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What a Weekend for the Old Folks

By Ananya Kulkarni and Maleri Ginsburg
Posted on October 23, 2022
What a Weekend for the Old Folks

Octogenarians Bookend Head of the Charles Weekend

There were two dozen octogenarians competing in the opening race on Friday morning at this year’s Head of the Charles. There were nine more in the last boat to cross the finish line on Sunday afternoon. The all 80-plus mixed eight boat in the Director’s Challenge was not the fastest boat to row up the storied course this weekend. But it may have been the most interesting.

The team was made up of an Olympic gold medalist, several master’s rowers of varying decades of experience, and a passionate coach eager to get her dream team on the water. As coxswain Bill Becklean put it, there were “720 years of experience in the boat.”

The inspiration for the octogenarian boat first struck Catherine Saarela, a coach for the Community Rowing Inc. (CRI) when working with her athletes.

“I had looked at one of the rosters of one of the groups that I coach and noticed I had 80-year-olds on it. I was like, ‘I have rockstar 80-year-olds, why can’t I have an octogenarian eight?’” Saarela said.

A group of younger athletes rowed the shell used by the crew from Community Rowing’s Harry Parker boathouse to the M.I.T. boathouse just downstream from the starting line.

As the crew made ready to launch, they bantered as teammates do before a big competition, in a mix of excitement, anticipation and nervousness. As they attached their oars and settled into their seats, the clouds that had hung over the regatta all day thickened and darkened, and a rain began to fall.

“It’s a water sport!,” one of the crew members called out to the others, smiling. “We’re supposed to get wet.”

But not even the sudden change of conditions could shake this group, whose years of experience lent to their calm, collected launch from the dock.

“I have rowed in the snow before so, if [the rain is] not filling the boat we’ll be ok,” crew member Genevieve Coyle said.

Her sentiments were shared by others who were simply thrilled to participate in the sport they had spent so much of their lives dedicated to.

“This will be the first time that I have stroked an eight in 60 years. I had two days in the eight early this week and it all came back,” crew member Alan McClennen said.

Though the boat placed last within their event, the rowers made it clear they were fueled not by a desire to win the race, but to row, and most importantly, to row well together.

“We had an absolutely perfect row. There is not one thing we would change. Every stroke was perfect. The course was perfect. The boat was set,” said Becklean, who coxed the United States eight to an Olympic gold medal in Melboiurne in 1956. Her was smiling from ear to ear as he climbed out of the boat at CRI after the race. “That’s what rowing is all about. You talk to anybody in this boat, that was the perfect row.”


By Ananya Kulkarni and Maleri Ginsburg
Posted on October 23, 2022