Clemson Crew celebrated its 30th anniversary by hosting a reunion regatta, where alumni got to race on Lake Hartwell once more.
Wearing sunglasses and carrying boats on their shoulders, present and past members of the Clemson University Rowing Association, also known as Clemson Crew, strode out to Lake Hartwell for a friendly regatta. The conditions were perfect, not unlike 30 years ago when Clemson Crew’s founding club members rowed out onto the lake for the first time.
In 1988, the club was born out of a shared passion for rowing among six students. Since then, that passion and bond has grown to produce a reunion of more than 1,000 alumni, students and friends on March 1, 2019. The group gathered on the lake to host their own informal regatta a day before the Clemson Sprints Collegiate and Masters, which would play host to many other rowing clubs including Atlanta Rowing Club, High Point University and the University of South Carolina Rowing Club. Alumni raced alumni across the lake, just like old times for some. Founding members Steven Diacumakos and Bill Palmer spoke about the connection between club members that spans class years.
“My feeling is that every generation has done a great job of building on that momentum that the team started with,” Diacumakos said, who was club president from 1990-91. “Every generation has been a great steward of that energy.”
A hand-drawn boat and a picture of a Concept 2 rowing machine ripped straight from an advertisement were splashed across Clemson Crew’s original fliers, which relayed a simple message: A date and time for the first meeting along with student Phil Pyle’s phone number.
At the beginning of the meeting, Pyle took the lead and assumed the role of president. He worked with the other founding members to establish a club proposal and a budget to get the ball rolling. After the meeting, Bill Palmer had only one question for Pyle. “I asked, ‘Where do we go from here, and who did you row for in high school?’ And he said ‘Oh, I never rowed. I grew up in Philadelphia,’” Palmer laughed.
Six founders oversaw the genesis of Crew, and 47 members joined shortly after. From day one, the club was coed and had simple rules: Pay your dues, don’t cause trouble and show up to practice. More students joined the club after its founding, but Crew faced an immediate conundrum: They had no boats. Without the necessary equipment to row, they started with early-morning runs. Missing a run without an excuse could get a member kicked off the team, but every rower was treated fairly.
Jon Morgan, one of the first members, recalled the rigor of those early runs: “I was one of the stragglers at first, but Phil was never mean or abusive. He always said: ‘Finish. Just finish.’ Within a few months I was keeping up with everyone else, because he motivated me to do so.”
Within the year, Crew would obtain their first two boats: an eight-person boat in poor condition and a four-person boat that was surprisingly heavy and worn-out. They had no oars, so they borrowed a set of wooden ones from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. But their problems with equipment didn’t keep them from starting practice.
Having eight people rowing in unison is no simple task, but when it clicks, the experience borders on spiritual. Palmer, who had prior rowing experience, helped early members achieve their rhythm. “I was trying to beat it into their heads that it’s effort on the drive and easy on the way up, and they started to get it,” Palmer said. “And then they took 20 strokes, and it was just symphony on the water. I told them, ‘That’s it.’”
RUNNING THE SHOW
The Duke regatta was the first of many. Clemson Crew went to Tennessee, Virginia and Florida, not to mention many events held in South Carolina. They eventually managed to acquire some quality equipment through donations and the club’s budget. With new tools to help level the playing field, Crew realized their potential, and their performance improved.
At the same time, Crew kept an eye on their finances. Since they were (and still are) an entirely student-run organization, the leading members ran the club as if they were running a business.
Pyle had a contact on the Clemson Board of Trustees who helped jumpstart the club with $5,000, and Crew paid for additional expenses with money from the University’s student club fund and donations from supporters they’d garnered over the years. Most of their structures, including a floating dock and brand-new boathouse, were built by Crew members and friends from donated materials. When traveling to regattas, they would see if there were any friends willing to house them for the night. Eventually, Crew decided they wanted to host their own regatta, and it seemed they would have to pay out-of-pocket.
The club started charting a plan for the regatta. Around this time, Palmer was outside building new boat racks one afternoon. A jogger stumbled across the scene and spoke with Palmer, who explained what he was doing. After the stranger realized that the club’s activities were in March and April (a dry period for sports fans after the end of basketball season), he offered to help fund the regatta. It turned out that the stranger “was some bigwig at the local bank. They threw $3,000 at us to run the regatta. It was incredible,” Palmer said. The event was a success and it drew more attention the club.
Within a few years of its founding, Clemson Crew established itself at several regattas. “You got to know the national and international teams,” Morgan said. At an international race in Augusta, Georgia, Clemson Crew raced against a number of skilled teams, including a visiting Russian team. “The Russian teams still had clothing that said CCCP on them,” Morgan said. “That was from the USSR, so it was pretty intense to see that those guys still had their old rowing gear.” Interested in one Russian rower’s woolen tank top, Morgan offered to buy it. But the rower wasn’t interested in money. Instead, he asked for Morgan’s extra pair of Levi jeans. “I said, ‘You got ‘em.’” They traded right there at the regatta.
THE SAME SPIRIT
Clemson Crew’s tightknit community has continued to evolve over the years, but their sense of loyalty and belonging has remained intact.
Diacumakos said that he was touched “to see that a couple generations had come through the years, and the enthusiasm and the culture, and a lot of the things we used to do are still in the team.”
Morgan said, “There’s people that row who have no idea who we are. And they keep this organization going with the same spirit we had. I’m impressed that they have kept it running at such a high level.”
Before the club’s first official meeting in 1989, Frank Howard was asked about the possibility of Clemson Crew gaining varsity status. “We ain’t gonna have no sport at Clemson where you sit on your butt and go backwards to win,” Howard said.
According to Pyle, Howard would later admit his support for Clemson Crew, but the rowers still joke about it to this day.
“I guess we proved him wrong,” Palmer said, laughing.