Launching a Legacy: The Rise of Rowing in Arlington
W-L's historic crew team helped build the sport in Northern Virginia and beyond.
In the spring of 1958, under the guidance of head coach Charlie Butt, a group of teenage rowers from Washington-Lee High School (now Washington-Liberty) performed so well at stateside races that they earned a spot at the Henley Royal Regatta in England—becoming the first public high school in America invited to the iconic race, which dates to 1839. But first, they needed money.
The Washington Post covered the team’s fundraising effort like an election campaign, noting that even President Eisenhower had “adopted” the team. Donations toward the $7,000 goal poured in from across the country. “W-L Oarsmen, Still Shy $700, Leave Friday for Henley,” the Post blared just before the July race.
A former college rower, Butt had organized the W-L program less than a decade earlier, with the first crews rowing in borrowed boats out of the Potomac Boat Club in spring 1949. “We lost our first race [against what was then George Washington High School in Alexandria]…and won all the rest,” Butt later said of that first season. The team sold Christmas trees to pay for its own eight-person shell, christening the vessel “Cinderella.”
George Kirschbaum, a W-L alum and later a crew coach for W-L and Wakefield high schools (among others), remembers Butt taking a chance on him as a coxswain.
“Charlie called me at home…as a 15-year-old kid, I’m quaking in my boots,” he recalls. “But I’ve never been much of a quitter, so even when I was miserably cold and getting flustered by seniors, I stuck with it.”
W-L has since remained a force in high school rowing. Although the first delegation did not win at its Henley debut, subsequent W-L teams prevailed twice at the Royal Regatta in the 1960s, and posted many victories in races along the Potomac and Occoquan rivers (whose Sandy Run rowing facility Butt helped to found). The school formed its first women’s team in 1975.
Butt and other W-L coaches and alumni also helped establish high school crew programs at Wakefield and Bishop O’Connell, and college teams at Georgetown and George Washington universities.
“When Charlie started the program, it was important to him that everybody who showed up got to participate,” says Tom Chisnell, another W-L alum and the second of only three men’s head coaches W-L crew has had since its Cinderella beginnings. Chisnell succeeded Butt (who died in 1992) and preceded current coach Derek Parsons. “He tried to get a race for everybody.”
Editor’s Note: Fast forward to 2022 and five high schools from Arlington and McLean—Yorktown, Wakefield, Bishop O’Connell, Langley and McLean—will be sending boats to the National Scholastic Rowing Championships in New Jersey, May 27-28.