Mark Odell and the Start of the UW Rowing Program

  • By John W. Lundin and Stephen J. Lundin
  • Posted 4/07/2012
  • Essay 10075
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Mark Odell (1869-1963), who was part of Cornell's 1897 championship crew team, helped to start the University of Washington rowing program, which he coached in 1906.  Beginning the next season, Odell served as a volunteer assistant coach to Washington's famous crew coach, Hiram Conibear (1872-1917), and taught him rowing techniques that Odell had learned at Cornell, then the dominant power in collegiate rowing.  This People's History was written by Odell's grandsons John W. Lundin and Stephen J. Lundin.

Cornell Rowing

Mark Odell, who was born and raised near Baldwinsville, New York, rowed for Coach Charles E. Courtney (1849-1920) on Cornell's famous crew of 1897, which was finally able to row against Yale and Harvard for the first time in two decades. To everyone's surprise, and contrary to predictions of rowing experts, the Big Red crew of 1897 won the Intercollegiate Rowing Association (IRA) Regatta on the Hudson River at Poughkeepsie, New York, and became "champions of America." Cornell beat heavily favored Yale and Harvard, establishing the school as a rowing power and Courtney as the leading rowing coach in the country.

Cornell crews, under the guidance of Coach Courtney, dominated college rowing for two decades thereafter, and the rowing techniques developed by Courtney were emulated throughout the country. Under Courtney, Cornell crews won 14 of 24 IRA championships and took second six times. His crews won 98 out of 146 races, sweeping regattas seven times.

To the Klondike and Seattle

In March 1898, Mark Odell dropped out of Cornell Law School and, with his best friend from school, Ellis Aldrich, joined the Klondike Gold Rush. After nearly a year prospecting for gold under harsh conditions, Odell moved to Seattle in 1899. There he married and raised a family. The Odells were one of Seattle's prominent families, often in the news.

In Seattle, Odell became a contractor and helped build the growing city's infrastructure. Odell's companies paved sidewalks in Seattle's downtown, rebuilt the Port Blakely saw mill on Bainbridge Island after it burned down in 1907, worked on the Lake Washington ship canal that linked Puget Sound with Lake Washington, built the Canadian Pacific steamship wharfs and railroad station in Vancouver between 1913 and 1916, paved streets in the Highlands neighborhood when it was being developed, and paved a portion of Snoqualmie Pass through the Cascade Mountains, the present-day route of Interstate 90.

Cornell influenced rowing at the University of Washington from the beginning. E. F. Blaine, a lawyer and land developer, had lived in Ithaca, New York, where Cornell is located, before moving to Seattle in the late 1890s. Blaine knew of Cornell's successful rowing program and wanted to start a similar program at the University of Washington to take advantage of Seattle's mild weather, accessible water, and tall young men of Scandinavian descent whose families had moved to the area for its logging and fishing. In 1899, Blaine donated $200 to start a rowing program at Washington, and later Blaine and other Seattle businessmen spent $650 to build two training gigs and a boathouse for the UW crew. Cornell's influence on Washington rowing continued in 1904, when the school purchased a four-oared shell from Ithaca for $400.

From Cornell to Washington

Mark Odell brought his Cornell experience to Washington rowing in 1906, when Washington turned to local rowers to fill the need for an experienced rowing coach. Mark Odell and George Strange, another former college rower living in Seattle, were recruited by Loren Grinstead, the University's athletic manager, to coach Washington's crew in 1906.
The 1908 University of Washington Tyee said:

"Rowing prospects for the spring of 1906 did not look bright at the outset, as the ASUW felt unable to pay for the services of a coach. But through the efforts of General Manager Grinstead and the coaching of George Strange and Mark O'Dell [sic], the Varsity Four promised to be a winner."

Beginning in 1906, Odell taught Washington rowers the Cornell rowing techniques, developed by Coach Courtney, that had dominated East Coast rowing since 1897. Odell brought to the shores of Lake Washington what he had learned rowing on Cuyuga Lake under the "Old Man" and the winning ways of his 1897 IRA Big Red championship crew.

During 1906, Washington's crew program took another step forward by acquiring two used eight-oared shells (from Cornell, of course), financed by Seattle businessmen, including Odell, as an early historian of the program recounted:

"Again, through the generosity of Seattle business men, Washington was enabled to purchase two eight-oared shells from Cornell, one of which is the 1902 Henley shell that established the record on the Poughkeepsie course ... . The Washington Navy now consists of two eight-oared boats, two four-oared shells, one eight-oared barge, and two four-oared barges. With this equipment, our natural advantages, and hearty support of both students and citizens of Seattle, there is no reason why the University should not turn out winning crews" (Beck).

Acknowledging Cornell's dominance in rowing circles since Odell's 1897 crew won the IRA championship, the Washington annual of 1908 established a lofty goal for the school: "It is now up to Washington to prove herself the Cornell of the Pacific Coast."

The acquisition of eight-oared shells allowed Washington to engage in serious racing for the first time. The University of California at Berkeley purchased three eights from Cornell at the same time. Eight-oared competition began on the West Coast in 1907, with the annual Triangle Regatta, where crews from Washington, California, and Stanford competed against each other.

Hiram Conibear

Washington's crew program made a major commitment to rowing when it hired Hiram Conibear, later known as the father of Washington rowing, as its crew coach starting with the 1907 season. Conibear was lured to Washington in 1906, from Chicago by Dr. Bill Speidel, a former UW quarterback studying dentistry there (and a relative of the authors through marriage). Conibear had been a professional bicycle racer, the trainer for the Chicago White Sox, and the trainer for the football teams at the Universities of Illinois and Chicago (under coach Alonzo Stagg). Conibear was hired as the athletic trainer for Washington's football and track programs, and as assistant football coach. He decided that crew was the perfect off-season sport for conditioning his football players.

When Conibear became Washington's crew coach in 1907, there was one problem -- he did not know much about rowing. When asked about being the crew coach, he replied "I'd make a good one ... [but] to tell you the truth, I don't know one end of the boat from the other" (Daves and Porter). Given Conibear's limitations as a crew coach and his lack of rowing skills, it was fortunate that the UW had experienced volunteer coaches available. Mark Odell continued his work with Washington's rowing program as a volunteer assistant to Conibear, teaching Conibear and the oarsmen the techniques developed by Pop Courtney that he had learned at Cornell. A "Bicentennial Biography" of Hiram Conibear published in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 1976 said Conibear was hired "in 1907 and the UW had started crew under student-coach Mark Odell. Conibear, who knew nothing about rowing, was asked to take over coaching the sport."

In addition to learning from his assistant coach, Conibear did his own experiments to understand the physiology of the stroke. Conibear took a skeleton home from the biology department, placed it in a shell, and used it to study the anatomical movement of the stroke and the physiology of rowing. Conibear placed a broom handle into the skeleton's hands to serve as an oar. He moved the skeleton through the motion of a stroke noting the position of the bones at each stage. He then turned a bicycle upside down and turned the wheel with his hand, the wheel serving as the water and his palm the oar blade. He realized that unless the oar blade struck the water at a speed equal to or greater than the water's speed, there would be a moment of unwanted drag.
Conibear was Washington's crew coach from 1907 until his untimely death in 1917. During that time, he expanded the program, raised money to purchase new equipment, and put Washington rowing on the national map. His crews dominated West Coast rowing during that period and made their first entrance on the national rowing scene. His goal was always to compete at the IRA Regatta in the four-mile race against East Coast crews. In 1907, he sponsored a four-mile race against Stanford, the only time a four-mile race had been run in the west. In later years, he tried to convince other West Coast teams to use the four-mile format used at the IRA, but they refused, insisting on keeping to two- or three-miles races.

Acknowledging again the school's debt to its mentor in Ithaca, the 1910 UW annual stated:

"Washington has made a mighty stride toward the goal of her ambition, to become the 'Cornell of the Pacific.'  Her rowing traditions have a broad foundation upon which to become fixed.... Washington bids fair to become the premier rowing institution in the United States."

Continued Involvement

Mark Odell continued to work with Washington's rowing program for decades, as described in newspaper articles. Odell was the official timer at the UW-Stanford regatta in 1909. He was the starter in the 1910 UW-Stanford race, where a second race had to be run after Washington's shell was "destroyed beyond repair" in the first race. Washington won the second race in spite of having to row in an older and slower shell. The Seattle Times reported, "Shortly after 10 o'clock, Starter Mark Odell signaled with his pistol and the shells shot out from the start side by side." Odell was the Head Judge of the Finish at the UW-University of California regatta in 1911.

On May 21 and 23, 1913, The Seattle Times reported that Mark Odell "of Cornell" was the head timer for the 1913 UW-Cal regatta, with Washington winning but swamping before its shell could return to shore, requiring a rescue of the "almost nude athletes" from their sinking shell by Dean Condon, whose powerful red launch shot the men ashore.

The success of Washington's 1922 crew is seen in newspaper accounts of its race against Cal in Seattle. The first page of The Seattle Times for April 22, 1922, had a  series of pictures of the crew race, and the headline read "Washington Oarsmen Defeating California by More than Ten Boat Lengths." Mark Odell was the race referee identified as "a former Cornell crew man," and is shown in the front page picture with the starter, R. C. Hart, President of the Portland Rowing Club.

"The Washington Stroke"

In the 1920s, there was an effort by those associated with Washington rowing to have the stroke used by the school named after Conibear. In a 1923 article, Walter McLean, "an old coxswain" on Washington's crew, gave his ideas about "what we shall call our justly famous stroke."  When "Connie" took over as crew coach in 1907, his rowers had learned their skill from Washington's earlier coaches, and those rowers passed on their knowledge to their new coach. McLean wrote:

"[Conibear] would be the last one to deprecate the help received from his men, not only in the first year but in all succeeding years ... . Since then, many oarsmen have contributed their earnest thought and experience to the development of our stroke ... among whom the writer remembers vividly the strident-voiced P. D. Hughes and silent Mark Odell, all contributed their mite to its refinements.

"Let us call it "the Washington stroke" for all of those who have helped evolve it, and so that if there are improvements yet to be made we may encourage enterprise and incorporate them without changing the name" (The Seattle Times, August 20, 1923).

While Conibear's name did come to be used, it is clear that the stroke developed by Courtney at Cornell formed the original basis for the Conibear stroke. Peter Mallory, whose seminal book, The Sport of Rowing:Two Centuries of Competition was published in the fall of 2011, carefully analyzed the Conibear Stroke, and has determined that its genesis lies with Cornell and Coach Courtney as taught by him to Mark Odell:

"Many have described George Pocock as the sole author of the Conibear Stroke, but history demonstrates that this is less than the full story. Conibear's descriptions of the ideal stroke differed substantially from George Pocock's written descriptions of the Thames Waterman's Stroke. It would be more accurate to recognize that the Conibear Stroke was the result of crucial early consultation with Charles Courtney reinforced by having former Cornell rower Mark Odell as a volunteer assistant in Washington program. Add in the influence of George Pocock, and Conibear had everything he needed to supplement his own innate intelligence" (Mallory, 423).


John W. Lundin and Stephen J. Lundin, "Cornell's Influence on Washington and West Coast Rowing," Friends of Rowing History website accessed March 31, 2012 (; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Rowing begins at University of Washington on December 15, 1899" (by Greg Lange), (accessed March 31, 2012); Broussais C. Beck, Rowing at Washington (Seattle: University of Washington, 1923); Jim Daves and W. Thomas Porter, The Glory of Washington: The People and Events that Shaped the Husky Athletic Tradition (Champaign, Illinois: Sports Publishing, 2001); Peter Mallory, The Sport of Rowing: Two Centuries of Competition (Henley-on-Thames : River and Rowing Museum, 2011).

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