Fittingly, single sculls are back on the Schuylkill

The single sculls were back on the water in the Dad Vail Regatta this year after quite an absence, and the most solitary event in rowing made a very impressive return.

The awarding of the Philadelphia Challenge Cup for international-level rowers for the first time since 1966 was a highlight, but no one was more excited to see the discipline back in the spotlight than the college rowers who competed for the Open Singles Sculling Collegiate Championship.

After two days of racing - in the heats on Friday and the finals on Saturday - it was no surprise that Oklahoma City University, which has been at the forefront of sculling's resurgence, swept both the men's and women's championship.

"When we started our sculling program four years ago, everyone said, 'Who are you going to race?' " said OCU women's coach Melanie Borger. "But each year there are more and more programs, and now this year it's been added to the Dad Vail. Maybe it wasn't us, but we'd like to think we're a part of it."

The champions were Kathryn Schiro, a junior kinesiology major, and Edgars Boitmanis, a sophomore from Latvia who chose Oklahoma City so he could keep alive his Olympic dream in that event.

"In the U.S., we focus on sweep boats, but our reputation in sculling is changing," said Schiro. "We're still underdogs in sculling events, and it's important we really make a stand. I'm so glad we're evolving our rowing as a nation. That's how you get faster, by having more people in the event."

Boitmanis, who is in the mix for the Latvian national team that races next summer in the London Olympics, was drawn to sculling because it is very popular in his country and it suits his personality.

"Sculling is more individualistic. You are on your own," he said. "You can see who's best and it's very objective. That's what I like."

The single scull discipline - once the marquee event in rowing - has not been a recent priority of U.S. Rowing, the national governing body for the sport. That's not for any wrong reason, but because the best athletes were encouraged to become part of the team events, particularly the four-man and eight-man sweep boats.

Elsewhere in the rowing world, the single has remained popular and the United States has not fared well in international competition.

Ken Jurkowski, the 2008 U.S. Olympic trials champion, who finished second in the Challenge Cup race on Saturday, is the most distinguished current U.S. single sculler, and he finished 11th at the Beijing Olympics.

For the Dad Vail, being involved with the comeback of single sculls is a natural.

Harry Emerson Vail was a singles champion himself and then a legendary coach. When Penn coach Rusty Callow organized the first regatta in 1934, he named it in honor of Vail.

When the original Philadelphia Challenge Cup was awarded, nearly two decades before, the first name on the gold trophy was John B. Kelly Jr., the local bricklayer who would become an Olympic champion and whose name would eventually be placed on the river drive adjacent to the Schuylkill racecourse.

If there is a place for the single scull in American rowing, it is Kelly Drive and the Schuylkill, and this year, the event came home.

"Scullers are a little bit of a different breed," said Cameron Brown, the OCU men's coach. "You're out there by yourself and there's no one else to blame. It comes down to having the mental attitude that you are prepared to do all the training yourself, and not have the rest of the crew to push you along."

Jurkowski's second-place finish in the men's Challenge Cup, which was won by Olympic veteran Itzok Cop of Slovenia, was a very credible result. The women's event, won by Mirka Knapkova of the Czech Republic, did not have a U.S. competitor in the final. For Jurkowski, win or not, this was a return to a river and a tradition that he knew something about before he ever arrived.

On the wall of Jurkowski's home is a print of the Thomas Eakins painting, The Champion Single Sculls, which Eakins finished in 1871. It depicts Max Schmitt, a Central High School classmate of Eakins', as he glides alone near the bank of the Schuylkill following a win, with the Girard Avenue Bridge and the railroad bridge framing the river in the background.

The scene wasn't that different yesterday, although the crowd was a lot larger. The single sculls were back on the Schuylkill in a major race and they fit in just fine. A few more years like this and perhaps the single will come all the way back.


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