If you were at the 2017 USRowing Masters Nationals in Oak Ridge, TN and stuck around until 4:36pm on Sunday, you would have witnessed history in the making. When Aldina Nash Hampe and Nancy Blakemore took off from the stakeboat in Melton Hill Lake that afternoon with bow number 1, it marked the first time the two women had raced together in more than 50 years.
Aldina was nervous in the weeks leading up to Nationals. She’s not sure how much longer she’ll keep racing. At 81 (82 in rowing years), she still suffers from performance anxiety, an issue that’s plagued her for decades. “We (the rowing community) don’t talk about it a lot, but it’s an issue,” Aldina says. “I used to drink a CocaCola before a race. You know, the carbon dioxide would settle my butterflies.”
AHEAD OF HER TIME To appreciate Aldina’s decades-long passion for, and involvement with, rowing it’s important to understand that when she was born in 1935, very few women rowed for sport. Intramural college programs were mostly for health, and rowing at the club level was nearly unheard of, with the exception of the all-women’s ZLAC rowing club.
And when, in 1938, the Philadelphia Girls Rowing Club (PGRC) was founded, the press regarded it as a “matrimonial club,” serving as a social incubator for women who were dating and marrying men on Boathouse Row. While this was true for many women’s clubs in the 1940s and ’50s, PGRC remained intent on racing. Finding competitors proved to be immensely challenging and it wouldn’t be until 1955 that PGRC lined up against another club.
In 1959, a teenage Joanne Wright (Iverson) learned to scull at PGRC and quickly excelled, winning races against the Club’s top rowers within a year. She was hooked, and began to dream of rowing in the Olympics. But there weren’t any women’s rowing events at the Olympics at that time. And the National Association of Amateur Oarsmen (NAAO) – the organization that set standards for amateur racing, didn’t have a single woman member.
The stereotype was that women rowers were “either guy crazy and looking for marriage, or we were lesbians … It wasn’t feminine to be proud of being strong,” Joanne once explained.
Joanne became single-minded in her drive to get women racing and found allies in Edwin Lickiss (founding coach at Lake Merritt Rowing Club) and Aldina’s husband Ted Nash, who was training at Lake Washington Rowing Club in preparation for the 1960 Rome Olympics. This small group would play a pivotal role in expanding women’s rowing in the United States.
According to the Temple University Press publication Ernestine Bayer: Women and Their Fight for the Right to Row “resistance to women on the water came from the very top. As Ted Nash was flying to Rome to compete in the 1960 summer Olympics, a member of the U.S. Olympic Committee asked Nash’s seatmate to move, he later recounted. The official warned: You just stop this shit with the women; you’re screwing everything up.”
That summer, Ted Nash, along with Arthur Ayrault, John Sayre, and Rusty Wailes would go on to fulfill their dreams with a gold in the coxless four.
WOMEN GAIN A FOOTHOLD After some persuasion, in 1961 NAAO agreed to allow one women’s national single championship race during its 87th annual regatta in Philadelphia. The competitors: Joanne and Aldina. Unfortunately, Aldina took sick at the last minute and their race was scratched.
Despite the success LWRC found under the guidance of Stan Pocock, within a few years the Club’s membership started to slide as men moved on. In 1963, Aldina persuaded Ted to start a women’s rowing program at LWRC. She recruited women from the hospital where she worked, and the inaugural women’s crew consisted of occupational therapists, nurses, and physical therapists. Among them was Nancy Blakemore, who Aldina would often row and race with in a 2x.
You could count on two hands the number of clubs offering womens programs then, and when it is suggested that it must have been exciting to start a women’s rowing program in that cultural climate, Aldina demures, saying “It didn’t seem exciting at the time. We just wanted to row.”
An LWRC newsletter article confirms that “Original (LWRC) members were reluctant … to accept on equal terms the women who followed Aldina’s group, but … if the club were to survive, it would have to accept women. Its status as a tax exempt organization under the laws of the state positively necessitated it.”
The new women’s program operated out of “a shed attached to Conibear Shellhouse – the one in that book … The Boys in the Boat – and we used the equipment the men were using to train for the 1964 Olympics,” Aldina recalls.
The women of LWRC learned to row everything – singles, doubles, fours, and eights – and went on to row them in races along the coast, traveling throughout Washington, Oregon, California, and Vancouver, BC.
So does she prefer sculling or sweep? “Sculling,” she says with a small laugh, as though the contest isn’t even close. “The balance is up to you. I believe if you can row slow, you can row well.” As a coach she promotes a drill that challenges rowers to drop the rating to 11spm.
A NATIONAL ORGANIZATION FOR WOMENS ROWING In 1963, Edwin Lickiss (PGRC), Joanne Wright, and the Nashes shared a common belief: there should be a national rowing group for serious women’s competition. Aldina’s is a bit fuzzy on the details, but remembers an official from Schuylkill Navy visiting with Ted in their Seattle home to hammer out the particulars of a new National Women’s Rowing Association (NWRA). They turned to her and asked how much she weighed. “One hundred and thirty pounds” she replied. And so the lightweight cutoff was set, and remains in place today. The founding of the NWRA led to the National NWRA Championship Regatta, first held in 1966.
FROM SEATTLE TO PHILADELPHIA: A NEW CHAPTER A cross-country move in 1964 brought Aldina and Ted to Philadelphia, where he was hired to coach the freshman crew at Penn. She took up rowing with PGRC and coached wives and girlfriends of Penn rowers. Six years later, after Ted took over as head coach, a Sports Illustrated article said “For relaxation the Penn people get together by rowing mixed races – husband and wife vs. husband and wife.”
The Nashes started a family, and Aldina went to art school and began working. A year off the water led to another year, and she confides that she “didn’t row in the late ’60s … the ’70s,” she pauses, “or the ’80s.”
BACK INTO THE SWING OF THINGS A move to North Carolina in the early 2000s was prompted by Aldina’s son Ted, who suggested she join him in rowing with Asheville Rowing Club. Today, Aldina still gets on the water on the weekends, and sometimes fits in two to three practices a week.
She says she’s raced a lot as an ARC member, participating in local regattas, erg sprints, and Southeast Regionals.
What’s the most memorable race she’s had? “There is one we talk about a lot. It was Southeast Regionals about 15 years ago. I was in a mixed quad with Sam Pedisich. At the starting line I looked over and there is an ex-Penn oarsman that I know – John Ferriss. They were all big. And we were quite small. They beat us, but just by a few seconds.”
(It’s fair to point out that John Ferriss wasn’t just any Penn oarsman. He was a member of the 1967 varsity crew that won I.R.A, a feat that Penn hadn’t accomplished since 1900.)
“And of course this race (2017 Masters Nationals),” Aldina continues, almost as an afterthought.
A REUNION 50 YEARS IN THE MAKING Decades and distance had separated Aldina and her early LWRC rowing partner Nancy Blakemore. But In January Nancy told Aldina that she wanted something to focus on besides her grandchildren, and that she wanted to take a road trip. “Let’s race at Masters Nationals.”
The octogenarians started training at their respective boathouses – Aldina in Asheville, Nancy at Everett Rowing Association in Everett, WA.
Aldina’s advice for sprint race training “Assuming you’ve prepped from six months out, two weeks before a race, go out and do nothing but 1k pieces at race pace. Feel the 1000m. Know the 1000 meters. Do that exercise 2-3 times. I do this so I know exactly where I am in the race: if I’m at 60 strokes or 100 strokes I know where I should be on the course.”
Getting to know you, again When they met in Oak Ridge a week before Masters Nationals, it was a bumpy start for Aldina and Nancy. They had trouble getting time on the water and it was challenging to find a rental 2x that was acceptable. One was too big. Another was too heavy. They ended up rowing on ergs in tandem at the local YMCA to get workouts in together and get used to each other’s style. Aldina has never let go of the old Pocock style: “Fast hands away, get your weight out of the bow.” She repeats the phrase a couple of times and it’s easy to envision her going through the motions while she’s on the phone in her living room.
So, at 4:31 Sunday afternoon at the 2017 USRowing Masters National, after 125 clubs had run nearly 1,500 entries trough their paces, Aldina and Nancy glided into place in lane 1 and locked on to the stakeboat for event 202, Womens Open G, I-J W2x Final.
“There was confusion about the start.” Aldina tells me. “I didn’t have my hearing aide in, and Nancy was in charge of listening to the race officials. She didn’t hear them acknowledge Asheville so she thought we were in the wrong race.”
They had a bad start, but settled into a 24 for the body of the race. “I wanted to bring it up at the end coming into the red bouys, but it didn’t happen. I thought we could have had contact if we had sprinted.”
Aldina says racing has gotten too stressful. She’ll be nervous for weeks thinking about the race and the anxiety really cuts into her enjoyment of rowing. Maybe this race will mark the last of her career, but “my family already has plans for me to keep racing…” she says quietly. See you Masters Nationals next year, Aldina?