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Finding his rhythm
Competitive rower Don Costello crosses South Tenmile Lake near the Coos Bay Yacht Club docks as the day dawns on Wednesday. A former University of Oregon coach, Costello still rows in competitions throughout the state. World Photo by Alex Powers.

SOUTH TENMILE LAKE — In the muted light of a foggy dawn at the Coos Bay Yacht Club on South Tenmile Lake, only the creaking of the docks and a few waking birds could be heard Wednesday morning.

Then came the gentle swoosh of Don Costello, emerging from the mist in a boat so skinny it seemed improbable it could support his 200-pound body. He’d just finished rowing his normal route around the lake in his one-person sculling boat, a distance his on-board computer told him had been about 1,100 strokes, or 11,000 meters.

“Just me and the ducks and the birds out here,” he said, floating near the docks. “Not a bad way to start the day.”

This was a good morning workout for the 54-year-old Coos Bay man, as he trains using slow, long strokes to prepare for his races — he competes in both solo and crew rowing events — which are typically shorter and faster.

Sculling is a sport of ultimate physical efficiency and balance. Don Costello’s singles boat, shaped like a thin, double-headed spear, is 27 feet long and 111⁄2 inches wide. His oars are 10 feet long, and he said he doesn’t know of anyone who can sit in the boat, stationary, and keep it upright while holding the oars out of the water.

Sculling in the fog in a boat that barely rises above the water on Tenmile Lakes, known for its roaring speedboats, is also something of an act of faith. The thing about solo sculling is you can’t see where you’re going. To row, he sat facing the aft, sliding on runners, using his entire body to complete each 10-meter stroke. At one point he missed a stroke and hit a buoy.

“To steer, you align your boat with something you can see. Steering in the fog is always a challenge. And there’s always a blind spot. One of the nice things about this lake is there’s no debris,” he said. “I started at 6:40 this morning, it was pretty dark. You wouldn’t be on the water unless you had the lake to yourself. This is a great place to row.”

Don Costello’s interest in competitive rowing goes back to his days at the University of California, Berkeley, in the late 1960s. He met some of the guys from the crew team and felt the call of the sport.

“Those guys looked like Greek gods,” he recalled, cleaning his boat on the docks, his outing now finished. “We were down at Berkeley in the ’60s, we didn’t even have time for drugs. We led disciplined lives. We had a lot of pride in our lives, pride in what we did. Those guys are still friends of mine.”

He stuck with the sport, eventually becoming the Universtiy of Oregon club crew coach from 1971-72, where he built a program and ignited a national controversy.

Don Costello had a crazy idea: He used the best person he had at his disposal as coxswain (the steersman and leader of the boat), even though it happened to be a woman named Victoria Brown. Crew racing until that point had been a man’s sport. Title IX wouldn’t come until later in 1972.

Several member schools of the Western Intercollegiate Crew Association objected, saying they wouldn’t race against a team with a woman on it. It caused quite a stir.

“Word of Oregon's noble experiment drew anguished bellows from crew's Establishment,” wrote Kenny Moore in an April 17, 1972 Sports Illustrated article about the controversy titled “The Case of the Ineligible Bachelorette.”

“It was a different time,” recalled Don Costello. “I thought, ‘If I could get this woman eligible, I want her on the team, because she’s a good Coxswain.’ I didn’t care that she was a woman.”

He won the fight, as the UO law school made the determination there was no rule anywhere in NCAA guidelines stating that a woman couldn’t be on a crew team.

“That changed the rule, and within a few years all the big programs had women coxswain in their programs,” said Don Costello.

He went on to start rowing programs while in law school at Lewis and Clark College in Portland — he’s now chief judge of the tribal court of the Confederated Tribes of Coos Bay — and Reed College. He also founded and coached the Station L Rowing Club in Portland, which is now thriving.

But those days are largely gone, as he now spends mornings in solitude on Tenmile Lakes, training for his 6-10 regattas a year.

That may change, though. In 2005, Don Costello talked his wife, Karen, into taking up the sport at the tender age of 45. A lawyer with a strong background in music, she said she’s attracted to the mathematical harmony of rowing.

“It’s very rhythmic, almost musical. The whole sport is based on balance,” she said. “It is very elegant, it looks like this kind of classic activity. But in order to do it, you really have to be working hard.”

She learned of the difficulties, particularly of solo sculling, early on. Trying out a one-person rowing shell in Virginia, she took a few strokes and tipped the boat.

“Your feet are strapped into the thing. It’s a bit nerve-wracking,” she said. “It takes a lot of experience to safely and in a relaxed way row a single sculling shell.

“There are so many small details that have to be attended to, or the whole operation falls apart.”

While his wife works on getting better, Don will continue to seek the empowering feeling he gets when he comes off the lake every day. All these years, later, he said, it’s still the same.

“At this point in my life, I’m out here by myself every day. When you’re out here alone and the boat’s going well, there’s nothing else in your mind,” he said. “Then you drive back to town and it’s like there’s not a problem in the world you can’t handle. There’s a lot of ways people get that. Rowing is mine.”

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