Shell Game

Six days a week, a large group of teenagers quietly leave their homes before first light for a predetermined location in Tempe.

By 4:30, they have gathered directly under the Loop 202, near Mill and Curry avenues. The teens -- almost all of them girls -- chat for a few minutes above the growing hum of traffic before getting to work.

At exactly 4:50 a.m., they step wordlessly into the parking lot behind the Marquee Theatre (formerly the Red River Music Hall). There, they form a circle and do some stretching exercises for a few minutes, then take off on a short jog around the empty lot.

On this day, July 11, their upbeat 31-year-old coach, Dan Duxbury, is waiting for them when they return, cup of lukewarm coffee in his hand.

"Gang, it's supposed to be 116 today," he says, gesturing to the brightening sky and chuckling. "But it's not there yet. Let's focus on what we're here for before it gets too hot, and go about our business."

Their business is making a sleek 200-pound boat called a shell go as fast as they can in an unlikely body of water called the Tempe Town Lake. The "gang" is the Tempe Junior Crew rowing team.

This unsung band of teens has earned its place as one of the Valley's more improbable athletic success stories, rowing competitively in the nation's most arid climate. The Crew, as they call themselves, continues to fare surprisingly well in regattas around the nation, including a few Sundays ago against stiff competition in Long Beach, California.

The rise of the privately funded team couldn't have come at a better time for the 35 girls who are part of the Crew. (Nine boys also are club members.) Mostly because of governmental pressure on the nation's universities to provide equal athletic opportunities to young women, rowing has become the fastest-growing collegiate sport in America.

A university can field a rowing team with 40-plus women at a relatively low cost. That helps it considerably in filling gender-equity quotas ordered under the controversial provisions of federal Title IX (controversial because certain men's sports such as gymnastics and wrestling have been trimmed or reduced to club status at several Division I schools).

Because of Title IX, college coaches have been scrambling to identify competent women rowers, even those who have been raised in the desert.

In the two years since the Tempe Junior Crew formed, its team members have won more than $500,000 in athletic scholarships to four-year schools. This fall, members of the Crew will be starting full rides at the University of California-Berkeley, Gonzaga, Loyola Marymount, and other prominent institutions.

"I played soccer for 11 years, but I wasn't going to get a scholarship at it," says Brittany McCain, an 18-year-old going into her senior year at Xavier College Preparatory. "With crew, if I stick with it, I think someone might offer me something."

If there's a more strenuous team-oriented sport on the planet, it doesn't come to mind.

"You can't think of yourself first in this sport because it doesn't work that way," says Anna Ward, a 17-year-old who also attends Xavier. "Not that I know anything about sports. But I have learned a whole lot about teamwork."

After the warm-up, the Crew heads back to its starting point beneath the freeway. The concrete area serves as the well-secured "boathouse" for the several Valley rowing clubs (and more than 40 racing boats of all sizes) that formed after Tempe Town Lake opened to the public in November 1999.

Eight of the girls gingerly lift the 60-foot-long Kaschper racing shell out of its rack, taking extra care not to bump or scrape it: Tempe Junior Crew leases the boat, which costs $25,000 new. The carbon-fiber oars cost $400 each.

Almost all of the girls are tall and muscular, averaging about 5 foot 10 and weighing 170 pounds. Watching and directing them is diminutive Tempe High senior Jake Zuniga, who weighs 120 pounds after a big meal.

Just outside the boathouse, Zuniga orders the girls to lift the boat over their heads, then to brace it on one shoulder or another. He is one of the Crew's coxswains, which means he serves as the team quarterback, in and out of the water.

In lock step, the girls slowly walk the boat down a winding paved road that leads to the lake.

Above them, the July sky miraculously has turned into a swirling mix of pinks and purples. Ahead of them, the string of lights on the Mill Avenue Bridge reflects off the water, creating a shimmering, starlit effect. A blessed breeze cools the air, if only briefly.

"They're the strength of the team, the beef," Zuniga says wryly, as the girls step onto the North Bank Boat Beach with their long shell. "I'm the brains of the operation. I'm short, I'm small, but I found my niche."

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin