By B.G. Kelley
You'll hear the cheering for miles. Tens of thousands of spectators - young, old, male, female - will convene along Kelly Drive on the bank of the Schuylkill, starting Thursday, for the three-day run of the 69th version of the Dad Vail Regatta.
Dad Vail, the largest collegiate rowing championships in North America, is a home-grown treasure. It's the nerve center of rowing in Philly. Long, sleek shells and sculls propelled by the pulling oars of efficiently fit male and female athletes from more than 140 collegiate crews will glide like machines over the water in beautiful harmony and rhythm.
Beautiful, too, is the theater. The cherry trees blushing in full bloom, the water sparkling like crystal, the sun dropping down like a gold coin. What synergy: Kelly Drive, the Schuylkill, rowing.
What history! Rowing has long been connected to the Schuylkill. Consider the neighborhood where I grew up: East Falls, a community of snug-grid rowhouses on hilly streets that spill down to the river. John B. Kelly, a bricklayer, a working stiff who later made millions and whose family was anointed the Philadelphia version of the Boston Kennedys, galvanized the rowing community when he won two gold medals (singles and doubles) in the 1920 Olympiad and another gold (doubles) in the 1924 Games. Kelly was a "Fallser." (You may have heard of his daughter, Grace, the big-screen siren, later the princess of Monaco.) My father, a rowhouse guy and another "Fallser," also rowed on the Schuylkill.
Some folks whine that Dad Vail is an inconvenience, a headache, because Kelly Drive is closed off between the Strawberry Mansion Bridge and Fountain Green, detouring traffic into Strawberry Mansion and East Fairmount Park. Let them beef. The tradeoff is worth it. Economically, the regatta revs up money for the city. Communally, it creates fellowship all along the banks of the Schuylkill. Aesthetically, it connects visually and artistically with our consciousness. And competitively, Temple University coach Gavin White once told me: "The only time my team looks good to me at Dad Vail is when they cross the finish line ahead of everybody else. That means we've won the national championship."
Then, too, is this gripe: elitism. Some addled folks still think that rowing is purely an elitist sport. True, years ago, it was blue-blood, the province of the Princetons, Yales and Harvards. Not true today. Sure, many of the athletes still come from privileged pedigree, but increasingly, more are coming from blue-collar roots. Temple University, winner of 16 of the last 19 titles in the heavyweight eight, Dad Vail's jewel event, fills its boats with middle-class kids. Consider, too, the mentoring programs that have spurted up over the last 12 years aimed at getting more minorities into rowing.
Come Sunday, the throngs of spectators, the boats and rowers will be gone. But the cherry blossoms, the weeping willows, the shining river, the wildlife, the soft sun, Peter's Island will still be here, along the banks of the Schuylkill, crowding our senses, our souls. Dad Vail does more than crown crew champions; it exposes people to the physical poetry of our city.
Ironically, what Dad Vail takes away from us during its three-day run is exactly what the 8.4-mile Fairmount Park River loop gives back the rest of the year: space - to think, write, walk, run, hike, bike, escape the confusion, the ordinariness in our daily lives; to sort out personal crucibles; to seek peace.
Cheering, you'll hear it for miles. Then the silence. I never argue with either along the banks of the Schuylkill.