowing will continue with the traditional 2,000-meter race format. And I think we’ll continue to see the three sanctioned national championships at season’s end, with entries determined by how each rowing program is administered, whether through the university athletic department or as a club sport.
Cougar Crew is administered as a club sport, but rowing is a sport that does not have a recreational level of competition. In WIRA and ACRA, we see racing that is just as intense as one will observe at the IRA or NCAA regattas. For the 150 crews that are eligible to compete in ACRA, the collective mindset has been, and continues to be, that their programs offer the opportunity for students to race in the name of their school in true intercollegiate athletic competition.
In planning what to say tonight, several keywords had come to mind. “Tradition” was one. The second was “improbable.” Reflecting back to our origin in the early 1970s, it seems improbable that competitive rowing could ever take root at Washington State, but perhaps because we were not aware of that at the time, it did. And, given our decidedly non-traditional entry into the sport, it seems improbable that a number of us from those first years went on to achieve more in the sport of rowing, as competitors, coaches, and even as a national and international official.
The final keywords are legacy and stewardship. Popular books, such as “The Boys in the Boat” and “The Amateurs,” have described how collegiate rowing instills a fierce sense of bonding and loyalty among teammates, perhaps more so than what occurs in other sports. Over the decades, I’ve made many friends within the rowing community, all of whom had competed during their college years. A common thread among all is that it is the alumni, or “old oars” as we are sometimes called, who provide much of the necessary support to sustain the program that we came out of.
Those of us from the early years can look back now and recognize the legacy our efforts have left for the current generation of Cougar rowers. And you who are now pulling an oar for Cougar rowing will be establishing a legacy for the generation that will follow. This is how college rowing, as a sport, is sustained. We are therefore called upon to be stewards of this legacy, and this is what the second half of tonight’s program is all about.