In November 1988, the University of Pittsburgh challenged Duquesne University to a rowing race on the Allegheny River.
“They used to walk around with their chest out as if they were the fastest crew in the city,” said Peter Alpern (A&S ’92), an original member of Pitt’s Rowing Club, which, back then, was just a group of rough and tumble guys, he said. But when the Panthers won “in a coup” that day against NCAA Division I Duquesne, Pitt Crew was born.
Today, the coed, student-run organization is coming off a successful fall season and heading into a competitive spring, with meets against some of the toughest competitors in rowing — not just club teams but varsity programs, too.
Most recently, at the Head of the Ohio Regatta last October, Pitt boats medaled in every category they entered, totaling seven gold, four silver and three bronze — including some hardware for the team’s original lineup.
“Eight of us hopped in a boat together for the first time in 25 years,” said Alpern, who helped organize the alumni crew for a reunion race at the regatta. They took second place, but the glory of winning silver with his old teammates paled in comparison to the pride of watching his daughter win the gold, Alpern said. “I’m familiar with the work that takes. I know how it feels.”
Laurel Alpern, a second-year math major in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, hadn’t planned on following her grandfather and father to Pitt, much less continuing on her father’s path to the crew team, she said. But she approached the club’s table at the freshman activities fair in her first weeks at college.
“I was interested in learning about how the club was doing, and overall curious to learn more because my dad would talk about it all the time,” she said. She put her name on a sign-up sheet. After the first practice, she was hooked.
As far as the younger Alpern and her teammates know, she’s Pitt Rowing Club’s first legacy student. But the bonds that have sustained the club team for 30 years have more to them than genetics.
Going up against Division I NCAA powerhouse schools means having to train like the best of them: year-round, Monday through Saturday, often twice a day — without the perks that come with being a varsity program, like having scholarship athletes or financial support from the institution.
Pitt Crew does its recruiting like any other student organization on campus. More than half the roster comes in with no prior rowing experience, Salamone said. For the most part, they’re high school athletes looking for something new to do in college.
Yet, year after year, the team continues to break its own records, she said. The goal remains “just to continue to develop ourselves as a strong program of (boats of) eights so that as a club team we can hang up there with the big dogs and be just as competitive as our rival Duquesne here,” who trains out of the same boathouse and whose women’s roster is three times the size of the Pitt women’s.
The first race of the spring is scheduled for March 31 on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia — the 36th annual Murphy Cup.
And on the second Saturday in May, two weeks after classes end, Pitt Crew will join more than 100 other colleges and universities around the U.S. and Canada in Philadelphia for the largest collegiate regatta in North America, Dad Vail.
“It’s the really big one we look forward to all year,” Salamone said, the one that stokes the team’s motivational fire through the tough practices of winter, inside a small former shuffleboard room in Bellefield Hall, slogging on stationary rowing machines called ergs.
“Once you get bit by the rowing bug, it’s pretty hard to shake it,” said Emily Schmieg (A&S ’10), a club alumna. Now, Schmieg is the third best women’s lightweight rower in the world. Her Pitt Crew varsity jacket — the design of which hasn’t changed since 1988, she noted — went with her to Sarasota, Florida, earlier last year, where she and her rowing partner took bronze at the World Rowing Championships, getting one step closer to a ticket to Team USA for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
As Schmieg, Salamone and Laurel Alpern look forward to bringing home more medals, Peter Alpern looks back.
“This program really changed my life,” he said. “I could’ve been a freshman with no friends, and who knows what that would’ve looked like at a big university. This gave me a reason to be successful at the university level so that I could continue to participate.”