Callum Borchers' Blog

Sociologically significant sports (and class assignments)

Archive for October 2010

Adaptive rowing debuts at Head of the Charles Regatta

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She doesn’t even have a disability, but entering the Head of the Charles Regatta’s first-ever adaptive race, Katherine McMackin might have faced the greatest handicap of anyone. The Capital Rowing Club coxswain was charged with navigating a three-mile stretch of river that many consider the most challenging head course in the world, in a four boat whose members had rowed together exactly once.

“Well, we rowed up to the start line,” clarified Natalie McCarthy, who manned the shell’s third seat.

Alright, twice, counting that.

“Everyone comes in knowing that they’re gonna have to change their stroke, which is a great thing because that’s not always the case,” said McMackin, somehow flipping her crew’s nice-to-meet-you status — in a sport that rewards team coordination in the extreme — from negative to positive. “Everyone comes in thinking, ‘OK, how can I get my stroke to match everybody else’s stroke?’ We were just really able to do that on Friday [during practice].”

Two days later, Capital won the 46-year-old regatta’s inaugural adaptive event — open to people with verifiable, permanent disabilities, who have functional use of their legs, trunks and arms for rowing — in 21 minutes, 44 seconds. Two of its rowers, Kathy Byington and Jason Beagle, are from the Washington, D.C. area, where Capital is based; the other two, McCarthy and Aerial Gilbert, are from the West Coast.

The crew needed a couple rowers; a couple rowers needed a crew. The U.S. national adaptive program facilitated the partnership — Gilbert was a national team member from 2002-07, and McCarthy has trained with the team at development camps for five years — but the foursome arrived in Cambridge without so much as a single synchronized stroke.

Consider it one more obstacle overcome.

“I was paralyzed in 1994 in a car accident, in my right leg, so I relearned how to walk,” Beagle said. “I’m not a runner — it’s not something that I do,” he added, laughing at himself. “But I found that I could row. So, for the last four years, I’ve been competing at U.S. masters, nationals. … This year, I saw [the Head of the Charles] as an opportunity to compete on a level playing field with other adaptive rowers.”

Two other crews, from the Philadelphia Rowing Club and the Cambridge-based Community Rowing Inc., entered HOCR’s adaptive race, bringing first-year athlete participation to a dozen. While the teams rowed for victory — “Next time, we’re gonna win,” said Lisa Boron, who coxed Philly’s second-place four — they also rowed for inspiration.

“For me, to get to be a part of the very first team that gets to row at the Head of the Charles [is special],” said Gilbert, who rowed collegiately before losing her sight as an adult. “I was hoping for years that they would include adaptive events here, and this opens the minds of people in boathouses all over the country, all over the world. And it also gives people the idea who have a disability that, ‘Hey, there is an opportunity for me.’”

Already, more teams are expressing interest in the 2011 event. Many elite adaptive rowers were unable to compete in this year’s Head of the Charles because they were in New Zealand, preparing for the World Rowing Championships, Oct. 30-Nov. 7.

HOCR expects some of those teams, as well as new club teams, to come to Cambridge next autumn, when there will be no scheduling conflict.

“Next year, we’ll definitely have more of a national team presence and Paralympic presence,” HOCR Adaptive Organizing Committee member Rachele Pojednic said. “We’ve gotten calls from Three Rivers, Austin, Canada, California. We’ll have a nice blend of elite and club rowers, and that’s what the spirit of the Head of the Charles is all about.”

Pojednic added that the regatta may expand its adaptive offerings to accommodate a range of ability levels. The mixed-gender, legs, trunk and arms event was the only adaptive race this year.

Whether expansion comes next year or in 10 years, adaptive rowing appears to be entrenched in the Head of the Charles. While the original participants are proud of their pioneering, they are also looking forward to future regattas, when they won’t be such novelties.

“I’ve always been one to appreciate the just-go-and-row [mentality] and set aside all the things that make it different or unusual,” said McCarthy, who went blind at age 10 but rowed with the varsity eight at Pacific Lutheran University. “So, I am pretty excited that they have this event now, and as the years go on, it’ll become more and more part of the event, part of the normal procedure.

“We’re just like every rower here; we’re respected just as much and in the same light.”

From now on, adaptive rowing won’t be new to the Head of the Charles, and Capital’s rowers won’t be new to each other. Not that unfamiliarity — or anything else — ever held them back, anyway.

“It went so well on Friday that we knew that when Sunday came, we were gonna have a great race,” McMackin said.

Written by callumborchers

October 29, 2010 at 10:59 am

Delving into Deadspin

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It’s certainly not journalism, but in the world of sports media, its influence is undeniable. I’m talking about Deadspin, the irreverent, rumor-laden website owned by Gawker Media that thrust itself into mainstream consciousness this month when it reported that Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre had sexted a New York Jets game hostess when he played for that team in 2008.

According to the report, Favre sent unsolicited photographs of his genitals to Jenn Sterger’s cell phone and also left inappropriate voicemails for the former model. Deadspin’s story prompted not only extensive coverage by other outlets but also an investigation by the NFL, which is still ongoing.

It is the Favre saga that compelled me to learn more about Deadspin for a class assignment. I was introduced to Deadspin in the summer of 2006, when I was an intern at The Dennis & Callahan Morning Show on WEEI. Those guys loved the site, which was only a year old at the time. I know other sports reporters who read it religiously, but I’ve never been a regular follower. I’m just not into its tabloid-style.

But, like it or not, I cannot ignore Deadspin. The site averages 1.2 million visits per day, according to sitemeter.com. It drew more than 5 million visits on Oct. 7, the day it broke the Favre story, and more than 7 million the following day.

To its credit, Deadspin doesn’t purport to adhere to journalistic standards. Site editor AJ Daulerio told The New York Daily News that his site paid a source — not Sterger — for the photos and voicemails. And, yesterday, Daulerio authored a post about the Deadspin Sources’ Gold Club that would make an ethics professor weep.

“In exchange for their consistent dispensing of useful and accurate information, they become, in some ways, privileged figures in the Deadspin universe,” Daulerio wrote. “… Any tips or gossip related to them (or their friends) will be shared with them first before they hit the site in any full-blown capacity. For example, if we receive a photo of a Gold Club member (or acquaintance) drunk in a bar, or maybe an accusation of office rumpy-pumpy or of noteworthy drug use or something worse, he or she will be informed and will have the opportunity to respond, and in some cases the item will be dropped altogether.”

Awful, but honest.

Deadspin’s approach allows it to acquire and publish information that traditional news agencies couldn’t and wouldn’t. And, I must admit there is some value to its work. While I can’t condone the manner in which Deadspin collected Favre’s photos and voicemails, I believe the story those materials produced — a superstar athlete exploiting his position to sexually harass a young woman — is newsworthy.

It’s not the sort of writing I’d like to practice — or even consume on a regular basis — but I can’t deny Deadspin is both fascinating and important in today’s media climate.

Written by callumborchers

October 27, 2010 at 1:41 pm

Tweeting the Celtics-Heat mega-opener

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I think I now understand Twitter‘s appeal to professional athletes and fans, and I can summarize my conclusion in two words: direct access.

Sports reporters are the traditional middle men between the two parties. Fans want to know what’s on athletes’ minds but can’t ask directly, so they read writers or watch commentators who can. Many — though not all — athletes want to share their thoughts with fans but can’t speak to them all directly, so they talk to reporters.

Twitter — to a degree, at least — cuts out the media middle men by providing direct, digital links between athletes and fans.

My guess is this realization is far from original, but since my Twitter career is less than 48 hours old, it’s new to me. And I reached it, in part, by following some of the folks involved in last night’s basketball epic, the NBA opener between the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat.

I imagine you could do this for any sporting event, but this one was particularly entertaining because it featured some of the game’s most loquacious stars: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Shaquille O’Neal.

It also had the benefit of Bill Simmons‘ attendance. As anyone who reads his blog knows, The Sports Guy is, at heart, The Boston Sports Guy. And though he’s known for wicked long posts, his sarcasm and wit are perfect for the quick-hit Twitter format. I particularly enjoyed this morning’s gem: “Riding Acela to Philly for Miami’s 2nd game. Heat are so fascinating that I think I’m taking in all 82. Haven’t told my wife yet.”

Indeed, they are fascinating. LeBron, in particular. Even a Twitter novice, like me, knows King James is a prolific re-Tweeter, thanks to the debate in recent weeks about his passing along venomous, racist Tweets about himself.

During the buildup to last night’s game, however, LeBron played up positive messages,  like this one from @E_CocosBoy: “Its crazy how just about every black person n Akron, Oh is rooting for the Heat tonight.”

After their rooting proved ineffective in an 88-80 loss, LeBron Tweeted, “Rome wasn’t built in a Day! Work in progress. On to the next one.”

While I haven’t fully embraced Twitter (I mean, I am one of the middle men), I am beginning to recognize its value. And the simple fact is if I want to cover sports thoroughly, I need to pay attention to what athletes say in every forum, including Twitter. If I don’t, fans may end up knowing more than I do.

Written by callumborchers

October 27, 2010 at 12:16 pm

Wondering whether LeBron understands his own significance

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Is LeBron James really selfish, or is he a sociologist in sneakers? (Photo by Widimedia Commons)

Does he get it? Throughout the entire dramatic course of LeBron James’ free agency — and, especially, after “The Decision” — that has been the incessant question dribbling around my brain.

LeBron and his new Miami Heat teammates, including coveted free-agent signings Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, visit TD Garden tonight to play the Celtics in the most eagerly anticipated NBA opener I can remember. It’s the New Big Three vs. the Old Big Three. It’s also, as 98.5 The Sports Hub‘s Scott Zolak put it, “Take a Leak on LeBron Day.”

Indeed, sports commentators will undoubtedly devote large portions of their days to rehashing the bashing, decrying LeBron’s selfishness and egotism.

And maybe they’re right to do so. I’ve never met LeBron. Perhaps he’s as self-absorbed as they say he is.

But what if LeBron gets it? What if he’s a sociologist in sneakers? Consider what New York Times columnist William C. Rhoden, author of “40 Million Dollar Slaves,” wrote the day after LeBron took his talents to South Beach: “What James did throughout the entire process — forcing a parade of billionaire owners to make presentations and brokering a TV special — was an unprecedented act of muscle flexing. This was reminiscent of Muhammad Ali, at least in terms of showmanship. The process was also part Curt Flood, taking the concept of ‘free’ agency to its outermost limit.”

For months, a 25-year-old black man without a college credit on his resume held some of the most powerful people — white people — in sports hostage. LeBron was in control on a level no athlete has reached before.

While plenty of black athletes have made millions, they have generally achieved wealth without achieving power. As you travel up the athletic food chain, from players to coaches to executives to owners, complexions get lighter and lighter.

LeBron’s free agency turned upside down the “black labor, white power” paradigm Rhoden describes in his book. Considering the history of sports in this country — heck, considering the history of this country, period — his “muscle flexing” was sociologically momentous.

And I wonder whether Lebron gets it.

Written by callumborchers

October 26, 2010 at 8:53 am

Head of the Charles food vendors share their flavors

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Written by callumborchers

October 24, 2010 at 8:15 pm

Banners a one-of-a-kind regatta souvenir

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AMI Graphics, the company that designed the Head of the Charles Regatta’s banners, offers souvenirs in the merchandise tent.

Most sporting events offer the staple souvenirs—baseball hats, T-shirts and the like—but the Head of the Charles Regatta features something more unique: pole banners.

The yellow and orange blocks of canvas that adorn light poles in Cambridge and Boston are on sale in this weekend in the Finish Area/Launch Site.

“Business is good,” Peter Wensberg said Saturday morning, while manning AMI Graphics’ banner station inside the merchandise tent. “We did very well yesterday, and we’re off to a strong start today.”

The New Hampshire-based AMI designed the now-iconic “warrior rower” logo that has been a symbol of the regatta since 2005. Every banner is double-sided; one face depicts a man, the other a woman. The company also has created graphics for the Boston Marathon, U.S. Open tennis tournament, NHL and NBA playoffs, and the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Full-size pole banners cost $65, miniatures go for $30, and burgees are $10.

For some regatta participants, a banner has become an annual purchase.

“Some schools get ‘em for each year they’re here,” AMI’s Matt Gahm said. “So, maybe they started in ’06, and they just keep adding every year.”

The “warrior rower” logo has been the centerpiece of HOCR banners since 2005.

In case they missed a year along the way, AMI is selling banners from 2004 to the present. Classic red, white and blue banners without year labels are available too.

Because rowers are so focused on race preparations throughout the weekend, picking up a memento often is not a priority. So, the banner clientele includes a lot of family members, who snag flags on rowers’ behalf.

“It’s usually parents of rowers that come over and get ‘em,” Wensberg said. “But it’s a variety of people.”

According to Gahm, one favorable element of this year’s regatta ought to boost sales among that variety of people.

“Weather’s a lot better than last year,” he noted, “so we’re hoping for good things.”

Written by callumborchers

October 24, 2010 at 8:13 pm

Teen travels from Ottawa for first Head of the Charles

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The Head of the Charles’ magnetism is well-established—schools, clubs and individual rowers travel tremendous distances to participate in the world’s largest two-day regatta—but every year, novice participants discover the event’s appeal for the first time.

This weekend, one such newcomer is 17-year-old Alexander Munro, whose Ottawa Rowing Club crew will compete in Sunday’s youth men’s eight race.

“This regatta is historically a very competitive regatta, so we’re looking forward to that,” Munro said Friday afternoon, while helping to rig a four boat. “A lot of tough competition, which is harder to find at home. Typically, we have to go to larger areas, like St. Catherines, [Ontario], where they have a big event. So, for us, [the Head of the Charles] is a very special event.”

Alexander Munro is a Head of the Charles rookie but comes to Cambridge with an appreciation of the regatta's history.

Munro took up rowing only last year, joining his high school team and, later, the Ottawa Rowing Club. Before stepping into a shell, though, he was already an experienced endurance athlete, competing in cross country running and skiing.

As he worked on the boat, Munro stressed the importance of bolting on the riggers tightly. He hasn’t been on the water long, but he’s learned that trying to tighten a bolt mid-race is one challenge to avoid—especially during a race of this magnitude.

“Some races, it’ll be merciful, base racing. But not so much in head racing,” Munro said. “No mercy.”

Written by callumborchers

October 24, 2010 at 8:06 pm