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Row rather than retire

The sport's intensity keeps two Masters competitors young

Karin Tetlow, who is in her 70s, pauses during her practice on the Schuylkill in Philadelphia on May 6, 2013. (DAVID MAIALETTI /Staff Photographer)
Karin Tetlow, who is in her 70s, pauses during her practice on the Schuylkill in Philadelphia on May 6, 2013. (DAVID MAIALETTI /Staff Photographer)Read more

WHEN JUDY KAPLOW left her home in Cleveland for the University of Michigan in the 1950s, women's intercollegiate athletics didn't exist. The school's first varsity women's sport hadn't been established, and Title IX was decades away.

At 74, she's making up for lost time.

Five days a week, at 8:30 a.m., Kaplow and her Vesper Boathouse Masters teammate, Karin Tetlow, make their way down to Philly's Boathouse Row - Kaplow from her home in Bala Cynwyd, Tetlow biking in from Fairmount - to practice a grueling and physically demanding sport: rowing.

"It's like anything that pushes you to the limit," said Kaplow, sipping coffee in her faded, red Vesper vest after Monday-morning practice. "When you're on the starting line, you can barely swallow, your mouth is dry, either you're going to throw up or pass out . . . your hands are literally shaking, you hear the 'Attention.' Your body gets ready, and you get in the position, you hook your oars on," - she closed her eyes and smiled - "and you go."

Masters rowing, a competitive international bracket for older athletes, is reserved for rowers over age 27, and has age categories ranging all the way up to 80-plus. Growing its American roots on the banks of the Schuylkill with the now-defunct Masters Rowing Association, the league runs the gamut in terms of rowing skill, and welcomes everyone from former world champions to retired newcomers looking to try a new sport.

Navigating among the city's collegiate eight-seat hulls on their singles, Kaplow and Tetlow are two of the oldest women Masters competitors on the Schuylkill. They could triple the ages of many of the river's elite rowers, who come from all over the world to practice on its historic banks, and still compete alongside them regularly at some of the country's most revered regattas.

Neither grew up rowing. Although active, Kaplow and Tetlow only picked up the sport in the last 20 years, eventually rowing together at Vesper. At an age when many of their friends were considering retirement, Kaplow and Tetlow considered picking up an oar. The rest is history.

"It's incredible to be a - quote - "athlete," and one doesn't have to be 18. One can be much older," said Tetlow, speaking in a crisp British accent that harks back to her native Dorset. "You think about training, and all the things you read apply to me. The whole thing of getting nervous before a race and how you gear yourself as an athlete . . . I never thought of myself as an athlete. So it's a whole new hat to wear, that you can enjoy."

Between them, the two Philadelphia-area residents have more than a century of experience traveling the world with widely successful professional careers.

Tetlow, who grew up in west England, spent her early career working odd jobs in London until moving abroad - "Decades ago," she says - to Mexico and settling in New York for a career in magazines that she continues today as a free-lancer.

After moving to Philadelphia, Tetlow was drawn by the city's rich rowing tradition into Bachelor's Boat Club. "[A friend] said, 'You have to row in Philadelphia because that's what you do, and it's OK to row' . . . then I had a few lessons and I was on my way," she said. "I find it wonderful because it's never boring."

Boring isn't a word that exists in Kaplow's vocabulary either. Transferring from the University of Michigan after a year, she majored in violin at the Cleveland Institute of Music, going on to teach violin for 30 years in the School District of Philadelphia and traveling the world with her husband, Maurice Kaplow, who retired in 2010 as conductor of the New York City Ballet.

"Wherever [my husband] had a tour, I made arrangements to row," said Kaplow, who started rowing in her 50s after enjoying her gym's indoor rowing machine. "I've rowed in South America, Korea, England, Scotland. It's just been fabulous."

With so many adventures under their belts, neither woman was afraid to try something new later in life. It's this fearlessness, said their Vespers coach, Sean Clarke, that makes their league unique.

"What makes these Masters people kind of special [is] they take that leap," he said, cruising on a launch next to Kaplow's and Tetlow's boats during an early-morning row. "They're like . . . 'I'm going to figure this thing out and I'm going to look stupid for a while. And then I'm going to be good at it and I'm going to enjoy it.' That's a real love of rowing."

So what's next for the two Masters? After volunteering in registration at this weekend's Dad Vail Regatta and racing in the summer's Schuylkill Navy and Independence Day regattas, they'll head over to Italy for an international race. And neither plans to let age take them off the river anytime soon - on the contrary, they said, the intensity keeps them young.

"I think it gets the adrenaline going,"Tetlow said. "And then, how many things get the adrenaline going? I mean, we aren't finding a new job, that's one thing. What else gets you nervous on a regular basis? It's that feeling of edge that I think that one can miss as you get older, and rowing does give you that edge."