Coxswains like to get wet

  • By John Sleeper / Herald columnist
  • Saturday, April 29, 2006 9:00pm
  • Sports

SEATTLE – Somewhere on this planet exists a photo of Adrian Andrews in the act of being tossed into Lake Washington like an undersized bass.

In the photo, Andrews’ arms and legs flail about. The index finger on his right hand points skyward.

“And my toe is in the water,” said Andrews, a senior coxswain for the University of Washington. “I had just touched the water. It was really cool.”

Sport has its share of curious traditions. Just a few:

* A coach always sits in the first row on the team bus. If he is out sick or dead, the seat remains empty.

* The starting goalie is always the first one on the ice.

* Never, ever stick your finger in someone else’s bowling ball.

In rowing, the winning crew tosses its coxswain into the drink in a celebration of victory. It’s considered the highest of praise and exaltation.

You only dunk the ones you love.

And then, only in victory.

The classic story is the one in which a crew won a dual meet it fully expected to win easily. The air temperature hovered in the upper 30s, so out of naivete and kindness, the rowers thought it best not to toss the cox into the icy water, even despite the cox’s protests.

So they didn’t.

They lost the rest of their regattas the rest of the season. The coxswain insisted it was because they hadn’t kept with tradition. The rowing gods must be appeased with sacrifice.

So be it.

Sean Mulligan isn’t one to mess with tradition, regardless of water temperature. One of Washington’s most decorated coxswains, a multiple world champion who now is the UW women’s varsity assistant coach, Mulligan remembers one early-spring regatta at the frigid University of Wisconsin.

“It was about three weeks after the lake thawed,” Mulligan said. “They threw me in and I hit the water. I didn’t black out or anything, but it just totally knocked the wind out of me right away. I came back up and the guys were like, ‘Omigod’ and they pulled me back out.

“I was, like, blue and it was one of those things where you can’t even get into the shower because any change in water temperature was like pins and needles shooting into your body. But we won, so it was all right.”

So holy is the tradition that no true coxswain will take a dip into the sacred waters until the appropriate time.

“I never went in the lake unless I was thrown in,” Mulligan said. “We’d have spring break and people would try to throw each other in. But with me, there was no way. I’d say, ‘Guys, I’m NOT going into the water.’”

Sometimes, however, it’s best not to go into the water, period. Even the rowing gods understand.

Case in point: Lake Merced in San Francisco.

Once a proud site of high school rowing in the area, Lake Merced’s water level has steadily declined to the extent, estimates say, that the water volume is about half of what it once was.

Groups are organized to save the lake, but it’s difficult.

Where the lake once had ample room for seven rowing lanes, the water has declined to that it can accommodate just six. Reeds and cattails encroach the sides, limiting the width of the lake that can be safely used.

The condition has robbed the lake of fishing and sailing. Swimming? Forget it. Or learn to like leeches.

The water itself is stagnant. It stinks. Levels of algae and bacteria increase year to year. The water is too warm for oxygen or food, so not only are fish suffocating, they also are reduced to bottom-feeding because they’re starving.

Andrews rowed there in high school.

“Lake Merced’s not a place you want to go,” Andrews said. “That’s one place you don’t want to get tossed into. I mean, I’ve seen coxswains get tossed in, but you have to take a shower immediately. It’s just completely polluted. You wait until you get home. There are some good stories about that water.”

Such as?

“Like, bodies floating.”

It’s certainly not a place that UW women’s varsity coxswain Eva Anderson would love. Even when tossed into Lake Washington, Anderson plugs her nose in mid-air.

She has her reasons.

“It’s nasty; it’s gross,” Anderson said. “It’s full of duck (bleep). I’ve never touched the bottom, but the water smells bad.”

Bad smell. Sheesh!

The cost of glory and the perpetuation of tradition rarely come cheap.

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