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
One of this city's true athletic distinctions, it's been going on here in
Knoxville for over 20 yearsbut 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 linea floating dock at
the west end of Sequoyah Parkthe 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
shorebut 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" racesthe
longest races that most rowers contend withdate 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 1989and, 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 coachto 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
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 darkall 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
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
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,
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 companyall before there's any trace of
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.