MOST DAYS during the year, Mark Valenti can be found somewhere around Boathouse Row.
The same can be said for Al Walchlin, Ken Shaw, Joe Sweeney, Clete Graham and a host of other longtime rowers, former coaches and race officials.
But this time of year, they are fixtures on Boathouse Row and on and off the Schuylkill River between the Viking Statue on Kelly Drive to the start line of the 2,000-meter race course up river just beyond the Strawberry Mansion Bridge.
These are the 2 busiest weeks of spring racing, starting with the Dad Vail Regatta.
Today and tomorrow, and again next weekend, thousands of high school and college athletes will descend on Philadelphia from across the country and Canada to try to end their season with a prestigious championship.
From the people who come to race and participate, to those who come to watch and those who drive by on the expressway and wonder what they are looking at, it will all seem to go very smoothly and quickly.
But for Valenti and company, putting on the regatta is a job that begins the week following the races and continues all year. They are the volunteers behind the event, and they do it tirelessly for nothing more than the joy of seeing an event most of them have competed in, and some have coached in, be run the best way possible.
"It's all volunteers," Valenti said. "And I would say the core 30 or 40 people in the regatta committee and the ones that are here every year doing the grunt work to get the thing done are former college rowers themselves and almost all of them rowed in the Dad Vail in the '40s, '50s, and '60s, or they are the family of former rowers.
"We have whole families involved, some second and third generation of families."
Valenti did not row in college. He did row in high school at La Salle and then got involved in the regatta as a high school coach.
"I got involved in 1983 when I was coaching at La Salle High School with Ken Shaw," Valenti said. "He's been involved for probably 30-plus years and they were looking for some extra people to get involved, some younger people. At the time I was younger."
For Valenti, that was 25 years ago. He is 60 and he swears this is his last regatta; something that more than one person has heard him say.
For Valenti and the men and women who work with him, the Dad Vail and the Stotesbury Cup, the largest high school championship race in North America, this is more than just a hobby.
It is a passion. Valenti has raced in the Stotesbury Cup and coached in the Dad Vail, winning the men's heavyweight varsity four race in 1991, when he was the head coach at La Salle University.
"It's just one of those things that builds," he said. "You get involved and the more you get involved it feeds on itself. You get involved with the planning, the logistics, pushing docks up and down the river a couple of times a year, putting buoys in with Al Walchlin, cutting down trees, a little bit of everything. I do all the little crappy jobs that no one wants to do that have to be done."
When he first got involved, running the two regattas was a little simpler. The sport was nowhere near as large as it is today.
For the Dad Vail, there were probably 50 to 70 colleges and universities involved and the whole thing could be run from the docks near the Strawberry Mansion Bridge.
Today, the 69th version of the regatta will bring 116 schools to the banks of the Schuylkill.
Vendors and tents will be set up all down the length of the course and the area below Columbia Bridge will be a major staging area with 300 feet of docks built just for these two races.
"The numbers have grown," Valenti said, "especially in women's rowing. I don't know the numbers but I'm willing to bet there are more women rowing then men."
Regardless of the size, the payment that Valenti gets for putting in his time is the joy that the athletes get from competing in the two events.
"When you get out there Saturday morning and you see a couple of thousand college athletes and they come from so far afield and you know that they have been working since August of last year and this is the ultimate race of their college rowing career, particularly for seniors," he said, "it really does make it worth it." *