In town only a few hours, she decided to head out along the bleak industrial avenues toward the West Bottoms, past vacant fields and railroad yards. Beyond Kemper Arena, she turned right onto a short gravel road that led toward the river and the Kansas City Rowing Club. The boathouse, its brick façade dull-red beneath a late-August film of city grime, stood at the edge of a dirt lot. Not a trace of shrub, just a patchy field of matted weeds and wild grass.
She came to a stop on the worn scrap of earth that was the club's parking lot and walked down a path to the rock levee overlooking the murky Kansas River. Debris swirled downstream around the West Bottoms' trestle bridges. A stray pit bull was loose somewhere in the area, she knew. Weeks earlier, as she prepared for her rowing finals in Greece, her mother (in town from Ohio to look for an apartment) had driven to the boathouse and run straight back to her car after seeing the dog chewing on a hunk of meat.
"I was afraid," Salchow recalled of her own first visit. "I thought, first of all, I was in the wrong place. And second of all, I shouldn't be there alone."
After more than a decade of competitive rowing, the 30-year-old was starting over, about to begin her first full-time teaching job at the Kansas City Art Institute. The school held particular meaning for her that's where her parents had met. Her father was a teacher, her mother the top student in his class. Her mother had later taught design as well, and when Salchow was still a teen, she decided that she, too, would teach at the college level. She'd balanced sports, academics and a couple of jobs as a graphic designer, and had earned a master's degree at the Rhode Island School of Design when she was 28.
The position became available while Salchow was training in Princeton, New Jersey, for the Athens games. She couldn't take time off, so the school flew out the head of the department to interview her. She was hired within a month. The school also agreed to let her miss the first two weeks of class in order to compete in Greece. Now she had a lot of catching up to do.
Strapped to the roof of her car was the same 20-foot, single-seat racing shell she'd used for training at both the 2004 Athens and 2000 Sydney games. (In Australia, in a field of nine, she'd also placed fifth.) Salchow eased the shell off the rack, hoisted it over a shoulder and headed to the boathouse. It was ironic, she later said: When she'd accepted the job, she still had her sights on a medal. She thought she'd come to Kansas City a champion. Instead, she strode alone through the rusting door of a derelict building, so different from the trophy-lined boathouses where she'd stored her shell for most of her career. She wasn't just leaving her boat here. She was leaving behind her Olympic dreams.
Yet there was another upside to her relocation, besides the job. A few months earlier, Salchow had learned that a second former Olympic hopeful lived in the area. And in one of those small-world coincidences, that person was none other than her old high school rowing coach from back home in Cincinnati. Jenn Jewett was now a volunteer at the rowing club, and it was she who stood inside the dark, cavernous boathouse to greet her former student.
"[She] offered a kind of familiarity to a place I hadn't been before," said Salchow over coffee on the Plaza after class one day last month. She smiled. "It was pretty surreal because she was such a figure from my past. I felt like I was still her high school athlete."
Salchow had raced all over Europe; she'd made it to five World Championships and two Olympics since she'd last spoken to Jewett. Not once did she imagine they'd stand face to face in Kansas City, hugging and sharing racing stories.
Jewett, now 41, hadn't just taught high school competitive rowing. In the spring of 1994, when she was 29, she'd driven from Cincinnati to Philadelphia to try for a slot on the U.S. Rowing National Team. Living out of her car for three weeks while she trained, she won a seat on the team and competed in the World Rowing Championships, held that year in Indianapolis. Though she finished 11th in the women's double, that weekend race was one of her most memorable. She was a woman from the Midwest up against the best in the world.
Jewett never made it to the top tier of her sport. She lost out on three attempts to gain a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. In 1996, at age 31, she retired from racing altogether after failing to make the final cut for the Atlanta games. Leaving competition was gut-wrenching, she said, a feeling "of being done and getting beat." But it was also a relief. "Now I can go and be a real person," she recalls thinking. She moved to Kansas City to be near family and signed on as a firefighter in Kansas City, Kansas. And ever since, five days a week during her off-hours, she has driven from northern Wyandotte County to the rowing club, where she volunteers as club coordinator and head coach.
The two women caught up on the places they'd competed and how they'd both wound up in Kansas City. Then Salchow walked away from the sport. It was time to concentrate on her career. The river, the clubhouse, the elegant sport the club members were welcome to them. They could have the isolated channel to themselves. She was calling it quits.
When Jewett arrived in Kansas City in the spring of 1996, she found, to her joy, that a rowing club already existed. It had been created just four years earlier, after Kansas City lawyer Phil Donnellan who knew Jewett from her days at the University of Kansas, when he was a law student there teamed up with two local rowing friends. Donnellan, who is now the club's president, had rowed on the varsity team at Brown University while an undergraduate and was disappointed to find no organized group on the Kansas River.
The three men hosted a public meeting in early 1992 to try to generate interest. Surprisingly, two dozen men and women showed up, and the club was born. For the first few months, members launched from a makeshift dock. By that summer, they'd built a 40-foot dock. In the fall, they organized a regatta, and seven clubs from around the Midwest sent more than 200 rowers. A couple of hundred others lined the banks to watch. Such a regatta so early in the club's history was a big accomplishment, Donnellan says.
The club's boathouse had once been part of a sprawling building called Hog House, which comprised the red-brick main building and concrete annexes that stretched for nearly a quarter-mile inside the Kansas City Stockyards Company compound. Hog House was used as a vaccination center; the annexes were holding pens for cattle and hogs unloaded from the nearby rail lines on their way to local slaughterhouses and meatpackers. The 1951 flood devastation in the West Bottoms' stockyards and other economic factors hastened the end of the city's fabled meatpacking industry and of the Kansas City Stockyard Company, which had been the second-largest in the nation.
By the time the company finally shut its doors in September 1991, the four main buildings of the 48-acre compound were already long abandoned. Days later, commercial developer and investor Bill Haw purchased the property, which stretched from State Line Road to the Kansas River. Haw, who also owns the Livestock Exchange Building in the West Bottoms, saw the potential for growth west of downtown and envisioned a shift from industrial use to commercial development. He eventually sold 30 acres of the site to Gateway, the Butler Manufacturing Company and the city, which used its land for a parking garage by Kemper Arena. The American Royal Center, he tells the Pitch, is a potential buyer for the 18 acres that remain, including Hog House, and is considering a blueprint to build an outdoor equestrian park on the site. Haw says that if he sells the land, he'll include a clause about the rowing club. "I'm going to protect its interest," he says of the group.
Not long after Haw bought the property, Donnellan, now 44, and other club members approached him, seeking permission to use space in one section of Hog House for boat storage. Though demolition had already begun on the annexes, the developer agreed to leave the old brick vaccination center intact. Haw took no rental fees from the club and even threw in funding for the purchase of new shells. "I thought what they were doing was important and worthwhile," Haw says. "And it's kind of nice to support important and worthwhile things."
The club, which now has 51 members, operates as a nonprofit corporation. Membership isn't cheap; it costs $200 a year for masters (rowers ages 27 and up) and $395 quarterly for juniors (high school students under 18; the higher rate goes toward more coaching). There's an "open" membership category for those between ages 19 and 26. The fees also cover liability insurance for club activities and equipment.
Jewett trains the junior rowers five days a week, weather permitting, ten months a year. When the racing season gets under way in early spring, she prepares the teams both masters and juniors for the year's first four to six Midwest competitions, from single to quad events. Jewett also recruits members, administers a Web site with club information (www.kcrowing.com) and takes care of such details as race registration, entry fees, transportation, lodging and meals. She estimates that she spends, on average, 20 hours a week tending to club business. "I really think of this as my river," she says. "I'm on it more than anybody in town."
Salchow had walked away not only from competitive rowing but also from the water. She hardly used her shell after that first visit to the boathouse. The river had something to do with it. The few times she did go out, she was on constant lookout for floating trash and submerged tree limbs that might suddenly puncture her shell. The river downstream from the club's dock straightens into a stretch of glassy water, but the bridges upriver tease the current into eddies that catch and carry floating islands of debris. And when the breeze kicks up, it conveys the stench of heavy industry. "It smells like hot dogs down there," Salchow says, wincing.
The water is known to contain E. coli bacteria, and after heavy rains, agricultural runoff and overflow from local sewage-treatment plants add to the noxious mix. Mercury levels are also rising in the water along the West Bottoms, most likely because of coal-burning power plants near Lawrence and St. Marys, Kansas. Jewett attributes the wind-borne smell to the Keebler and Sunshine factories in the Fairfax industrial district, about a mile upriver from the boathouse. Like Salchow, she once trained on pristine waters but loves the Kansas River. "Our water is not Princeton water," she says. "But it's good water when it's cooperating." She calls it the best rowing water in the Midwest.
Salchow nonetheless stayed away and threw herself into teaching and learning the city. The break wasn't difficult, she says. But with the approach of spring and training season, she began to yearn for the water again.
When Salchow describes what she endures in a race, you wonder why she won't let go. But note the sudden animation, the flushed cheeks, the tears she almost masks. This is a woman in love. She misses the competition, the pushing so hard that her vision blurs, the pain, the burning muscles, the lungs about to explode. "It feels like you can't breathe deep enough or fast enough," she says. "After a race, you can kind of taste the blood, because you're tearing up your throat." She illustrated the point with a series of rapid, heavy breaths. "It's pretty brutal." She would near what she calls a threshold, and she would feel on the verge of passing out, and she would know she should slow her pace. But then would come the pleasure. "When you hit the wall, you take it," she says. "I want more pain. It's amazing. It's totally mental."
This past March, she went back into training, launching solo from the West Bottoms dock whenever she had a few spare hours. By mid-May, when school let out, she had earned an invitation to rejoin the U.S. Rowing National Team. She went to Princeton for more training and missed her first two weeks of school this fall to compete in the World Championship finals in Gifu, Japan. A fifth-place finish in the finals was good enough to get her an invitation back to the national team competitions next summer. And then there are the Olympics in 2008.
With training season approaching, Salchow must decide if she can balance her career and a run at the Beijing games. She figures she has about six months to decide. To get there, she'll have to keep a daily six-hour training regimen. She'll be able to maintain her teaching schedule, she says, if she breaks up training into shorter sessions. "Basically, two years before the Olympics, you have to drop everything else," she says. "But I want a medal. That's the only reason I'd keep going now. I want to prove to myself that I can do that. I've already proven to myself that I can get to the Olympics twice. I don't want to get fifth again."
The training schedule, mostly early mornings or evenings, has made her an elusive presence to most club members. Salchow acknowledges that she knows only a few of them by sight and one or two by name. She and Jewett have seen each other just three or four times at the boathouse and have had even fewer phone conversations. But Jewett knows the decision Salchow faces. "You give up so much chasing that [Olympic] dream," she says. "I've done what she's doing, and I know how difficult it is."
Salchow supports the club in ways that are difficult to measure, Jewett adds. For example, she listed the Kansas City Rowing Club on her bio for the national team program printed for the World Championships. "Again, it doesn't cost her a lot to do," Jewett says. "But it has a huge impact for us."
That impact could ripple outward if the club's vision for expansion unfolds. The boathouse which has no running water, no bathroom and one extension cord that powers some lights in the rafters is already at the center of a plan for major expansion. The eight-member board envisions a membership of several hundred, hopefully within the next two years. "But I've had that dream for the past six," Jewett concedes.
Expansion will mean massive fund-raising: $900,000 for a new, larger boathouse (Hog House is at full capacity, with about 50 boats on racks), a new parking lot and dock, utility lines and construction of a second floor, plus an endowment for monthly maintenance and equipment purchases. New shells alone range from $5,000 to $20,000, Jewett says.
The work might unfold in phases, Donnellan says. For about $500,000, the club could get the framework of a new building completed and the first floor in operation with racks for the shells. The second floor could be added and new equipment purchased as more funds become available. Jewett says the club already has an architect's rendering for the new boathouse, depicting a first floor for offices, locker rooms and bays for the shells. The second floor would house a banquet room and workout space. The new boathouse design has been approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Kaw Valley Drainage District. All that's missing is the cash.
Since 2000, when talks of expansion became serious, more than $125,000 has come in from members and outside donors and is now earning interest in a Kansas City Rowing Club Foundation bank account. And Hog House owner Bill Haw has agreed to offer the club additional land at minimal or no cost once the construction and endowment funds are raised.
Board members network constantly, Jewett says, hitting up every resource they can: past club members, their business contacts, their friends, friends of their friends. To attract new members, Jewett relies on the juniors to distribute fliers and post information on high school bulletin boards. The 2001 and 2003 seasons were peaks for the club's junior team, with 35 area students listed. This year, the team is down to 19 members, about average since Jewett began coaching. The program is a tough sell to parents, she said, because of the unsightly boathouse. "Nobody ever says anything," she says. "They just come once and don't come back. Sometimes they don't even drop the kid off. I mean, would you leave your 14-year-old daughter down there?"
Some of the junior girls, she says, have the potential to win college scholarships; in the past ten years, she has helped them make the varsity teams at Division I schools such as the University of Kansas, Kansas State University and even Cornell, Harvard and the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. But more important, Jewett says, is watching the young women discover something in themselves once they've been out on the water for a while. "You see the girls come in, and their confidence level increases and they're more self-assured," she says. They realize what they are capable of accomplishing."
On a sunny September afternoon, a dozen or so of the junior team members lined up to do arm and back stretches along a length of concrete outside the boathouse. Ranging in age from 14 to 18, they giggled and chatted, then settled down to the serious training. Just one week remained before the regatta heats in Des Moines. The races don't lead up to any championship regattas but do allow the club members to race against similar classes of rowers. The Kansas City crews, both juniors and masters, compete in about a dozen races each year, many of which lead to national competitions. Local juniors have won bronze medals at the last two U.S. Nationals.
Jewett, looking tired from her latest 24-hour shift at the firehouse, was already in the water in a small, two-seat motorboat. Gliding parallel to each scull as the rowers pulled out for timed runs downstream, she raised a bullhorn to her lips, shouting instructions that echoed off the levees.
"Keep your heads straight! Eyes forward!" she bellowed to a team of four. Concentration is paramount; the slightest sway in the boat can mean lost speed. Every stroke must take the form of a single fluid motion, four rowers moving as one.
Eighteen-year-old Clare Fox was feeling discombobulated. "I'm not in touch with myself," she moaned. "It's like my legs aren't connected to my arms."
"You're not connected to yourself?" Jewett repeated with amused skepticism before sharply ordering the young women to launch into another timed exercise. For the next hour, she pushed the girls downriver, their shells gliding silently away from the downtown skyline, and back. The river was all theirs; not another boat was out.
At 6 p.m., Jewett was still at the dock, getting ready to train the master rowers for their own events at the Des Moines regatta. As the adults paddled out from shore, she kept one eye on her watch, timing the exercises, noting every error, navigating crews around floating debris and tree limbs. The river was unusually low after a recent drought.
She slowed as she pulled the motorboat alongside Jeff Borders, a 53-year-old radiologist from Parkville who took up the sport in June after growing bored with the stationary rowing machine in his basement. Borders was still in the early learning curve and stiff. (Jewett says it takes years for most rowers to feel comfortable in a narrow, shallow-bottomed shell.)
"You want to make a nice V with those arms," she called through her bullhorn, trying to fix his stroke. "Right now, you have a very narrow U." She closed in on him to direct without the bullhorn and groaned as he suddenly lost his balance and tumbled into the river. Laughing, his hat still atop his head, Borders swam over to the motor craft, hauled himself aboard and climbed back into his righted shell from the side.
"Here's my challenge to you," Jewett said, now serious. "You gotta relax. You're way, way, way, way too tense." She advised him to make longer strokes with the paddles and rock back and forth on the rolling seat. "Think of your legs moving that seat like a piston. You got a hump in your piston."
Borders began to stroke more confidently, and she clapped.
"You look longer!" she called out.
"I'm trying!" he yelled back.
"Maybe you just needed a little swim."
A fishing boat sped near the shoreline, and Borders took the brunt of the wake, nervously holding steady as he rolled off the waves.
"Relax, for God's sakes!" Jewett shouted. "We're going to give you a Valium before the race or a bourbon!"
In late September, the junior and master rowers returned triumphant from Des Moines. Borders took second place in the novice single-shell race and brought home a gold in the masters' quadruple shell. "I managed to make it down that river without flipping," he says.
In addition to the medals, the team brought home two new shells, and the juniors were cheering about the recent addition of a Port-A-Potty. They would no longer have to walk across a field and a parking lot to use the restroom at the Livestock Exchange Building. "We have a Johnny on our team!" one exclaimed.
It had been three weeks since Salchow placed fifth in the World Championships in Japan. Her shell lay in a boat rack, still in its shipping wrap. Again she had stepped away from training to concentrate on her classroom.
If she still intends to try for an Olympic medal, Salchow will probably spend next summer training with the national team rather than finding someone to help her train on the Kansas River. Still, as the second-oldest member on the team, she's been through the exercises and knows what she must do to get in shape: find a partner and the drive to get out on the water as much as she can.
Though she hasn't discussed it with Salchow, Jewett smiles at the idea of taking the younger woman under her wing again. "She knows if she needs anything, she can call me," the coach says, then chuckles. Jewett says Salchow is in perfect shape and calls her one of the best rowers in the world. She doesn't expect to be part of Salchow's training. "She's fast, and I don't know if she'd want to drag my fat ass around," Jewett says. But she has plans for Salchow post-Beijing they could train the younger rowers together. "We'd be a hell of a team," she says.
"I'd like to," Salchow says when told of the idea. "Jenn and I keep talking about my talking to the kids about the Olympics or going out and coaching a little bit. It just hasn't worked out yet." "Sometimes small."