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‘Funny people’ rowers set out for glory, good times

Members of the Wichita State men’s rowing team practice on the Little Arkansas River on Saturday, a day before they compete in the Wichita Frostbite Regatta.
Members of the Wichita State men’s rowing team practice on the Little Arkansas River on Saturday, a day before they compete in the Wichita Frostbite Regatta. The Wichita Eagle

If you pass by the Little Arkansas River starting early Sunday, you’ll see hundreds of skinny boats.

You’ll see hundreds of lean, muscular and extremely and meticulous people, rowing boats really fast.

They are racing in Sunday’s 25th annual Wichita Frostbite Regatta, run by the Wichita Rowing Association.

It attracted 390 entrants this year.

The Regatta attracts some of the toughest rowing athletes in the Midwest, who exhaust themselves within less than ten minutes by racing rowing boats costing anywhere from $12,000 to $50,000 apiece down the lazy waters of the Little Arkansas.

It’s all for fun and glory. (And gumbo. Apparently there’s a gumbo lunch).

Rowers, by their own description: An odd breed.

Leverage is a really big part of it.

Brook Taylor, 17, junior rower.

We journeyed to the Little Arkansas River in Riverside, an hour and a half before dawn on Saturday, as rowers showed up in the dark to train.

Here are odd things they told us:

▪ It’s sometimes about screaming, said Caleb Wiens, who rows for Wichita State University.

At the American Collegiate Rowing Association’s national championships last year, Wiens and the rest of his eight-man crew crept up on a fast competitor in a race heat – and screamed in unison.

“They were startled – it threw them off a little,” Wiens said. “We passed them.”

▪ It’s about love, (sometimes), said junior rower Brook Tayler, who will race in several events on Sunday. “My parents were both rowers; that’s how they met, actually.”

▪ It’s about height, Taylor said. She’s a 17-year-old senior at Northeast Magnet High School who stands six feet tall.

“Leverage is a really big part of it,” she said. “A lot of rowers are tall.”

▪ It’s not about arms.

About 60 percent of your power comes from your legs.

Caleb Wiens, WSU rower

“About 60 percent of your power comes from your legs, 30 percent from your back and body, and only about ten percent from your arms,” Wiens said.

▪ It’s about strength.

Elisa Acosta, a former WSU All American rower, (and the organizer of the Frostbite Regatta), still trains hard, including power lifting. She’s a deceptively slight-looking aerospace engineer at Spirit AeroSystems who sometimes has heard the occasional male co-worker ask whether she needs help lifting objects.

I power-lift more weight than you weigh.

Elisa Acosta, regatta chairwoman, Wichita Rowing Association

“I’ve wanted to tell them, ‘hey, I power-lift more weight than you weigh.’”

Wiens runs six to nine miles a day, besides rowing.

Taylor, at age 17 weighs 180 pounds, nearly all of it lean muscle.

▪ It’s about wildlife. Sometimes.

“We used to have a wildlife report on our Facebook page,” Acosta said. “’Hey, I saw a beaver.’ We see beaver out here sometimes. And one time a big fish jumped into a boat with us.

“It was all scaly and thrashing around. I screamed.”

▪ Rowing with a team is about life-long bonding.

“It’s difficult to learn. So when you row with someone for a long time, you understand each other on a deep level.”

“Our team is our family,” Taylor said. “When you are rowing in a boat with someone, even if is their novice time, you get that feeling of ‘we’ve been on the water together.’”

▪ It’s about “funny people doing funny things,” Wiens said.

In team rowing, he pointed, out, every rower in the boat faced backward while rowing forward. Who else does this? he asked.

▪ It’s about brains. (Well, maybe).

Rowing seems to attract a lot of aerospace engineers and people from other professions difficult to learn. Acosta and Jeremy Taylor, Brook’s father, a rowing coach, are aerospace engineers, she for Spirit, Taylor for Textron. There are many other engineer rowers, Acosta said.

Wiens himself is studying physics education.

There’s may be something to this brain thing, Acosta said.

But she has another theory.

She laughs when she tells it:

Engineers are often socially inept and introverted, she said.

“So rowing attracts them because all you have to do is sit down....

“And shut up....

“And ROW!

Roy Wenzl: 316-268-6219, @roywenzl

Row your boat

What: The annual Wichita Frostbite Regatta, with rowing races involving 390 entrants.

When: The first race starts at 8 a.m. Sunday; the regatta ends after 4 p.m.

Where: The races can be watched from the bridges and banks of the Little Arkansas River from 13th Street to downstream near downtown.

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