Head of the Ohio, Head of the Class
Consider the phrase "minor sport." Media outlets ranging from the British Broadcasting Corporation to The Official Web Site of the NCAA have referred to rowing -- often along with sports like field hockey, cross country skiing, bowling, soccer and softball -- with this designation: minor. One might logically assume sports like baseball, football, basketball and NASCAR are more popular (and also more lucrative) and therefore more deserving of their collectively superlative title: major. But it's men like Richard T. Butler and Donald Webber-Plank who hope to change this.
Butler is executive director of Three Rivers Rowing Association (TRRA)
. He and Webber-Plank -- alongside a slew of local volunteers, public relations specialists, organizers, university coaches, athletes and other interested parties -- are in the midst of planning the largest and best-recognized rowing race in the tri-state area and one of the nation’s 10th largest, next week. In its 22nd year, the Head of the Ohio
is a 2.6-mile competitive water sprint, broken into various age- and skill-based categories (including the third annual "Lottie McAlice Junior 1x Race," a 700-meter competition for female rowers ages 14 to 18). Participants gather into teams, and row from Washington's Landing -- on the north shore of the Allegheny River, just under the 31st Street Bridge -- downstream to the North Shore.
Butler and Webber-Plank, co-chairs of the event's board of directors, expect to draw more than 2,000 regional rowers from age six through 80 this year, in addition to thousands on hand to witness festivities. Head of the Ohio is significant not only to attract new rowers to their "minor" sport, but to bring rowing into mainstream consciousness. Since Head of the Ohio partners with (and often spawns) rowing teams at local universities and high schools, it's an important way to get students connected to the city.
"It's part of how we hope to keep people here," says Webber-Plank. "If you get kids away from the 'ivory towers,' they're likely to see what's great about Pittsburgh, and how they can make a difference here."
Webber-Plank also maintains that rowing promotes expanded possibilities for cleaner travel.
"There are successful water taxi services in lots of other US cities," Webber-Plank says, before mentioning that rowing wasn't always purely recreational. "People used to row to work, row to school. We have these three rivers," he says, "and they're cleaner than we've seen them since before the industrial revolution."
"Main point is that it's not a minor sport," says Butler. "Our mission is to show people that it can be fun, but it can also bring people together, and help to make connections all over the city."
Viewers can get in on the action, too, by paddling a dragon boat which will launch from the river trail below the Heinz Field docks periodically throughout the day.
Spectators to the nation’s seventh largest rowing event are encouraged to watch races from the Stewards’ Pier, an area on the North Shore near the race's finish line. Food and drinks will be served and the atmosphere is festive.
Head of the Ohio is sponsored by Three Rivers Rowing and UPMC Sports Medicine. The event begins at North Shore Riverfront Park on September 27, and runs from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
For more information, to obtain a ticket for the Stewards’ Pier, or to register for Head of the Ohio 2008, call 412.231.8772.To receive Pop City free every week, click here.
Event image copyright Sophie Ghedin
Photographs of Richard T. Butler (top and bottom) and Donald Webber-Plank (middle) copyright Brian Cohen