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UW rowing regatta a tale filled with defectors, geopolitics and jeans

Rowers paddle through the Montlake Cut in Seattle on May 2 during the 2015 Windermere Cup.
Rowers paddle through the Montlake Cut in Seattle on May 2 during the 2015 Windermere Cup. Red Box Pictures

John Jacobi was reading his Sunday newspaper in 1986 when he saw a column bemoaning the University of Washington crew’s lack of challengers at an early May regatta.

He was inspired.

Jacobi, the founder of Windermere Real Estate, planted the seeds for the first Windermere Cup a year later, when the Soviet Union’s crew competed against the University of Washington Huskies on the Montlake Cut in Seattle.

Gregg Bell, who covers the Seattle Seahawks for The News Tribune and The Olympian, has written “The Windermere Cup: A History of One of the World’s Premier Rowing Regattas,” celebrating 30 years of the regatta.

Bell talked about the race, its history and his book earlier this week. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: What is the Windermere Cup?

A: The University of Washington and Windermere Real Estate co-host an international crew regatta at the Montlake Cut every first Saturday of May. They’ve had university teams, Olympic teams, teams from the Soviet Union, Australia, Egypt, South Africa all come.

It’s become internationally renowned largely because of (now former) Huskies coach Bob Ernst and Michael Callahan, the current coach of the defending five-time national champion men’s team.

Besides the opponents, what makes the Windermere Cup so unique is the venue. Montlake Cut is so narrow, you can only get about four boats wide in it.

It’s considered stadium rowing, which is like nowhere else in the world. The crowd is within 20 feet of the water. It creates this college-football-like atmosphere for crew. It’s a big civic event, and all that has combined to make this a huge deal.

The first chapter (of the book) is about the first race, when the Soviet Union came in 1987 and the second chapter is about how they got them here and how it took off.

Q: What was so important about the first edition of the race?

A: It was before the Berlin Wall had come down. (Presidents) Reagan and Gorbachev were still enemies. It was still the big bad Soviet Union during the Cold War.

When they came, Bob Ernst was one of the hosts that drove them around in his van. The Russians were concerned he was a CIA agent — and he thought some of them were KGB agents. Seattle police patrolled the cuts during their practices. That was the setting for it.

Q: What were the Soviets thinking when they got here?

A: The Soviets loved it. A lot of them were former and current Red Army members. They were really curious. They got on the police boats and got to see their guns.

They thought it was cool. This is still the height of communism. They thought blue jeans and cassette tapes were cool.

They had a party the night before the race at John Jacobi’s house. The Soviets were trading with Jacobi’s kids, giving them Soviet team gear for blue jeans.

Q: What was the signature moment of the first cup?

A: It came after the race, after the Soviets had defeated the Huskies in the men’s final.

The Huskies’ and Soviets’ boats found themselves side by side on their way back through the cut to return to the shell house.

Spontaneously, the two crews decided to divide their crews in half: Four Soviets in red stood up from their boat and, as the Huskies steadied the boats, climbed into Washington’s boat, and four Huskies climbed into the Soviets’ shell.

That’s how they rowed back through the cut, four Huskies in purple and white with four Soviets in red, in each.

It was a fine moment during an ongoing Cold War.

Q: How did you get interested in writing a book about the Windermere Cup?

A: During my four years as the director of writing for the UW Athletic Department, Jacobi noticed some UW crew stories I was writing — some of them were on the Windermere Cup. About three years ago, he asked me if I’d be interested in writing a book detailing the history of this event.

Q: What has that process been like?

A: It’s been hard because of my full-time job covering the Seahawks, which is an 11-month-a-year endeavor in the NFL. There were a lot of late nights writing after kids and wife have gone to bed, or on airplanes or trips, a lot of interviews on the road, a lot of research.

Bob Ernst gave me supreme help. I couldn’t have done the book without him. He gave me all his personal documents from the Windermere Cups, including original correspondence and the telexes that got the Soviets here in 1987.

Eventually, Windermere decided that the 30th anniversary was coming this year, which is why we released it now. I’ve been working on it for parts of four years.

Q: What was your favorite part of the book to research?

A: Probably the chapter on the Romanians defecting. Six Romanian women defected in 2001 — they just never got on the bus back to Sea-Tac Airport for the flight home. They all live in the U.S. to this day. I tracked down Sanda (Hagan) Mitchell, living in suburban Seattle. She was one of the six who defected.

Q: What was that like?

A: I tracked her down through Facebook posts and the University of Washington sports alumni club. I knew she was in the area. I didn’t expect her to be as forthright about the story as she was.

She left Romania for this regatta, expecting to be back within two weeks. She just packed for a crew trip and never came home.

She rowed for Washington, she got her degree from Washington, she got married and had her kids here.

She told her story about how painful it was, how much pain her family felt, but she’s convinced it’s the right decision. Her family had no plumbing, they had an outhouse at home.

The Romanian coach got fired for this because he didn’t bring six of his girls home. As far as I can tell, it was the first time anyone has told the story as to why they did that in that much detail.

The other part that’s been fun to learn about is the quality of people in rowing.

Kestas Sereiva escaped Lithuania during the Soviet occupation before Lithuania became an independent country. He used to hide from Soviet troops in his hometown as a teenager because they would go around trying to force teens into the army.

He escaped that and came to Chicago through an uncle and looked up some rowing programs, only because he had long arms. He found one at USC because the son of someone whose lawn he mowed went to USC.

He called up USC, and their coach was a former UW rower, who said, “Why don’t you call Bob Ernst?” He went to the University of Washington and ended up rowing against Lithuania at a Windermere Cup.

He has a wife and kids here, a job, and he credits all that to the University of Washington rowing.

Q: What is the legacy of the Pacific Northwest and crew?

A: It dates back to the early 1900s, with the Pocock family, coming from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Seattle to build boats.

To Hiram Conibear, who the shellhouse at Washington is now named for — he was an iconic coach in the early 1900s.

Through the Huskies’ famous Boys in the Boat crew that won the 1936 Olympics in Berlin in front of Hitler, upsetting the Germans and Italians.

To today, being a program with five consecutive men’s national rowing championships, unprecedented.

The Pacific Northwest is an aquatic community with its recreation, and the population seems to migrate to it. Rowing is a huge thing at the University of Washington, with tons of success and interest.

Kenny Ocker: 253-597-8627, @KennyOcker

To buy the book

“The Windermere Cup” by Gregg Bell is available online through Windermere Real Estate; at the University of Washington bookstore, beginning this weekend; and at the 30th Windermere Cup on May 7 on the Montlake Cut in Seattle.

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