Cheers: Pitt Rowing christens new boat

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Cheers: Pitt Rowing christens new boat

Pitt's crew team |Courtesy of Pitt Rowing

Pitt's crew team |Courtesy of Pitt Rowing

Pitt's crew team |Courtesy of Pitt Rowing

Pitt's crew team |Courtesy of Pitt Rowing

By Josh Ye / For The Pitt News

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On a sunny Saturday afternoon on the Allegheny River, Donald Burke popped a bottle of champagne to honor Jonas Salk, the father of the polio vaccine, as well as the newest addition to Pitt’s rowing team.

A seemingly odd juxtaposition, the Pitt scientist and the eight-person heavyweight boat share a name, as Burke, dean of Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health, officially christened the team’s newest additon to its racing stock as the Jonas Salk. To the world, Salk represents the eradication of a terrible disease. To the team, Salk means fighting the hard fight.

When Pitt Crew first acquired the boat, the team proposed several different names — including the Victory Light and Soldiers and Sailors — but picked Jonas Salk as soon as a few members suggested it. The team chose to name the boat after him because, thanks to Salk, they are able-bodied and do not have to worry about polio, which causes severe muscle weakness.

Crew members officially welcomed the boat to their fleet in an initimate ceremony at the Pitt Crew’s boathouse at Washington’s Landing, an island on the Allegheny River.  The rarity of the event made it all the more special, as Helen Lawless, the vice president of the Pitt Crew, said the team doesn’t always have the financial means to christen their boats. The club paid for the boat and the christening partially through a crowdfunding campaign on EngagePitt  where it raised $6,090. The team raised the rest of costs through alumni donations.

Pitt Crew purchased the boat, made out of fiberglass shell and equipped with speakers and aluminum wing riggers, for more than $40,000 last year.

“Sometimes we don’t have the money, sometimes the alumni that we want to name [boats] after live too far away,” Lawless said. “We didn’t think this was going to happen because Jonas Salk is no longer with us.”

The tradition of christening a boat by breaking a bottle on its bow began with the British in the 1700s. In the 1800s, champagne became the popular bottle of choice. If the bottle broke, a boat was safe and secure for travel. If the bottle did not break, bad luck was on the horizon.

Luckily for the Pitt Crew, the bottle shattered.

Prior to this christening ceremony, Jonas Salk had already competed in races all over the country. Matt Huff, the current president of the Pitt Crew, said the team raced the boat in the Head of the Charles Regatta in Boston immediately after purchasing it.

“We picked it up with eight people from a boathouse that is a few miles away from the river,” Huff said. “We carried it overhead all the way back down to the river. And right from there, its first ride was a race.”

Pitt placed eighth in the race. Although not a win, the team exceeded their ranking of 15th out of 40 boats, according to a press release on the team’s website.

Salk’s polio vaccine met instant success when he introduced it to the world in 1955.

“Literally, church bells rang around the country because people were so afraid of polio,” Burke explained.

The team hopes to mirror that success as it attempts to transition from racing with heavier boats.

Lawless said Pitt is getting ready to step up its racing game by moving from midweight shells to heavyweight eight-man shells. Since the sport favors height and strength, the heavyweight boat races are more competitive.

In Salk’s spirit, the crew team has already nicknamed the boat “the Polio Slayer.”

“It is a fight to make that transition because it entails more pressure in both competing and fundraising,” Lawless said. “So Jonas Salk represents that fight.”

Burke, the UPMC-Jonas Salk Chair in Global Health, first met Jonas Salk as a young captain in the U.S. Army in 1985. They worked together on an AIDS vaccine.

“The University of Pittsburgh has always had a strong link to the Jonas Salk tradition, and I got to know Jonas Salk pretty well by working with him,” Burke said.

Just a few years after the vaccine went into widespread use, polio rates dropped to almost nothing in the United States, and polio is now close to being completely eradicated worldwide. According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study, the United States has been “polio-free” since 1979.

Burke explained that Pitt students and faculty have always taken tremendous pride in the University’s accomplishments in the medical field.

“I remember hearing students chanting ‘We Cured Polio’ during a basketball game in the [Oakland] Zoo,” Burke said.

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