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For Gefter, it's a stroke of pluck

Hard work pays off for rower

CAMBRIDGE -- Mornings along the Charles River, rowers by the dozens knife through the chilly air, stroking with the smooth familiarity that develops from a lifetime with the sport. Among the college teams, boat clubs, and individuals who train and compete on this water, rowing is the coin of the realm, as vivid today as it was when Thomas Eakins recorded the scene in oil masterpieces a century ago.

But as deeply rooted as rowing is in these parts, it's never too late to be a newcomer with a shot at the top. Just ask Malcolm Gefter, a lifelong amateur athlete who gave up competitive biking and running 12 years ago to devote time to his new passion -- rowing.

Like the hundreds of senior master rowers -- those in the age classes of 50 and older -- Gefter will compete in the veteran singles 3-mile Head of the Charles race Sunday. But in the relatively short time -- just more than a decade -- since he began, his recreational approach has hardened to a very competitive edge.

"I got into a boat for the first time when I was 49 and began to row competitively my second year," said Gefter, who works out 2-4 hours a day out of the Cambridge Boat Club. "Very poorly, but, nonetheless, it was rowing."

But around the time he turned 50, Gefter became so inspired that he decided to compete on the international level, and now, at 61, he has reached the elite status in the masters divisions, ranking in the top 3 percent in the world, according to friend and fellow rower Fred Schoch, the executive director of the two-day event that begins tomorrow.

Not that Gefter, an MIT professor emeritus of biology and CEO of the pharmaceutical firm Praecis, was ever a couch potato. From biking to tennis, to golf and running, he always has been competitive at recreational sports.

"I did tennis and bicycle racing fairly seriously," he said. "But I didn't know what serious was until I decided to try and be competitive on a national and world level in rowing. I would go out and run a 10K and figure if I could finish it in the middle of the pack, that was OK. Same with biking and tennis. If I could play at a club level without embarrassing myself, that was OK, too.

"What's so different about rowing -- in contrast to golf and tennis -- is that the harder you work at it, the better you get. Positive feedback. That's not true of golf and it's not true of tennis. The harder I worked at golf, the worse I got."

Gefter's approach is not for everyone. According the Schoch, his determination to improve has made Gefter "a student of the sport, a scientist. The way he approaches it is to try something new every year. His weight has gone from 190 pounds to [163]. Just the way he has transformed his body is an inspiration."

In the beginning, said the 5-foot-11 1/2-inch Gefter, rowing was like other physical pursuits. But after a few years of simply working out in the boat, he found that every improvement produced an immediate feedback.

"The better your stroking gets, the faster you go," he said. "The more competent you get, the faster you go. The more aerobic training you do, the faster you go. And you can keep working on each individual part and they will give you a better and better response. So you go to the weight room and get stronger. If you cross-train to improve your aerobics or get coaching on technique, it all helps your rowing. So you have all of these very positive immediate feedbacks to your effort. Also, the more weight you lose, the faster you go."

Gefter shares most observers' view that rowing is one of the most aesthetic and beautiful sports in the world. But the beauty, he says, is a vital component of performance.

"In the first 2-4 years, the learning curve is pretty high," he said. "And then you get into what it takes to really go fast. That transfers to a whole different level of the nature of the sport. At that level, it's related to gymnastics. When you look at a gymnast in the rings, we know he has to be strong. But beauty, grace, balance is critical. So you have to put out a huge amount of effort at the same time you're rowing in complete balance without upsetting the run of the boat. The effort level at the same time you're performing graceful motions is the real key to going fast.

"The aesthetic and appreciation comes in pushing the boat with the huge effort level of leg drive and upper body, and watching the boat skip through the water without wobbling, without creating a big wake, without disturbing the water. That is a beautiful thing to observe. And the whole pursuit is one in which the aesthetic qualities translate into speed. Because the harder you try to row without doing it gracefully, the slower you go."

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