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A boat of octogenarians rowers is competing in Boston

CHERYL W THOMPSON, HOST:

This weekend, more than 11,000 rowers will be out on the water competing in the annual Head of the Charles Regatta in Boston. As Craig LeMoult of member station GBH reports, there is one boat this year that may not be the fastest, but it just might have the most experience.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: One, two, three. Off you go.

CRAIG LEMOULT, BYLINE: On a chilly morning this week, eight rowers and a coxswain push off from the dock and onto the Charles River to train for their race this Sunday in the Head of the Charles, the world's largest three-day rowing regatta. This boat is called the Octogenarian Eight. One of its rowers, 83-year-old Alan McClennan, says he was thrilled to get the invitation to join the team.

ALAN MCCLENNAN: They were looking for people who are 80 years old who are still rowing. It's a small club.

LEMOULT: Like many of the men and women in this boat, McClennan is far from new at crew, but he's missed the camaraderie of a big team like this.

MCCLENNAN: It's been about 35 years since I rode in an eight. I'm a single scullar, and I rode eights in college for a while back in the late '50s. So this is exciting for me.

LEE WARREN: Oh, it's wildly exciting. What could be better?

LEMOULT: That's 82-year-old Lee Warren, who started rowing 10 years ago.

WARREN: I never dreamed I would row in the Head of the Charles.

LEMOULT: Warren says she keeps active to stay in shape.

WARREN: Now, you know, there are assumptions about old people, that they're really old and creaky. Some are old and creaky, but the lucky ones are still going strong.

LEMOULT: The team's coach, Catherine Saarela of the nonprofit rowing organization Community Rowing, rides alongside the boat in a launch and gives instructions.

CATHERINE SAARELA: Genevieve (ph), lower your hands a little bit. They're a little high.

LEMOULT: It was her idea to put together the Octogenarian Eight boat after she started to realize how many older rowers there are.

SAARELA: Everybody's excited. I'm so excited.

LEMOULT: Technically, not everyone in the boat is actually 80 or older. Three of them are 79. As she watches them all rowing in unison, Saarela likes what she sees.

SAARELA: They look really good. They're moving nicely together. I mean, it's a good boat.

LEMOULT: Eighty-one-year-old Genie Marcus is a retired pediatrician.

GENIE MARCUS: All of the rowers are very experienced, so there's not a lot of difficulty with the balance in the boat.

SAARELA: There we go.

LEMOULT: But keeping up this level of activity is exhausting at any age. As they head back towards the boat house, Marcus stops rowing.

SAARELA: Genie, keep rowing. Keep rowing. I need you to keep rowing.

LEMOULT: She starts again but stops a few minutes later and looks like she's struggling.

SAARELA: Genie, you OK?

LEMOULT: Marcus shakes her head no. The coach tells her to stop rowing for now as the boat heads back.

SAARELA: Last 10 strokes - make them good.

LEMOULT: Back on the dock, the coach takes Marcus aside.

SAARELA: OK, so I need you to think and let me know what you can do, if you think you're going to be able to do this or not.

MARCUS: My gut says to go for it. If people are going to be mad if I slow down or if I...

SAARELA: Well, I don't want you to stop. I want you to keep moving.

MARCUS: Yes. I...

SAARELA: You got to keep moving.

LEMOULT: Just a few minutes later, back on dry land, Marcus has made up her mind.

MARCUS: Do I want to continue? Yeah, I do because it's an opportunity.

LEMOULT: Marcus says she got some encouragement from the team's coxswain, 86-year-old Bill Becklean. Becklean won an Olympic gold medal in the sport in 1956.

BILL BECKLEAN: This boat felt good this morning. It's not the fastest boat I've ever been in, but rowing is rowing. You're out there. You're moving over the water. Beautiful, sunny day, flat water - what's life all about? That's wonderful.

LEMOULT: The Octogenarian Eight will compete in the Head of the Charles Directors' Challenge Race on Sunday afternoon. For NPR News, I'm Craig LeMoult in Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Craig produces sound-rich features and breaking news coverage for WGBH News in Boston. His features have run nationally on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on PRI's The World and Marketplace. Craig has won a number of national and regional awards for his reporting, including two national Edward R. Murrow awards in 2015, the national Society of Professional Journalists Sigma Delta Chi award feature reporting in 2011, first place awards in 2012 and 2009 from the national Public Radio News Directors Inc. and second place in 2007 from the national Society of Environmental Journalists. Craig is a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Tufts University.