The other day I got an e-mail from Matt Kowalski. The subject line read, “The only sport where the winner gets the loser’s uniform…” When I opened the e-mail, the sentence was completed: “is rowing.”
The rest of the e-mail read like so:
“Shirt racing” is the way things are done at all major college rowing championships. If you win the regatta, then you get ALL THE JERSEYS/HENLEYS/UNIFORMS of the other crews you beat. If a rower is lucky enough, he can get on a run — the U of Wisconsin recently had a class (’03, maybe?) that won four consecutive Eastern Sprints titles; the few kids in those boats wound up with lots of Harvard/Yale/Princeton gear. I think there’s a legend of some guys from Penn in the early or mid-’90s that came away with 150+ shirts over four years, between Eastern Sprints, IRAs (Intercollegiate Rowing Association), and dual races.
I rowed at a small club school (Pitt) and also spent a season on the Wisconsin crew after transferring. After every race at Pitt, I had to give up my shirt. At Wisconsin, however, I had the satisfying feeling of watching a Purdue rower dump a huge laundry pile of Purdue jerseys right in front of out trailer after all our boats spanked them at the Big 10 regatta.
Then there’s the story of Yale’s silk sash. At one point in the ’70s, their crew was so slow, and giving away so many of their jerseys with the real silk stripe, that they had to switch to screening the stripe onto the jersey, just to save money.
Shirt racing, incidentally, is one of the reasons why men’s rowing is NOT an NCAA sport. Betting by NCAA student-athletes is outlawed, and shirt racing is essentially a bet. But under the IRA (which is 12 years older than the NCAA, by the way), it’s no problem.
There’s no professional rowing (anymore). No money to be made in
the sport. Yet Wall Street types from Ivy League schools put off big-$$$ careers to live like hobos trying to make national teams. Shirt racing encapsulates this spirit of the sport. In dual races between 8s, they actually pull the 63-ft. shells together at the finish line and give over the shirts right thereon the water. International rowing doesn’t really have shirt racing, but there’s a long tradition of trading gear at the end of a World Cup-level regatta. When the East German crews were winning in the ’70s, one of their henley jerseys could command barter of a lot of Western-issued sweats/warm-ups/gear.
Interesting protocol, although it raises as many questions as it answers, at least for me. Here’s the ensuing back-and-forth I had with Kowalski:
Uni Watch: Do the winners wear the losers’ jerseys, or do they all go into a trophy case, or what?
Matt Kowalski: They don’t usually get displayed or anything, other then being worn at practice or other regattas as a symbol of speed. I lost the few that I won at Wisconsin. I think a lot of successful rowers just throw theirs in a drawer. It’s not a sport with a lot of glamour.
UW: I assume women’s rowing teams don’t do the uni-trade thing, right? And this is why women’s rowing is an NCAA sport?
MK: Women’s rowing is a NCAA sport because of Title IX. It’s the logical choice when you need to add 50-70 female students to balance football, and has grown by about tenfold since the 1990s. The women tend to wear unisuits, so there’s not as much trading.
UW: What does a typical crew jersey look like, anyway? Is there any standard template or style for what it’s is “supposed” to look like (tailoring, colors, home-vs.-road ettiquette, etc.), or is it just a freestyle kind of thing? Is there an acknowledged “classic,” like Yankee pinstripes or something like that?
MK: For years the rowing world went with the Oxford/Cambridge standard design, which was basically a “ringer” T-shirt with a few buttons at the collar. The diagonal stripe and the school letter are common, too. Remember, rowing is generally a conservative sport, and it’s horrible for spectators, so unis have never been a huge deal (outside of your shirt being taken by a faster crew). That said, with the increase in rowing apparel companies in the past few years, there’s a lot of radical designs making their way to the water. Princeton’s women wore tiger stripe unisuits last spring for a few races, and the German national team’s sponsorship by Deutsche Telecom led to some outrageous pink unis.
There’s no home vs. road. There are seasonal uni differences, fall vs, spring. Shirt racing usually takes place in the spring. In the fall, the races are 4000-6000 meters. Because of the longer time spent on the water (I’ve had races where I was out there for three hours with delays), the gear is long tights and long-sleve tech shirts made of Coolmax.
Another rowing uni phnomenon is the Stevenson. These are pullover jackets cut short in the front and very long in the back. The long flap in the back provides extra padding and waterproofing when tucked into the trou (for some reason, what everybody else calls “compresion shorts,” rowers call “trou”). Stevensons also have shoulder gussets to allow for the arms to reach out when placing the oar in the water. Stevenson is a company that became identified with the jackets, like Kleenex for tissues. Most of the nice ones today are made by Boathouse Sports.
J & L was the first company to do nothing but rowing gear, and they do all kinds of custom embroidery and color schemes for crews; most varsity programs have a new design each year. Clubs are on a tighter budget, and for fall races a trip to the discount store for wacky gear is common (different boats will wear different shirts). The Head of the Charles in Boston is the unoffical world rowing convention every year, and a lot of club crews make up specific gear/hats/glasses/headbands just for that race.
UW: What about logo-emblazoned oar blades?
MK: Yeah, I guess that could be considered part of the uniform. Most big regattas will have a T-shirt for sale showing all the blades of the different schools. They’re pretty cool. Down by the docks where crews lay their blades before they get in the boat, you can often find pile after pile of oars next to each other, and it makes a kind of rowing rainbow.
Wow — big thanks to Matt for that crash course in rowing aesthetics. Here he is at Head of the Charles in 1999. “I liked wearing orange over my tech shirt,” he says, “because I was a big fan of the Dutch rowers at the time.”
And just to put a characteristic Uni Watch spin on this, it will come as no surprise to any of you that I managed to turn up this photo.
Uni Watch News Ticker: Good story here (and additional details here) about a Sikh kid in Pennsylvania who successfully challenged a ruling that he couldn’t wear his patka while playing soccer (with thanks to Jeremy Brahm). … Reprinted from yesterday’s Comments section: Amazing polka-dot socks on the Collins Hill High girls’ hoops team in Georgia. … Todd Davis reports, “Iverson was just on local TV complaining that the Nuggets don’t have any colored or striped socks going on. ‘We’ll fix that,’ he said.” … A few gazillion people wrote in to inform me that Cal’s Marshawn Lynch didn’t have a nameplate on his jersey in last night’s Holiday Bowl. I’m not sure which is more depressing: the lack of quality control or the fact that so many people were actually watching the Holiday Bowl.
Long Weekend Schedule: We’ll have an open thread tomorrow, a short entry on Sunday, another open thread on Monday, and then back to regular content on Tuesday. OK? OK.