Boathouse Woe



Jessie Markovetz

A passerby who stumbled upon the women’s crew team boathouse would likely mistake it for another dilapidated warehouse along Washington Avenue in Conshohocken.”If this was on campus, it would never be allowed,” senior rower and team captain Alana Milazzo said. “The fact that it’s an off-campus establishment makes it a lot easier to go unnoticed.”Milazzo is one of about 80 athletes on the crew team operating out of a facility that it argues is insufficient.And it’s not hard to see why.The large warehouse features a slew of dirty and broken windows, unreliable plumbing, a leaky ceiling, poor lighting and no heating, among other shortcomings. These conditions are complicated by other factors, such as the holes in the walls and windows that allow birds and raccoons access to the building.”Usually when we get in we have raccoon prints all over the boats,” junior Ann Mitchell said.”This is not the image of Villanova,” said head coach Jack St. Clair. “We have this squeaky Main Line image that says we provide for all of our sports teams. I’m not saying everything is perfect for every team, but for the most part, things are good.”The birds that periodically inhabit the warehouse create a more dangerous problem, Mitchell said.She referred to “excrement all over our equipment. There’s no place we can sit down and stretch on the floor,” she said.”The excrement is all over the machines, including the erg.”The sanitary challenges of dealing with bird droppings are further complicated by the blisters rowers are prone to suffer on their hands from working out on the erg machines or on the river. Milazzo said some girls have developed infections as a result, and held up her own hands, spotted with warts near her fingers, as proof.”Two girls had them last year,” she said, “and it was more painful than these.”University Athletics Director Vince Nicastro is familiar with the team’s plight. He said most of the University’s athletic facilities are cleaned by custodial services; the crew team is charged with maintaining its own facility.”It’s probably something that [athletics] should be doing,” he admitted. “I don’t think [the building is] up to the level of where we want our facilities to be.” “The actual building isn’t a great place, but it beats our alternatives,” he explained. “I think it is our best option right now.” Fred Bissinger, an architect with offices on Old Gulph Road in Villanova, pointed out the difference between dangerous and simply unattractive.”It is obviously a building that could use a good amount of additional maintenance,” Bissinger said. “But buildings can be in rather poor outer skin repair and still not be ready to collapse or have major electrical failures.” Other possibilities for the team include moving the team to Boathouse Row or transporting the boats from campus to the river and back daily.Ironically enough, the crew team once did have a place on Boathouse Row before moving to Lower Merion and then Conshohocken almost three years ago.”That proved to not be beneficial to practice in the morning,” Milazzo said. “With the traffic getting back it was hard to get back for 8:30 classes. It was crazy.”However, the captain still calls Boathouse Row the team’s best bet. “But we’re not likely to find an opening anytime soon,” she said.Another problem the team faces each time it takes to the Schuylkill is the formidable distance between the bay where the boats are kept and the dock.”[The river] is 220 yards away, which doesn’t seem like much,” Mitchell said. But the distance seems much greater while lugging 200-pound boats down a dark path in the early morning, she said. The path is lit only by lights they have attached to a generator, which serves as its only guide toward the water.”I wouldn’t say it was safe by any means,” she said.Difficulty recruitingThe team has been nationally recognized since 1993, but according to St. Clair it is losing recruits each year.”We’re losing a lot of recruits to Princeton, Georgetown and Wisconsin because these schools offer scholarships and also have the facilities to attract the rowers,” he said.Mitchell said the team has also had difficulty retaining freshman. She gestured to the plans for the new facility, which are still tacked to the wall of the boathouse.”We take all the parents back here and always say that soon this will be Villanova rowing,” she said.Shortages could soon devastate this team. The most extreme example is in the lightweight boat, which is designed for eight rowers. The team currently has only nine women in the boat, an unheard-of low.The team feels this is directly related to the condition of their boathouse. “Our program hasn’t changed, our excellent coaching staff hasn’t changed, our equipment hasn’t changed,” Mitchell said. “The only thing that’s changed is the boathouse.”The current facility has given some students reason enough to leave the team.Senior Beth Biedrzycki, whose interest in crew was sparked through the rowing experiences of her cousins, quit the team during her sophomore year for a variety of reasons.”You can’t give 10 percent to that sport,” she said. “There were other things that I wanted to do.”Biedrzycki does remember what training in the boathouse was like.”It was really cold and dirty,” she said, also mentioning the poor state of the bathroom plumbing. Once you get there, you just can’t wait to leave. It’s not at all healthy,” she said.The conditions of the boathouse “weren’t a deciding factor [to quit], but I think it impacts your overall experience,” Biedrzycki continued.No place to goDespite the conditions, the team has one good reason for staying at the current boathouse: it has no place else to go. That could soon change, however, as the team’s lease on its current facility is set to expire at the end of the academic year.”We have no alternate site,” Mitchell said. “If we were to lose this site, we’d have no place to practice.”Nicastro said he is fairly certain the landowner will continue to accommodate the University until a new facility is built.Last spring, the University signed a 99-year lease on a piece of land along the Conshohocken waterfront to develop a new home for the team. This plot will sit vacant until the University completes its fundraising campaign and can break ground.The team and Nicastro estimate that the new facility will cost between $3 and $4 million. Fortunately, the team spends little on equipment because St. Clair works as a sales representative in the boating industry and affords the team quality boats at discounted prices.”From a facilities standpoint, [building a boathouse] is almost at the very top of the athletic department’s priority list,” Nicastro said.The team is not holding its breath, however.”They’ve been talking about the new boathouse since I was a freshman, but I haven’t seen much come of it,” said Kelly Vasek, who graduated from the University last spring after four years of rowing.”We still haven’t been given any money by the athletic department,” Mitchell added. “We can’t row in a boathouse on paper.”While the department is soliciting donations from individuals, corporations and the other teams using the current boathouse, the fundraising efforts have gone slower than initially expected. Nicastro said over $100,000 was invested in restoring the current boathouse, including upgrading river accessibility and adding boat racking and docking systems.Athletics plans on making more improvements, including painting, repairing windows and installing portable bathrooms and lighting before the beginning of the team’s spring season.Nicastro explained that the department was hesitant to invest large amounts of money into the site because “we knew we wanted to make progress on the long term solution.””We could live out of this facility forever, but who wants to do that?” St. Clair said. “A new facility would not only offer a better image for Villanova, but it could also be used for other functions like awards dinners, formals and meetings for not only our team, but the other University sports teams as well.”According to Nicastro, the athletics program is going through NCAA re-certification this year. The University will complete a self-study at the end of this month, and in April it will be subject to peer review. “If there are some inequities in facilities, that will be brought to the forefront,” Nicastro said. “I think we have a good plan to fix any problems they find.”According to Nicastro, the athletics department distributes funds on a three-tier level: national, conference and local levels, with crew relegated to the bottom level. This has done little for the team’s morale. “Villanova doesn’t really care about us,” alumna Vasek said. “We are ignored in the weight room while the football team, for example, has three trainers to one player. It’s just ridiculous.”David Carlberg and Jill Ozovek contributed to this report.