Marietta Crew Rows On, Nearly 150 Years After It First Began

Eight oars dip into the muddy waters of the Muskingum River with a soft ‘chop,’ followed immediately by a wet ‘swoosh.’

Chop. Swoosh. Chop. Swoosh. Chop. Swoosh.

“That’s it, boys, give me a nice strong send at the finish,” a raspy voice says. “Start to firm it up now.”

Chop. Swoosh. Chop. Swoosh. Chop. Swoosh.

The untrained eye doesn’t notice the slight bend in the oars, swinging out from the narrow black racing shell that points to the East as it passes underneath the old railroad bridge. But the coach does.

“Good acceleration, guys. Nice work,” he says.

The motor from his boat put-put-putters along as he eyes his athletes, watching their posture, their legs, their arms, their oars, their boat—studying the rowing strokes of all eight men as they make their way out to the mighty Ohio River.

Rowing is a sport of incredible variables—perhaps the only sport where the athlete is moving on a platform that’s moving on a surface that’s moving. Add in eight other variables (seven rowers and a coxswain—who makes calls, motivates and steers) and suddenly the simplicity of that ‘chop’ and ‘swoosh’ sounds a little less like splashing around and more like real hard work.The Mid-Ohio Valley knows a thing or two about hard work, both on and off the water. It’s a part of the country that I admire deeply, but which seems forgotten by the rest of the U.S. despite a very rich history.

Marietta, Ohio, as locals know, was the first permanent settlement in the Northwest Territory, founded in 1788. Fewer than 100 years later, in 1871, rowing became the first sport at my alma mater: Marietta College.

A city boy by birth, the idea of rowing in this part of the country was unappealing to me as I tried to get recruited by colleges. Couldn’t I go somewhere with a successful program, with some real history behind it? What about the Ivy Leagues? But a scrawny kid of 140 pounds and little natural rowing talent would never do in New England. Instead, he would wind up at one of his last-choice schools, on a dirty river, eyes opening widely to the history and opportunity that lay before him.

Two years before “The Boys in the Boat” from the University of Washington captured the world’s attention by winning the men’s eight event at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, a crew from Marietta, Ohio was making history.

Nobody really knew it at the time, and nobody is writing a New York Times bestseller about it today.

The year was 1934 and Marietta College won the inaugural Dad Vail Regatta, which at the time included just three other schools. Today, the Dad Vail Regatta—named for a longtime University of Wisconsin coach—is the largest collegiate regatta in the United States and the championship race for the many college crews.But success was a dark and dismal road for the Marietta crews for many years prior to that first title.

In 1871 the first rowing club was organized in Marietta and included upperclassmen, college faculty and locals, according to “Marietta Crew: A History of Rowing at Marietta College,” which was penned by the school’s most famous coach, Ralph Lindamood. Yet the club quickly folded due to lack of a boathouse, but then was revived in 1875 with a converted coal barge filling that need in 1876.

For a few years, Lindamood writes, there was high interest in the sport, with a pair of regattas held between 1877-1878.  But due to a lack of competition nearby, interest waned and by 1890 the program was again defunct.

When rowing would return to Marietta in 1930, it would remain for good, just like the settlers General Rufus Putnam led there more than 100 years prior.

On March 22, 1930, a headline in The New York Times read: “Rowing Begun at Marietta; Intramural Races Planned.” These were the days when rowing filled much of the Times’ sports section, and the text of the article echoed another humble beginning for the sport in the Mid-Ohio Valley:

Rowing has been started at Marietta College on an intramural basis, and recently the big training barge was launched in the Muskingum River in the presence of a large gathering which crowded Harmar Park to witness the event. Coach Ellis McDonald, captain of the University of Washington eight which placed second at Poughkeepsie, last June, expects to have the candidates drilling in the barge soon.

A little more than a year later, on May 16, 1931, Marietta entered a shell in a junior varsity race against Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania on Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River and finished third.Marietta’s name became synonymous with Dad Vail rowing history, of course, when it clinched the trophy in the inaugural regatta on May 17, 1934, topping Manhattan College and Rutgers University. Said Coach McDonald, prior to the race: “We’re going over there to win. That’s our goal. We wouldn’t be in the rowing business if it wasn’t. If we’re not first, you can bet the family jewels we won’t be last.”

And yet it would be 29 years until Marietta would again attain Dad Vail gold.

In the interim, however, the Ohio River would play host to today’s big-school national championship: the Intercollegiate Rowing Association Regatta. After being raced in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., for more than 50 years, Marietta won the rights to the race for 1950 and 1951. Yet rains and flooded rivers forced race organizers to shorten the course, creating headaches for the teams vying to call themselves national champions. The IRA, like the flooded Ohio, moved on.

The fall of 1959 was the start of a new era in Marietta rowing, although, once again, few people knew it at the time. One man would defy decades of failed attempts to put the college and its team on the national rowing map. Today, Marietta College’s boathouse and one of its top racing shells bear his name.

Ralph Lindamood had arrived.

Lindamood, a product of Coach McDonald, was Marietta’s fourth coach in four years, and in just four years’ time he would lead his crew to its second Dad Vail championship in the varsity eight. He was known for his quiet coaching style and focus on conditioning his athletes. And winning.

“Dad treated everyone the same,” says Norm Lindamood, one of Ralph’s sons. “Kids would tell us that it must be hard to row for your dad, but it wasn’t. We were just like everybody else. You had your position or boat because of your talent, not for any other reason. We were all on equal terms.”Ralph led some deep squads during his quarter-century as head coach. Three of his boats won Dad Vail gold medals on separate occasions, in 1966, 1971 and 1973. In total, Lindamood-coached crews won 26 Dad Vail golds, including three in the signature event: the men’s varsity heavyweight eight.

Beyond his teams’ racing achievements, Lindamood left ripples in the fabric of the rowing world, as former rowers of his lead some of today’s top programs.

“There are still so many ties to him out there, people still coaching with ties to his roots,” Norm Lindamood says. “The coach at Purdue [University], is a MC native who rowed for my dad. John Bancheri rowed. I rowed for Tom Feaster in high school. He was a graduate from Marietta College who rowed for my dad, and he coached John Bancheri at Tampa.”

Bancheri formerly coached at Marietta College and is currently the head coach at Grand Valley State University. Feaster led crews at Marietta High School (which Lindamood launched in 1964), The Sanford Naval Academy and the University of Tampa.

Ralph Lindamood retired from his role at Marietta College in 1984 with one of the most decorated records in rowing history and an influence that is still being felt. He died in 2001.

It is unfair to pass over the 30-some years of sustained Marietta rowing after Lindamood’s retirement. Five of Bancheri’s Marietta crews were crowned Dad Vail champions between 1999 and 2004, and the team won another varsity eight title back in 2006—its fifth overall.

Women’s rowing has blossomed nicely at the college, with the school earning five Dad Vail trophies since 1990, with its most recent arriving last spring.

Yet rowing in Marietta has risen and fallen in the national conversation during those years, much like the water levels of the Muskingum and Ohio. At times, it has seemed poised to return to its dominant role in the 60s and 70s; at other times it has failed to make much noise that could escape the Mid-Ohio Valley.I rowed at Marietta College between 2009 and 2013 and became enamored with the tradition of the team I became a part of. To wear that big ‘M’ on my back, to pull for the Pioneer Navy was one of my life’s greatest accomplishments. As my ability as a rower grew, and as our team chased more Dad Vail medals, my appreciation for this incredible sport in one of its most overlooked places followed.

Stroll on any weekday through the brick roads of Marietta, over Front Street, into the park adjacent to the river. Or perhaps stand atop the old railroad bridge, its flower baskets taking bloom, and listen for the sounds coming from below.

Chop. Swoosh. Chop. Swoosh. Chop. Swoosh.

Watch for the oars dropping into and surging through the muddy water in unison, thudding succinctly as they turn in their oarlocks, as the boat passes underneath you.

Turn around and watch the crew veer left out from under the bridge and onto the Ohio River. Study them until they disappear into the distance. In a little while, they’ll be back.