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ROW // AFTER ROW AFTER ROW AFTER ROW AFTER ROW

(ran TP edition)

From the bridges and sea walls, it looks so easy and graceful.

In their fragile crew shells, teams of two or four or eight rowers slip down the Hillsborough River and into the bay, oars and bodies moving in time. The long, attenuated blades look like the legs of exceptionally coordinated waterbugs skipping on the surface tension, barely making a ripple as they pull forward and away.

Out on the river, though, the cost of this dancelike grace is revealed to be muscle and sweat, and no small amount of palm flesh. Despite its air of ease and exclusivity, crew is as brutal a sport as any played in the dirt.

"When you're in the boat and you hear the grunting, you know what it's really like," says Dawn Bussey, 19, a rower in the University of North Carolina's novice women's eight boat. Bussey and 58 other crew athletes from her school spent last week _ their spring break _ in a training camp at the University of Tampa.

The school's gray boathouse, which can shelter 60 boats below and 80 rowers upstairs, sits on the river's western bank across from downtown. Completed in 1988, the boathouse has become a home for the university's crew team as well as local rowing clubs and visiting teams from big crew schools like Yale and Princeton. The school also hosts the annual President's Cup Regatta, which will take place Saturday in the Seddon Channel, between Harbour Island and Davis Islands.

For the stream of university rowers who come to train on the Hillsborough from December through April, the time spent in Tampa is a grueling vacation. Locals may glimpse the athletes lounging poolside at the Quality Hotel or notice school logos brazenly painted on bridges and assume it's all fun and games. It's more like boot camp.

How's this for relaxation? Five or more hours a day on the water in two or three muscle-wrenching workouts. Bunking in crowded rooms strewn with thrice-worn sweats and socks that never quite dry. Wolfing down enough cafeteria food to fuel bodies that burn several thousand calories a day.

"We figure it's row, eat, sleep, row, eat, sleep," Dawn Bussey says.

"It's like Outward Bound," adds her UNC teammate Jennifer Miller, 25. "You really learn to redefine terms like tired and sore."

After seven days in Tampa, the Carolina novice women had logged over 150 kilometers _ almost 100 miles _ on the waterways between the Hillsborough Avenue bridge and the southern tip of Davis Islands. Almost every one of the 23 rowers on the novice squad had never been in a crew boat before last fall, and yet here they were with slide marks on the back of their thighs, pushing themselves further than they thought possible.

"You're surprised, sometimes every day, that your body can make it," Jennifer Miller says.

Spring straining . . . something spiritual

Miller and her teammates joked about their training marathon as they sat in the University of Tampa cafeteria last week. Most went back to the food line two or three times to load pasta and beans and fruit onto their plates and into their lean, fit frames.

They laughed about how boring they were compared to their classmates partying in Panama City, how they got in bed by nine and fell asleep by 9:30. They teased one teammate about having to relieve herself over the side during a three-hour workout, and worried over a girl whose intense training had made her skip menstrual periods.

They talked blisters and preventive taping methods, offering their scabbed and reddened palms for examination.

"You don't want to wash your hair because it stings your hands," says Lisa Stevens, 24. "When you roll over at night, they hurt," says Kristen Bonatz, 19.

But there was something beatific in the exhausted faces, something that gave a hint of why rowing is so appealing.

For women in particular, suggests Lisa Stevens, crew can affect a healthy change in body sense. "You're trying to be strong, you're not trying to be skinny," she says.

"It's shifted my perception of my body from looking at it as an aesthetic object to looking at it as functional," adds Jennifer Miller. "I want to be able to do more and more."

But many rowers will tell you that crew's allure is bigger than fitness. They're usually at a loss to describe it precisely, but they use words like mystical, transcendent, magical, spiritual. Aside from the endorphin rush, there's something about the fluidity, about the experience of rushing over the surface of the water in synchrony with others that sends them toward Nirvana.

"People don't row because it will get them on TV or get them a lot of money," says Michael Nicholls, the UNC novice women's coach. "There's no money in crew, and it's not a spectator sport. People row because of the feeling they get when eight people are swinging together, pushing their bodies to the limit."

Sharing space on the river

Tampa has a tradition of rowing dating to at least 1941, when the University of Tampa's crew team was started. The city is blessed with miles of waterway _ river, channel and bay _ that is generally straight and deep, and the water upriver and in the channels is protected from wind that makes water unfriendly to the narrow, tippy shells.

Nobody is quite sure when the Ivy League teams and other crews started coming to Tampa to train, but University of Tampa crew coach Bill Dunlap says visiting teams were few and far between when he started coaching in 1981.

Though Dunlap doesn't aggressively market the UT facilities for spring training, word-of-mouth and the new boathouse have increased the number of visiting teams to 20 this year. The universities of Cincinnati, Xavier, Penn, George Washington and Princeton usually come around New Year's, followed by the University of Toronto and Brandeis in February. Last week, North Carolina was joined by Michigan, Pittsburgh and Colgate, and this week Yale, Georgetown, and North Carolina State are sharing river space.

Gentry sport seeks common ground

Despite a growing number of participants nationwide, crew retains its cachet as an elitist sport. The continuing dominance of Ivy League schools does nothing to diminish the sport's snobbish reputation, and schools like Yale, with its $1-million crew budget, spend a lot to make sure the dominance continues.

Costs can run high. An eight with oars and electronics for the coxswain's microphone can run more than $20,000.

But people who love the sport insist it's for everyone, not just 6-foot blonds from Connecticut.

"Now there's a lot more low-cost club rowing," Michael Nicholls says, "and there's even inner-city rowing. The sport is really making progress."

Nicholls' own team is evidence that you don't have to have old money or a big financial backer to row. University of North Carolina crew is not funded by its university, and coach Nicholls does his job without pay. The team holds spaghetti dinners and T-shirt sales to buy equipment and pay for travel.

Nicholls says it's worth the trouble if he can spread the bliss around.

"I'm convinced that if I can get someone out in a shell for one day, they'll be hooked."

_ Information from Times Librarian Barbara Hijek was used in this report

Crew it yourself

If you want to learn to row, call coach Bill Dunlap, 832-2707. Cost is $25 for first lesson, $15 for each subsequent lesson. Membership in the University of Tampa Rowing Club is $50 per quarter/$200 per year.

Get a front row seat

The 21st Annual President's Cup Regatta starts Sunday morning at 9 in Seddon Channel between Harbour Island amd Davis Islands. All races are 1500 meters, starting at the southern end of Harbour Island and ending at the Harbour Island Waterwalk. Best place to view the races is from Waterwalk, where catered food will be for sale and portable toilets will be provided.

The races will likely be held even if the weather's not perfect.

Eight-oared events will be in the morning, and two- and four-oared events in the afternoon. Heats are preliminary races for the finals, and flights are one-shot races.

Schedule will run from 9 a.m..-6p.m. with 8-oared events in the morning and 2 and 4-oared events on the afternoon.

THE LINEUP

Barry University, North Miami, black and red

Clemson University, orange and blue

Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Daytona Beach, blue and gold

Florida Institute of Technology, Melbourne, red and grey

Florida State University, maroon and gold

Georgia State University, crimson red and royal blue

Georgetown, navy blue and grey

Jacksonville University, green and white

Rollins College, Winter Park, blue and tan

Stetson University, Deland, green and white

University of Central Florida, black and gold

University of Miami, green and orange

University of Tampa, red shirts

Yale University, navy blue and white

THE SCHEDULE

9 a.m. women's varsity eight, two heats; 9:20 men's varsity eight, two heats; 9:40 women's novice eight lightweight (under 135 pounds); 9:50 men's novice eight lightweight (under 160 pounds); 10:00 women's novice eight heavyweight (no weight limit), two flights; 10:30 men's novice eight heavyweight, two flights; 11 a.m. women's and men's first junior varsity eight; 11:10 women's and men's second junior varsity eight; 11:20 finals of women's lightweight eight, men's lightweight eight, women's heavyweight eight, men's heavyweight eight; 12:30 p.m. men's open pair, two heats; 1:00 women's lightweight four, two heats; 1:30 men's lightweight four, two heats; 2:00 women's open four, two heats; 2:30 men's open four, two heats; 3:00 women's flight, novice lightweight four; 3:15 men's flight, novice lightweight four; 3:30 finals of the women's open pair; 3:45 women's novice heavyweight four, two flights; 4:15 men's novice heavyweight four, two flights; 5:00 finals of men's open pair, women's lightweight four, men's lightweight four, women's open four, men's open four.

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