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Scenic venue could be frightening sight for rowers on race day
Updated: 2004-08-13 17:37

Maybe the Greeks remembered the lesson of their failed attempt to stage rowing at the first modern Olympics 108 years ago. Maybe not.

Rough seas in Phaleron Bay wiped out the 1896 rowing events, which back then where scheduled for only one day.

There'll be no attempt to race at sea in the 2004 Athens Games, but there is worry over wind _ a constant sea breeze that buffets the dusty, sun-baked mountains here as it sweeps in from the Bay of Marathon and over a crescent-shaped, pine tree-lined Schinias beach.

``Everyone has been a little tense about it,'' U.S. women's coach Tom Terhaar said after practice on calmer-than-expected water Thursday. ``Luckily, we knew about it a year in advance after we saw the worst-case scenario.''

Greek organizers chose a stretch of flats between the beach and the mountains to carve out a rectangular lake for rowing, as well as flatwater canoe and kayak sprints. It's in the same area where a Persian invasion was repelled in the decisive Battle of Marathon around 490 B.C.

When the Schinias rowing complex, shortly after completion, hosted the 2003 junior world championships, some competitors found themselves losing a battle with rough water. Waves swamped several boats. It was so bad for the U.S. eight squad that the oarsmen had to bail out and swim across the finish line with their boat in tow.

It was the latest in a string of difficulties at the venue, the construction of which was opposed in court by a coalition of archeologists and environmentalists. They sought to protect the site because of its ties to the Battle of Marathon and because it's also a wildlife habitat and stopping point for migratory birds.

Once those legal hurdles were cleared and the venue built, it was too late to change the site over windy weather.

So, with a year to adjust, rowing teams and boat builders went about preparing for what could be a rough ride. Many boats have been redesigned with bailing pumps and other changes such as sealed air compartments to limit the amount of water that can get in.

Coaches have sought to train their teams in rough water, where rowers must find the fine line between getting their oars deep enough to ensure they push water through the entire stroke, but not too deep to slow the boat down as they lift the oar out of the water.

``We've done everything we can as far as training and as equipment to deal with those conditions,'' Terhaar said.

Bryan Volpenhein, a member of the U.S. men's eight squad, said he felt well prepared from the U.S. team's training near San Diego last winter, where the water is ``usually really rough.''

``There's a cross wind, just terrible conditions. We rowed there for a long time, which is good practice,'' Volpenhein said. ``You just have to be able to expect anything and you'll be fine.''

U.S. men's coach Mike Teti found Volpenhein's attitude typical among world-class athletes.

``If the wind really gets bad, most guys are going to say, 'This is great. It works to our advantage,' because athletes are trained to think they can handle anything,'' Teti said. ``Now when they get out there, if the boats start sinking, maybe they'll feel a little differently.''

FISA, rowing's world governing body, has developed contingency plans to possibly begin races before the regularly scheduled time of 8:30 a.m. (0530 GMT) or move some events to the afternoon.

The first day of rowing also was moved up a day to this Saturday, providing flexibility to postpone an entire day's events if needed.

If delays threaten to back up by more than that, more lanes could be added in heat races and there's even a possibility, however remote, of cutting the standard 2,000-meter distance in half.

In a few days of practice so far, the wind and water have been calm, giving rowers like U.S. women's single sculler Jennifer Devine hope that similar conditions will prevail when the races begin on Saturday, even if that might not be quite as much of a spectacle to certain more casual viewers.

``You come to this level ... and when conditions are bad you don't get to see the best possible rowing,'' Devine said. ``But there's always people out there who want to see a boat capsize or whatever. They want to see the struggle, so for them it's probably more fun for it to be rough.''





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