The Windermere Cup is an international rowing regatta held in Seattle on the first Saturday in May to coincide with the traditional opening day of boating season. The competition is the brainchild of Windermere Real Estate founder John Jacobi, and, with the exception of the pandemic year in 2020, has been held annually since 1987, when the inaugural Windermere Cup featured a celebrated Cold War showdown between the University of Washington (UW) men's eight-man crew and the Soviet Union's national team. While the Soviets easily defeated the Huskies, the result was overshadowed by a post-race show of sportsmanship that remains a signature moment in the event's history. Ensuing Windermere Cups have attracted massive crowds to the waters and shoreline around the Montlake Cut and showcased many of the world's best rowers. More often than not, UW crews have emerged vitorious in the marquee races.
A Call to Action
John Jacobi was sitting on the back patio of his home just north of the University of Washington in May 1986. The owner and CEO of Seattle’s Windermere Real Estate was thumbing through The Seattle Times and found a column written by Blaine Newnham about Opening Day, the start of Seattle’s annual boating season, and the crew regatta hosted by the University of Washington each year on the first Saturday in May.
"The Opening Day Regatta was worse than an embarrassment to the University of Washington," Newnham wrote. "It was a wasted opportunity, a shattered showcase for a sport that is deserving of all the attention it might get. More than 100,000 people got stiffed. ... the Huskies got their stiffest competition from teammates, the varsity beating the junior varsity, the freshmen beating the second freshmen, the fans beating themselves upside the head. Oregon State and a few other Northwest programs were invited, but their rowers barely rippled the water, let alone made significant waves. ... In Seattle, we have great water, estimates of more than 100,000 spectators in a setting unrivaled anywhere, and they put on an intrasquad meet" ("That Was A Race? ...").
This was Jacobi’s call to action. He branched from his longtime support of Huskies football and basketball and created the Windermere Cup. Jacobi dreamed the event would attract top-flight competition and might someday capture the spirit and legacy of "the boys in the boat," the University of Washington crew that won a gold medal at the 1936 Berlin Olympics in front of Hitler and made Huskies rowing world famous.
Competitors Turned Comrades
It was the first Saturday of May 1987, more than 50 years after the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and for one of the few times in competitive rowing, something bigger than a race was about to occur. The scene was the inaugural Windermere Cup on Seattle's unique strip of racing water known as the Montlake Cut. Decades later, it remains a signature moment in the event's history.
Minutes after the UW's men's crew crossed the finish line, UW's boat and the victorious Soviet Union shell idled side by side. In the Seattle rain, competitors turned comrades. The rowers began switching racing jerseys. Then, four Soviet rowers carefully stood up in their boat. The Huskies held the edges of the Soviets' borrowed, West German shell. The Soviets took slow, measured steps across into UW's boat. Four Huskies did the same to clamber over the sidewall of the USSR's shell. Each boat had four Soviets in UW's white jerseys and four Huskies in red, in the jerseys of the supposed Cold War enemies.
That's how they completed a celebratory, unforgettable row back to the boathouse. Supposed mortal enemies, united by sport. It was glasnost before most Americans had ever heard of the word. This was a world news-making moment far from the cameras of still-neophyte CNN, and four years before the Berlin Wall crashed down. "I'm sure their security and coaches were in a state of apoplexy," said Lois Kipper, who hosted about a dozen visiting crews over the first decade-plus of Windermere Cups. "But our athletes loved it. Their athletes loved it. It was such a great scene" (Kipper interview with author).
For about 20 minutes, the crews stroked back through the Montlake Cut and across Union Bay to the docks of the UW's shellhouse, half of each boat in red, half in white and purple. It became the day's most memorable moment, so unique and spirited that it trumped the race results. "It was the damndest thing," said Newnham, the Times columnist and champion of UW's rowing cause. "It was a wonderful Evil Empire moment" (Newnham interview with author). The scene would be featured on the 25th anniversary Windermere Cup poster in 2011. It set the tone for the brotherhood of racing, civic pride, colorful personalities, and international goodwill that has marked the Windermere Cup since the first one in 1987.
Warming in the Engine Room
There was another goodwill moment that first Windermere Cup day. Because of the boat's mammoth size and its owner's friendship with John Jacobi, Frank Neupard's Tranquility Base hosted the Soviets for a cruise of Lake Washington the night before the first Cup. The next day, Neupard's boat hosted friends and supporters of Windermere and UW to watch the regatta. After the races, many of the Soviet and UW competitors came aboard to watch the post-regatta boat parade.
Later, as Tranquility Base was about to dock and the crews were getting ashore for an awards ceremony, two rowers were unaccounted for. A pleased Jacobi was waving goodbye to VIPs when one of the members of the Soviet contingent ran up to him frantically. In the sternest, most urgent tone any Soviet had used that week, the official informed Jacobi that one of the members of the USSR's men's team was missing. Coaches and police, plus what UW Director of Rowing Bob Ernst believed were KGB agents, scrambled, talking urgently on walkie talkies. They searched nearly every corner of Neupard's 80-foot boat, plus the water and docks and land around it -- but not every corner. Amid the panic, Neupard approached Jacobi, away from the Soviet officials. He told his friend he had found the Soviet athlete – plus the second missing rower, a UW woman. They were intertwined inside the engine room. "I don't know how to get them out of there. They are passed out," Neupard said. "Well," Jacobi said, "start the engine!" Neupard did. And the new comrades nearly completed another international athletic feat. "God, they jumped up," Jacobi said later with a laugh. "There you go. There's your first ..." "Outreach program," Ernst interjected, laughing (Jacobi, Ernst interview with author).
Drama and Controversy
Before Sanda Hangan rowed in four Windermere Cups for the Univesity of Washington, she was a key player for her native Romania in the 2001 Windermere Cup -- the most dramatic and controversial Windermere Cup of all.
Hangan grew up in Lozna, a farming village near Romania's northern border with what is now Ukraine. Her family lived in a countryside house with no running water and no bathroom, and it wasn't until around 2010 – the year she became Sanda Mitchell by marriage -- that she was able to build a bathroom with running water for her parents. After taking up rowing at age 14, she immediately showed remarkable aptitude and was invited to Romania's national rowing program in Orsova, 10 hours by train from her home, where she would train and go to school full time.
A couple of years into her program at Orsova, a development half a world away changed her life, when Poland's men's and women's national teams had backed out of the 2001 Windermere Cup. UW Director of Rowing Bob Ernst knew which teams he wanted as replacements: Croatia's Olympic bronze medal-winning men's crew, and Romania for the women's final. "I particularly wanted them to come because they were the world champions," Ernst said of Hangan and her teammates. The Romanians had won the previous two Olympic gold medals in the women's eight, in 1996 and 2000.
Now it was early 2001, the offseason for Romania, whose rowers were far off their peak shapes and strokes. Yet on January 11, 2001, less than four months before race day, Romanian Rowing Federation vice president Nick Gioga accepted the Windermere Cup invitation. Gioga would be the coach leading a crew of 13 to Seattle. "We don't afford paying the plane transportation. Please be so kind to pay for it for us," Gioga wrote in his second language, unaware that Windermere pays for travel to Seattle for visiting Cup teams, plus accommodations. "I hope it is not to (sic) late and you will still accept our request," his letter to UW said. "Because our minister's headquarters was changed in this period, I only received your letter today" (The Windermere Cup: A History ...).
Sanda Hangan would not have become Sanda Mitchell had that letter not found Gioga through the office move. When Hangan left Orsova for Seattle on the last day of April 2001, she packed her training gear plus a few days' worth of clothes and supplies. To her and her family, it was another far-flung trip to a rowing competition. No big goodbyes. "I was entering college there. I was in the top five on the national team. My goal was the Olympics and I had a great chance to be on Romania's Olympics team," Sanda said. "It wasn't like I was planning on escaping" (Hangan Mitchell interview with author).
Even after Poland backed out, the Huskies and Windermere saw the 2001 lineup as the best field assembled in the 15 years of the Windermere Cup. "This is a statement on behalf of the University of Washington, Windermere and the Seattle Yacht Club that we want to bring the best competition in the world to Seattle," Ernst said ("Elite Field Announced ..."). UW women's crew coach Jan Harville said, "It's really going to be spectacular." It was.
Hangan and her teammates arrived in Seattle on Monday, April 30, 2001. Two UW rental vans and Ernst's truck met them at SeaTac Airport and took them to their home for the week, the Silver Cloud Inn just north of University Village. The next morning, May 1 (Ziua muncii, Labor Day, in Romania, a national public workers' holiday), the Croatian men and the Romanian women ate breakfast at the Husky Union Building (HUB) at the center of campus. The teams had a news conference at UW's shellhouse, an afternoon bus tour of Seattle, practice on the water, then a dinner at a UW dormitory.
Hangan and her mates were awed by far more than the sweeping views from atop a Seattle highrise. They were awed by Seattle's lush spring blooms. By the food. The houses. The hospitality. Their Friday visit to Seattle Children's Hospital. By everything in America. "I couldn't believe how clean it was. It was so clean. There were no holes in the pavement!" Hangan said a dozen years later. "There was no trash lying around. And the breakfasts in the hotel! I remember I didn't know how to use the waffle iron. And the pancakes, all the pastries. I kept thinking, 'This is wonderful!'" (author interview).
In workouts on Union Bay leading up to the race, Hangan struck up a conversation with UW senior Nicole Rogers, who rowed bow seat on the Huskies' nine-time defending Pac-10 champion and two-time Windermere Cup champion women's varsity eight. "Nicole, I remember being in the shellhouse and her telling us they only have one practice per day, plus a separate individual workout," Hangan said. "I said, 'What?! One practice a day!' It was like a dream come true. We had three practices a day, and some of those were three- or four-hour practices." Even the dinners in the dorm wowed the Romanians. "I remember all this food we had," Hangan said. "It was a completely different world" (author interview).
By race day, Saturday, May 5, her Romanian teammates began considering the possibility of staying in Seattle beyond the Windermere Cup, of not getting on the plane back home to the relatively Spartan, impoverished lives they were living in Eastern Europe. "I knew other girls wanted to stay, to not go home," Hangan said. "But not me" (author interview).
After a race-day breakfast at the Don James Center inside Husky Stadium, the Romanians in their borrowed hulls broke with Washington's boat from the starting line at 11:20 a.m., the 16th of 17 races of the 2001 Windermere Cup. The racers were between the log booms jammed with viewing boats and screaming fans that stretched from Union Bay to the eastern opening of the Montlake Cut. The Romanian women took an early lead, but once they neared the unfamiliar Cut, they had no answer for the hosts or the roaring crowd that was spurring their push. The Huskies ultimately swamped their visitors.
Gioga, the coach who came all the way to Seattle thinking this would be a good tuneup race for his world-class eight, was furious. "We lost the race. It was not looking good for us," Hangan said. "The coaches were mad. We knew we're going back to get yelled at and to work really hard – which was not fair. We were coming off our off-water season. We were not yet totally adjusted, like U-Dub was. We weren't ready for the pace, for this level of racing. Not yet" (author interview).
Suddenly, in the gloom of the humiliating defeat and anticipating what awaited them in training, Hangan changed her mind and her life. She joined six of her teammates in the idea of staying in Seattle and not boarding the next day's noon bus from the Silver Cloud Motel to the airport.
In the Saturday evening hours after the race, the Romanians were aboard the Eleuthera owned by Scott Hannah, chief executive of Pacific Valley Foods in Bellevue. Hannah brought his boat to the Windermere Cup almost every year. Later, he kept a photograph of the Romanian women's team in the boat's main salon. Washington's iconic crew coach Dick Erickson is at the bottom of the photo, leaning his arm on a table and wearing a navy-blue rain jacket in front of the Romanians and the Hannahs. One of the Romanian coaches is immediately behind Erickson, wearing a blue suit coat, blue dress shirt and bright gold tie beneath a Soviet Navy officer's service cap. Hannah had acquired the cap from St. Petersburg in the former Soviet Union. "The girls had been telling their coach, which he relayed to me, that our boat was bigger than their apartments back in Bucharest," Hannah said (Hannah interview with author).
Hannah's photo was taken two and a half months before Erickson died suddenly at his home in Marysville at the age of 65. The picture was also one of the last times the Romanian coaches saw half of their team. Hangan and five teammates -- bow and two-time world champion Alina Tabacaru, four seat Monica Diaconu, six seat Oana Soptea, two seat Anda Stefanescu, and reserve Mihaela Halip -- never made it back to the hotel.
"They disappeared. Some of them got connected with Romanian people who were living in the Seattle area and just hid out," Ernst said. "And the coach was just pissed. Here his job was just to come over here and make this race. And when they get to the airport on Sunday three or four of the girls were MIA. Nobody knew where they were – supposedly didn't know where they were. It was a big hoo-ha" (Ernst interview with author).
Five of the six Romanian women already had places where they could stay, Hangan recalled. That place was arranged through Danut Moraru, a Romanian who moved to the United States in 1996 to work for Microsoft. He was networked among Romanians throughout the Pacific Northwest, and he worked that Windermere Cup in 2001 as translator for the visiting crew delegation from his home country. Hangan said Moraru offered to have the six Romanians stay in three Seattle-area homes of acquaintances.
While the Hannahs and Erickson and their hosts were trying to socialize with them aboard the Eleuthera, the six Romanians were trying to make a life-altering decision that would have repercussions for six families, extended families, friends, and two coaches halfway across the world. "I didn't have a lot of time to think about it," Hangan recalled. "If I had the time and thought about it more, I might have gone back home" (author interview). When the Hannahs docked their boat at the Conibear Shellhouse, they left the Romanians to board their bus back to the Silver Cloud Inn, to prepare for their flights back to Bucharest. It might have been 200 yards from those docks to the bus and shellhouse parking lot. Over those 200 yards, they got new lives. "We all go into (Moraru's) car," Hangan said. "Yeah, it was pretty selfish. But I was 20 years old" (author interview).
Pipeline to the UW
From Hangan, Australia's Jenni Hogan, and Italy's Roberto Blanda through Croatia's Ante Kusurin, the Windermere Cup's history is filled with rowers who first competed for their home country against Washington at their first Windermere Cup and then enrolled at UW to win rowing titles for the Huskies. Hangan rowed in four more Windermere Cups (2002-2005) after leaving Romania for Seattle.
Kusurin grew up amid war in Zagreb, Croatia. He took up the sport of crew relatively late, as a teenagerr, yet within a couple of years he was a two-time junior world champion. He was an 'A' student and was looking for a college in 2001 -- the same year Ernst invited Croatia's senior national team to row in the Windermere Cup. Ernst immediately and aggressively recruited Kusurin. The only U.S. universities the Croatian had heard of were Harvard and Princeton, Ivy League rowing powers. But he chose Washington, because he said he had learned quickly enough that he would be tested most at UW. Asked upon his arrival in 2002 why he chose the Huskies, Kusurin said: "It's the toughest program in the USA and the world. And I like evergreens" (Bell).
The Huskies had several Serbians in their rowing program, a tricky and bothersome fact for Kusurin just two years removed from Croatia and Serbia having waged war against each other. "The war had just ended and there was still a lot of frustration," Kusurin told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 2006 about his freshman year at Washington. "I met the two Serbian guys and it became obvious to me: I don't think we should mix sports and politics" ("The Perfect Form ..."). Otherwise, his adjustment wasn't too disrupting: Kusurin was the six seat on UW's freshman boat that won a 2002 Windermere Cup race and every other race in 2002, capped by a gold medal and Stewards Cup at the IRA national championships. He eventually became roommates with two Serbians. Kusurin and Belgrade native Aljosa Corovic shared a house in Seattle with Corovic's fellow Serb Alex Slovic, a UW tennis player.
Kusurin rowed four years at UW, winning three Windermere Cups (when he was a redshirt senior in 2006 the Huskies lost to the Russian Rowing Federation). As a sophomore in 2003 he earned a silver medal on the varsity eight at the IRAs. He spent a redshirt year in 2004 back home training with the Croatian National Team. A conflict with his coaches left him off Croatia's Olympic team that year. He returned in 2005 wowed by the spectacle of the Windermere Cup, which was in its 18th year since the Soviet Union had helped kick off the event. "It's like an all-star game. It's not a championship game, but I've been to six world championships and nowhere did I see anything like this, with all the people," Kusurin said in 2006. "It's a one-of-a-kind event. It makes you a star for a day" ("The Perfect Form ...").
After graduating from Washington as its rowing captain in 2006, Kusurin fulfilled his dream of attending graduate school at the University of Oxford's Said Business School. In 2008 he competed in doubles sculls at the Beijing Olympics while remaining a rower on Croatia's national team for more than eight years. He became a financial analyst in London, and eventually an associate at One Equity Partners, a venture-capital and private-equity firm in New York. "He works for a Wall Street company that takes over international companies," is how Ernst put it in 2013 (author interview).
Kusurin was involved in one of the more unusual Windermere Cups in the event's history. American twins Cameron and Tyler Winkelvoss gained fame for suing Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in 2004, claiming he stole the social-networking idea they developed while undergraduate rowers at Harvard. In 2010 the Winklevosses, then students at Oxford, were supposed to race in the 24th Windermere Cup. Ernst had lined up Oxford, getting Kusurin's help to coordinate England's famed crew arriving for its first Windermere Cup. In fact, Kusurin led the Oxford team to Seattle in May 2010. It was two years after the Winklevoss twins advanced in the Beijing Olympics in a pairs boat for the United States, so they were still in prime racing form. But the "Winkelvii," as they were known, did not make it from Oxford to Seattle. They stayed in England because of … a volcano. The Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland, specifically. It erupted multiple times into late April, closing major European airports and throwing the 2010 Windermere Cup into pre-race chaos.
University of Washington athletes have dominated the marquee Windermere Cup races. Through 2018, the UW women's varsity eight had won 23 of 32 Windermere Cups, while the UW men's eight had prevailed 24 times in 32 races. The UW men were defeated in the first four Windermere Cups -- by teams from the Soviet Union, Australia, Italy, and China -- before winning 10 in succession and 24 of 28. In 1997 -- another marquee moment in Windermere Cup history -- the Huskies upset the Australian national team, which in 1996 had won a gold medal in four-man rowing at the Atlanta Olympics. It was, Bob Ernst told The Seattle Times, "probably the most important race that the Huskies have won in the Windermere Cup" ("The Eight Most ..."). The UW women rowed to one of their greatest victories in 1995, when they defeated defending national collegiate champion Princeton and a formidable foe from South Africa.