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Pulling for a shot at the gold

The narrow boat darts out of the still morning mist on Seddon Channel; a lone person pulls two oars through the water, leaving a trail of rippling ovals behind.

In an age that places a premium on time, rowing, like so many other sports, is an anachronism. Why row when a powerboat is so much faster?

But that's not how the sport is seen through the eyes of 27 men and women who have come to Tampa for a few weeks. When they talk rowing, they use words like "noise" and "power" and "speed."

Olympic hopefuls all, they are at the University of Tampa for a three-week camp run by the coaches of the U.S. national team. To get to this camp in Tampa, the rowers have trained years _ 1,800 hours per year, usually five hours per day.

Not all 27 will be chosen, but those in camp are considered to have the best chance of any to make the 19-man or seven-woman squads.

The oldest

At 35, Mike Teti is the oldest rower (by six years) in camp. He's used to the distinction. Teti (pronounced TAY-tee) was the oldest rower on the eight-man boat that won a bronze medal at the 1988 Olympics in Korea.

In a sport dominated by Ivy League graduates _ "J. Wadsworth Frothinghams," he calls them _ Teti is a blue-collar guy. His conversations are peppered with four-letter words and flavored by his hometown Philadelphia accent. To make a point he will turn up his palms and shrug his shoulders or bang his fist on the table.

Teti, whose father didn't finish high school, attended Temple University on a rowing scholarship. He has not forgotten what rowing has given him; his dedication to the sport is complete.

He spent 10 years selling life insurance, a job that allowed him to continue rowing for the U.S. national team.

In 1989 Teti won the head coaching job for the men's rowing team at Princeton University.

His passion is the eight-person boat, known informally as the "eight." An eight racing full-bore is a roaring engine, its human pistons churning synchronously, powering the machine toward the finish line.

"Nobody goes and gets their hot dog during the eight," Teti said.

He respects the eight's noise and power, but he loves the camaraderie and teamwork that the boat demands. The attractions of rowing alone escape him.

"All the single scullers are weirdos," Teti said, half seriously.

Alone on the water

Alison Townley is a sculler. She decided to take up solo rowing, a sport as lonely as any, to challenge herself.

"I wanted to be completely responsible for myself," said Townley, 26.

There are no teammates to push her out of bed on a winter morning at 6, when she must fight the urge to catch a few more minutes of sleep. She can blame only herself for her errors. "It's painful because you can't hide," she said.

Townley said she rows to escape her fear of being average, of fitting into the crowd.

"My drive was always to be the best," said Townley, a 1987 graduate of Harvard University. "It was almost a need."

Rowing, she said, offered her "a way to recognition and power. If you could row in a man's game you could get power."

But to gain the recognition she craves, Townley has had to fight patronizing attitudes about women athletes and their bodies.

A woman who watched Townley work out in a Hawaii health spa a few years ago couldn't understand why Townley worked so hard to develop a body with such muscular shoulder, back and leg muscles. "Does your mother know you do this?" the woman asked.

"It's discouraging to work so hard for something and then almost feel sorry about it," Townley said.

Whatever happens, this is Townley's last crack at a medal: she's quitting after the Olympics _ probably. "I have to get started with the rest of my life," she said. "I don't want to be 33 and say, "what happened to my life?'


A life other than rowing

Tom Bohrer, 28, is at an age when many rowers retire from the sport.

"I want to stay in rowing because I have a life other than rowing," he said.

He works for an environmental consulting firm in Philadelphia, although he is on leave so he can train for the Olympics. And he's getting married in September.

There was a time when his life was rowing and little more.

Bohrer, a native of Babylon, N.Y., moved to Philadelphia in February 1987 after graduating from the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne.

"I was so enthusiastic about rowing I just drove up there," he said.

He moved into a three-bedroom row house sandwiched between a bus route and a railroad and paid $90 a month in rent.

The house had no heat, so Bohrer slept fully clothed on three mattresses.

"I slept like a fireman," he said. He'd wake up, put on a pair of winter boots he kept near the mattresses and go out to his car to warm up. Then he drove to the boathouse to work out and shower.

To get money for food and rent, he took a job as a carpenter, then as a mail clerk.

When he went up to New York, he'd get his grandmother to go to the federal dairy warehouses and fetch him huge blocks of "welfare cheese" and powdered milk.

Bohrer, who won a silver medal in the four-man boat at the 1988 Olympics, ate a lot of rice and spaghetti back then.

A chance at the gold?

There are no guarantees any of the three will make the Olympic team. Teti figures his chances are 50-50. Townley thinks she's got a good shot at the single boat or the double boat. Bohrer, the U.S. Olympic Committee's male rower of the year in 1989, is probably a lock to make the four-man boat.

Bohrer's first priority is a gold medal. "I can almost taste it, but I've never gone that one extra step."

As long as he keeps improving, he can't see himself quitting. "My number will be up either when I'm injured or when my interest isn't there any longer," he said.

Teti will keep competing. He'll keep answering the eternal question asked rowers older than 27 or 28: When are you going to quit and start living a "normal" life?

But right now, he's concentrating on making the Olympic squad.

"If I don't make the team I'm gonna be crushed," Teti said. He paused.

"But if I'm cut on Saturday, I'll row on Sunday."