Wit and wisdom on the water

Seattle's Frank Cunningham, renowned rowing coach, in town

Posted: Friday, June 10, 2005

Part philosopher, part physiologist and all rower, coach and author Frank Cunningham has been on the forefront of American rowing for more than 60 years.

Cunningham, 83, guided Paul Enquist to a double sculls gold medal in the 1984 Olympic Games and penned a landmark rowing book, "The Sculler at Ease." The book serves as a primer to the sport.

The venerable rower currently coaches at the Lake Washington Rowing Club in Seattle.

Cunningham brings his expertise and unique outlook on rowing to Juneau this weekend. He will help coach members of the Juneau Rowing Club prior to Saturday's Gastineau Channel Challenge regatta.

"If they're already having a good time I don't have anything to teach them," said Cunningham, a former English teacher. "If they want to compete outside the area ... they'll probably find that they're going to develop an interest in speed and those increments of speed that you get beyond just strength and ignorance. There're some refinements they can make to go faster, if they want to go fast.

"The other principle thing is that I want to be very sure when I leave that they all know how to row without hurting themselves. Rowing hard and effectively without hurting themselves, because they'll be very tempted to row too hard."

Cunningham said he wants to establish an understanding of the sport.

Rowing is a very technical sport and the coach wants Juneau's rowers to know the fundamentals.

"I want to establish a base for understanding the geometry of the sport, the physiology of it, the physics of it," Cunningham said. "See what it is we're trying to do with a long, skinny boat.

"I guess the best analogy would be learning to play a musical instrument. Anybody can pick up a musical instrument, but it takes a long time to get a sound out of it you expect to hear. It's a sport marked by nuance. That's where it departs from exercise."

Raised in Lowell, Mass., Cunningham attended Harvard University in the 1940s where he captured both lightweight and heavyweight rowing titles.

In the 1940s, Cunningham said, the best professional rowers in the world were working men. Rather than specialized athletes, these strapping lads knew hard labor and, more importantly, how to properly use their legs and lower back.

As society has grown more white-collar, proper use of the lower back - an essential part of rowing - has gone the way of nickelodeons and war bonds.

"No child grows up today learning how to use his lower back," Cunningham said. "The other thing is there's the fact that they don't know how to use them and they've lost flexibility. It's very difficult to use your back properly if you don't have flexibility in your hips. The flexibility we all had before we're 10."

Rowing can be incredibly painful and physically taxing but, Cunningham said, can also serve as physical therapy.

After he suffered an injury to his coccyx during his teenage years, Cunningham credited rowing with nursing his back to full strength.

While Cunningham classified rowing as a physically unnatural sport, he does believe humans can adapt to any environment. Cunningham believes adapting to different surroundings is something innate, not learned.

When a fish leaves the egg, he said, the new fish immediately knows how to swim and navigate his new world.

The same could be said for a person in a boat. Once the feel for the boat and water is there, then learning can begin.

"I'm convinced that we're all born with the same ability to discover our environment and make our way in it," Cunningham said. "What we have to do is rediscover it."

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