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NIH Rowers Train Together, Oppose One Another

By Rich McManus

On the Front Page...

Three mornings during the workweek, at the ungodly hour of 5:30, two NIH scientists rendezvous at a dock in Georgetown and push off for more than 10 miles of self-imposed punishment pitting leg, back and arm muscles against the tides on the Potomac River. They do this year-round (plus weekends), except on rare occasions when the river freezes solid. And on mornings when the river forbids them — as it did during the recent terrorist crisis, which closed portions of the river for security reasons — they meet in a basement to train on ergometers, which are rowing machines without the fresh air, sensation of motion or contemplation of dawn associated with the substantial suffering that is rowing. They do this because they want to get better, they want to win, and they want to beat one another in the worst way. Welcome to "oar-agon," the sweat-spattered friendship of NIDDK's Dr. Adriaan Bax and Dr. Chuck Selden, NIH extramural staff training officer.


"Mentally, it is very hard to exercise by yourself," says Bax, an NMR spectroscopist in the Laboratory of Chemical Physics. "Having someone else suffering just as bad is an uplifting experience, I guess. Especially ergometer rowing — that's very rough on you. It requires much more self-discipline than rowing on water, which is a lot more fun."

Rower Dr. Chuck Selden

Next weekend, at the annual Head of the Charles Regatta in Boston, each man will draw on many dawns of brutal exercise to defeat the other in a 3-mile race. At a tune-up for that event — the Head of the Potomac Regatta on Sept. 22 — Bax beat Selden in single sculls by 40 seconds (17:27 vs. 18:07) over 2.8 miles. On the Charles River, Bax and rowing partner Marc Gwadz of NCI will sit in one double-scull, and Selden and his cross-country partner John Younger of San Rafael, Calif., will man the other. "Our boats will be within seconds of each other," predicted Selden. Ironically, both Bax' and Selden's double-scull partners are Notre Dame alumni.

But rowing is that kind of sport; its adherents tend to have started young, in rowing meccas, and know one another from the handful of elite international competitions and old-line boat clubs. Selden, for example, grew up on Puget Sound and "rowed dinghies on the Tacoma Narrows since I was 6 years old." He rowed competitively at the University of Washington in Seattle. "It's a varsity sport at UW, and has been taken extremely seriously there since the 1890's. For many years, rowing and football were the two main sports." He rowed eights, fours and pairs for the Huskies, then rowed only sporadically, preferring running, before commencing postdoctoral studies at Johns Hopkins in 1980. He became a cofounder of the Baltimore Rowing Club, and gradually returned seriously to the sport, trying out in 1983 and 1984 for the national lightweight team; he was the last oarsman not selected both years.

In 1984, the year he began competing against Bax, Selden joined Vesper, a famous Philadelphia rowing club whose members had won the Olympic gold medal in 1964. "I call that my graduate education in rowing because I learned an awful lot," he said. When he arrived at NIH (in NHLBI's Division of Lung Diseases) in August 1992, Selden soon joined "Ad's club — the Potomac Boat Club."

Bax, who grew up in The Netherlands, came comparatively late to rowing, joining his university's rowing club as a single-sculler in 1971 at age 17; he had been a bike racer and speed skater prior to that.

Sure, they're smiling here, but NIDDK's Dr. Adriaan Bax (l) and OD's Dr. Chuck Selden are fierce competitors. "Sometimes we're teammates, sometimes we're competitors," says Selden, "but we're training partners year-round."

"I had semi-supported myself as a student by competing in bike races," he said. "The prize money is quite substantial back in Europe," anywhere from $10 to $100 per event. "A couple of hundred guilders then is at least (equal to) a couple hundred dollars now," he noted. "It was more than the student fellowship I got, that's for sure."

He admits, "I did pretty well rowing in college; I rowed with the Dutch national team from 1975 to 1977." He worked out on the water up to twice a day in graduate school; "Instead of going to the bar, I went to the boat club," he recalls. "I don't like to sit around and just do nothing."

One year after joining NIH in 1983, he began rowing seriously again and joined the Potomac Boat Club. He had been biking until then, but "cycling is not quite optimal around here — too much traffic and drivers tend to be inconsiderate. I've broken some bones. I figured rowing was probably safer."

Selden says rowing is enjoying a national resurgence, and both men say the Potomac is filling up with boats, though not on a par with Philadelphia's Schuylkill or Boston's Charles river. "There are three times as many rowers now as there were 15 years ago," said Selden. "It's not just an Ivy League sport anymore. There are probably more than 50 boats on the Potomac on any given morning."

The sport is financially, as well as physically, demanding. "Single sculls cost anywhere from $4,000 to $7,000," Selden said, and can be made of space-age materials or wood. "Ad's boat is made of Kevlar and carbon fiber," he said, "and mine is mahogany and birch plywood."

The men rendezvous on the dock at Georgetown around 5:30 a.m., which in the winter is hours before dawn. "In winter, the sun rises after we get back from our workouts (at 7 a.m.)," said Selden. "Only the serious and the crazy show up in winter. It's quite an experience to be going backwards fast in the dark — I've run into my share of things on the river." The rowers wear Neoprene wet suits in winter in case of involuntary spills; both say the Potomac is cleaner now than in the 1980's, but still not pristine.

Depending on how many of their cadre of seven committed rowers show up, they practice either in single-, double- or quadruple-sculls. The workout route is established: down to the radar towers at National Airport and back, a distance of 10 miles.

"If we're in singles, we really beat each other up," said Selden. "We're mostly self-coached, but a couple of times a year a national team coach will show up and evaluate us. All of us have been rowing for 30 years or more, and most have been on national or Olympic teams."

The first mile and a half of each morning's workout is relatively easy as the rowers gradually gain stroke length and power, "then we go all out," said Selden. Bax is the only one who warms up onshore, using a boat club ergometer before launching on the river. Though each is capable of beating the other, Selden admits, "Ad is usually a little faster than me."

Neither man is the rower he once was: "I'm starting to go a little slower," said Selden, who is 4 years older than Bax, 45. "But I did my best erg machine workout in 10 years last week."

Bax is typically scientific in his self-evaluation: "I'm definitely on the way down," he laughs. "Every year I lose a few seconds. There's very little ripple on the sine bell curve, and there's very little you can do to change that. I can go below the curve, but not above it."

On days when Bax doesn't row, he runs at lunchtime with his postdocs in Rock Creek Park. "It can be pretty intense with those young guys," he laments. "There's nothing they like more than beating their boss."

Both men say they are going to row until someone peels their hands from the oars. "I'll do it as long as I can," said Bax. "It makes you feel good. I get grumpy if I miss my workouts for a few days. It's a problem when I travel." Selden says simply, "I'll do it until I'm unable."

Until that day, there will be miles of river under their seats, and the excitement of going backwards — sometimes in the dark — toward a harder, but healthier and happier, future.

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