The annual Head of the Tennessee Regatta is Knoxville's best-kept sporting secret

by Jack Neely

This Saturday, Knoxville will host a sporting event that most cities never see. For the hundreds of athletes involved, it's a bigger deal than the UT-Alabama game or the World Series. The field of play is far bigger than a football field or a baseball diamond, and this contest demands more endurance of its athletes than football or baseball does. The field of play is 3.5 miles of the Tennessee River, and the event is the Head of the Tennessee Regatta.

One of this city's true athletic distinctions, it's been going on here in Knoxville for over 20 years—but the Regatta is better known to competitive rowers across the southeast than it is to most Knoxvillians. Last year's Regatta attracted more than 1,500 rowers from 10 states.

Until this year, the Head of the Tennessee has drawn more competitors than spectators. Even to Cherokee Boulevard joggers who've blundered upon the festivities surrounding the Regatta's finish line—a floating dock at the west end of Sequoyah Park—the Regatta has always been something of a mystery. Across this long field, where on a typical Saturday, parties are playing frisbee football or throwing tennis balls for an Irish setter, there are suddenly hundreds of athletes, many of them carrying long javelin-like boats across the grass. One after another, the long boats go into the water and glide swiftly upriver, disappear for half an hour, and then return even faster, as their eight rowers grimace, facing backwards except for the one in the very back, who's not rowing at all.

It's pretty, it's interesting, it's definitely unusual for this sleepy shore—but what's going on?

The Head of the Tennessee Regatta will lose some of its mystique this year. Spectators will get a program of events, and for the first time in the race's 22 years, an announcer will keep us abreast of developments in the race, and introduce newcomers to the subtleties of competition rowing.

In this growing sport, it's one of the oldest events of its kind, and the oldest head race in the South. (There are about a dozen around the region and over 30 nationwide.) Some rowers say Knoxville's is also among the prettiest. The course begins at the shore below the University Club, alongside the new bike trail near the Alcoa Highway bridge. It proceeds downstream between UT's agricultural farms and the terraced backyards of Kingston Pike, then past the southern bluffs and the heron nests of Looney Island to the Sequoyah Park finish line.

"Head of the Tennessee" is actually a little bit of a pun. "Head" races—the longest races that most rowers contend with—date back to the Thames about 200 years ago, when after an especially long rivercourse race, the champion rower would be declared "Head of the River." Most head races have nothing to do with the river's source; the term is used to refer to an especially long race on any river course. But geographically, this is where the Holston and French Broad join to form one of America's best-known rivers; Knoxville is already the "Head of the Tennessee."

Though allegedly the oldest organized team sport in America, rowing was slow to catch on in the South. However, an article in American Rowing magazine remarked on the sport's recent kudzu-like spread here; in the last 15 years, Southern membership in US Rowing, the national rowing organization, has doubled.

Oak Ridge's rowing club has long been a leader. Now the Knoxville Rowing Association has over 100 members and is involved in several crews, including two rowing teams associated with UT. Knoxville's latter-day involvement in rowing started back in the 1970s. A prominent Knoxville businessman, the late Rodman Townshend, witnessed a then-rare rowing event in Boston called The Head of the Charles. Townshend, a rower himself who owned the Knoxville Glove Company, located along the riverfront in South Knoxville, didn't see why Knoxville couldn't host a similar event. The UT rowing club had been practicing on the river since '72, and Oak Ridge hosted a rowing club, as well. From a very modest, wristwatch-timed beginning in 1975, Knoxville's race is now described as one of the five largest rowing events in America.

"Both Knoxville and Oak Ridge are blessed with excellent rowing water," says Paul Wolfenberger. A local legend in rowing and a self-described rowing elitist, Wolfenberger came out of Syracuse's competitive rowing program in 1989—and, during a time as a grad student in Germany, took third place in a national competition there. He likes Knoxville's course better than others in the region. "It's a good course," he says. "A wide body of water, but not too wide. It's just the right size, and it's protected from wind." (Of Chattanooga's broad course, Wolfenberger says, "When the wind picks up, it's a miserable day.") He says Looney's Bend, long a hazard for riverboatmen, is just enough of a rowing challenge to make it interesting. "It's a tough turn, but very manageable."

Wolfenberger is a "helper"—he avoids the word coach—to UT's men's rowing club. The UT men will have crews in this weekend's Regatta, but they're not necessarily the ones to watch this year.

What you won't see at the Regatta, for each of the teams of rowers who will cross the finish line at Sequoyah Park, are the months of preparation.

It's dark, more than an hour before dawn, 10 days before the Regatta; it's still night, and a chilly one, with a steady rain. There's hardly any traffic downtown, even on Neyland Drive alongside the river. The only sound is the minor chord of a distant train. Under a starless sky, the only lights reflected in the rippling surface of the Tennessee River are those left on all night at UT and along the Henley Street Bridge.

As the rain falls, three long boats slice through the black water, long oars dipping into the water every two seconds. At a distance, in the darkness, each of them looks like one long beast, some multi-finned monster from the Pleistocene Era. Only as it glides closer can you tell that all eight of these rowers are women, and most of them are wearing bright orange Goretex sweatsuits emblazoned Lady Vols.

The Lady Vols have the head of the Tennessee River to themselves this morning. They do nearly every morning. This is when they practice, at 5:30 a.m. every weekday.

The coach in the launch is Susannah Iacovino. To be a rowing coach, you've got to know a lot of things. This morning, Iacovino has assessed a sprained knee, checked the batteries in the mini-computer "cox boxes" the coxswains carry, filled out some forms, organized 23 women into 3 crews, and fixed a stubborn outboard motor in the dark—all before 6 a.m.

Dark-eyed and petite, Iacovino doesn't look any older than these college girls, but she commands their attention. "I didn't ever intend to be here," she admits. An Oak Ridger laid off from an editorial job at Whittle a few years ago, she'd originally intended to finish her masters in Cultural Studies. She'd gotten involved in rowing as a teenager with an Oak Ridge crew. "Because I was small and loud, I became the coxswain," she says. As a grad student at UT, she began helping out as assistant coach. Two years ago, when the Lady Vols bred one of the South's first varsity rowing teams, Iacovino became head coach. It's her full-time job.

The first eight row away into the darkness. Only their small bicycle-style red light is visible, flashing on the stern. Then it disappears around the looming piers of the Henley Street Bridge.

"I'm comfortable sending them up the river without me," Iacovino says. Each coxswain is the lieutenant coach of her eight rowers, the pilot of her ship on the broad Tennessee. The only one that's named is called the Bibiana, after an Oak Ridge cousin of Iacovino's who died young.

When Iacovino catches up with them, she gives them words of encouragement, in conversational tones, broadcast across several fathoms of dark water with a small megaphone. Iacovino is emphatic. "I want to see your oars coming out of the water square, then feathering!"

Rowing, unlike kayaking, is an upper- and lower-body sport. Much of the force comes through the legs, pushing back on seats that roll on a track. "A little more reach into the stern," Iacovino directs, "pressing your legs down and stretching forward!"

It's still perfectly dark, darker still away from the city lights, now passing ragged barge-loading docks a half-mile east of the Gay Street Bridge. The coach's launch is more than 100 feet from the crew she's coaching with her megaphone, protected from the rain by a Kroger bag. From here, the rowers' faces are indistinguishable, but Iacovino calls them by name as if she's in their boat.

"That draw looks really good, Elizabeth!"

"Ashley, get all of that angle early in the stroke!"

"The swing is getting a lot better, ladies. Kelly, did you understand what I was saying about not shooting your slide?"

"Julie, what's up with your rigger?"

"Of course, I know where they are in the boat," she explains. "But you begin to recognize them from a distance, by how they move."

She's back on the horn. "Gloria and Elizabeth, you're beginning to work much better together."

They're not just eight people rowing. "It's very important to find people who work together," Iacovino says. "When you get your best eight, it's not necessarily your best eight individuals, but your best eight who work together."

Beneath the Gay Street Bridge, now there's some wind with the rain. "Rough water here, ladies," Iacovino says. "Control your boats, control your oar handles."

She provokes her rowers. "That's UTC up there!" she shouts. The Lady Vols' downriver rivals happened to beat their time by four seconds last weekend.

"Nice and horizontal after the catch. Stay hooked on all the way to the finish, ladies."

They've rowed past the South Knoxville Bridge to within sight of the bright lights of the Island Home Airport; they've rowed back through the rain to the Alcoa Highway Bridge, nearly four miles. Now it's back to the Gay Street Bridge, and then to the glove company—all before there's any trace of a sunrise.

Most local rowers don't get in the water quite that early. The UT men's rowing club practices in the more-civilized afternoon, at what for most of us is rush hour. As he rows, club member Mark Shaffer enjoys watching sunsets, but he occasionally glances over at homebound traffic on Neyland Drive. "It seems safer in the river," he says. "Where would you rather be?"

Originally from Missouri, Shaffer had always been intrigued with the sport. "Five years ago, my wife and I were walking our dogs in the park," the 31-year-old grad student recalls, "and it happened to be during the Head Race. It was the first thing I knew about rowing in Knoxville, and it just blew me away, all the colors and everything. I thought it makes sense, this being a river town.

"Having moved here, it's been one of my frustrations with Knoxville," he says, "that Knoxville has this great resource, a river running through it. But we write it off as an industrial highway."

He began rowing seriously only eight months ago, but will compete on Saturday in an event for novices. "It seems like the public has a fascination with rowing. The other day, I saw rowers on a Brooks Brothers ad on TV. Obviously, there's something attractive to many people."

The KRA has already attracted a wide range of folks. Laurel Goodrich, one of the association's most active members, is a psychotherapist in her 40s. She says her teammates include a reference librarian, an attorney, a doctor, an organic farmer, a foreman for a paving company, and a couple of English professors. She says she's attracted to the "swing" of the boat when the rowers are in perfect rhythm. "When you feel it," she says, "it's like nothing else. It's an almost hypnotic experience when it's going well."

Rowing equipment can be expensive, but the sport's open to nearly anybody who's relatively healthy; some active rowers are well past 60; there's even a local program for teenagers.

Some rowers like outnumbering the audience; they're purists, and wouldn't mind if the Regatta remained unsullied by gross popularity. So far, in spite of merchandise booths and even an experiment with a petting zoo on site, the Head of the Tennessee has been a rowing purists' event. The new acknowledgment of an audience may change that.

Wolfenberger mentions Atlanta's one-day regatta on the Chattahoochie last year, which attracted 900 boats, each with its own crew. Even before you get to an audience, he says, "It doesn't take a financial genius" to see the economic benefits of thousands of young, mostly well-heeled visitors in town for a weekend event.

The mayor of Augusta, Ga., attributes that city's downtown redevelopment to the popularity of its Savannah River regatta. (KRA has discussed the possibility of staging its Regatta downtown, perhaps at the new Volunteer Landing, but hasn't been able to tackle the basic logistical problem of having to unload scores of boats there.)

Think about it: one of the oldest and best-known rowing contests in the world is called the Henley Royal Regatta, on the Thames. If Knoxville becomes known as a Rowing Capital, the Upper Tennessee will have more in common with the Thames than the fact that we hear the Big Ben theme downtown every 15 minutes; maybe one day we'll host a Henley Street Bridge Royal Regatta.