Back home in Ulaanbaatar there was no word for what they do. So Dulguun Baasandavaa and Tuvshinzaya Gantulga had to invent one — “Urt Seluurt Zavi”.
“Long-oar boating,” says Gantulga.
Mongolians are terrific wrestlers and boxers and judokas, but they don’t sweep and they don’t scull, except maybe on an ergometer. Until Baasandavaa and Gantulga formed it, there was no Mongolian Rowing Association and they are its only members.
On Saturday afternoon, they’ll make their competitive debut in the Head of the Charles Regatta, which is something akin to learning how to drive at the Daytona 500. Since they’re too old for the youth double and too young for the master events and don’t qualify for the parent/child or mixed doubles races, the 28-year-old Baasandavaa and 25-year-old Gantulga will be lining up in the championship event with the Americans and Canadians.
The way Baasandavaa and Gantulga figure it, if you’re going to dip your oar in, why not do it at the world’s most fabled Head race? “Before coming here I told my Mom, ‘There’s this great big race in Boston and I’m going there,’ ” says Gantulga. “And she said, ‘Oh, you mean just like those Jamaicans going to the Olympics?’ ”
The Jamaican bobsledders, whose Calgary initiation resembled the Marx Brothers trying to catch a cab, captured the planet’s imagination and Baasandavaa and Gantulga have done the same in their landlocked homeland, which is wedged between China and Russia.
“It’s not only a milestone for the association, it’s a milestone for Mongolian sport,” reckons Gantulga, who works for the American Chamber of Commerce back home. “Mongolians being able to participate in a sport where 99.9 percent of the population doesn’t know anything about it says something.”
What the Mongolians know about is combatives, which is where they won all five of their medals at last year’s London Olympics. “I read somewhere that Mongolians excel at sports that are individual and potentially could harm the other side,” says Gantulga. “So this is something very new for Mongolia.”
Their 29-member team at the Games had only four athletes who didn’t punch, grapple, or throw opponents, or shoot arrows or bullets. Two of them were marathoners and two were swimmers who stopped at 100 meters. If they hadn’t gone to college in the States, Baasandavaa and Gantulga probably never would have known port from starboard.
Baasandavaa, who works for the TenGer Financial Group, went to Connecticut College in New London, Conn., where the crew rows on the Thames River, where Harvard and Yale have their annual 4-miler. Gantulga, who was a student at the European College of Liberal Arts in Berlin, spent his junior year abroad at Franklin & Marshall College in the heart of Amish country in Pennsylvania. “I’d seen photos on Facebook of Dulguun rowing and always had wondered how it feels like,” he says. “I tried it, and I absolutely fell in love with it.”
So he and Baasandavaa began talking last year about racing in the Head, even though they had no boat, no boathouse, and nowhere suitable to row. The Tuul River runs through Ulaanbaatar, but it might as well be a ticket to an amusement park ride.
“That river is too fast and too shallow, so we can’t row in that,” says Baasandavaa. “We can probably row at the risk of crashing our boat.”
Lake Ogii is rowable, but it’s a couple hundred miles away.
The most sensible route was simply to come to Boston and take to the Rivah, so they took a few weeks off from work and made the 16-hour trip via Seoul and New York. Baasandavaa and Gantulga rented an apartment on Market Street in Brighton, from where they could walk to Community Rowing’s boathouse, where they use a shell borrowed from Boston College. For the last fortnight, they’ve done two 15-kilometer workouts a day, down to the MIT boathouse and back, and they’d do three if their blisters allowed.
The way the Mongolians see it, their practice pulls are a magical mystery tour of King Charles’s fabled waterway, with its bridges and shoreside foliage and the Boston skyline and the Harvard crew cruising past.
“To me the best part is not necessarily the race itself, but just being on the Charles River is fantastic,” says Gantulga, whose girlfriend is a Harvard graduate student.
For Baasandavaa, the Head will be a dream deferred. When he was a senior he was odd man out for his college four that raced here. “I was the fifth member, the benchwarmer,” Baasandavaa recalls. “We had three fours, but only one entry. I raced for seats and lost. It was pretty devastating. No one got hurt or got sick, so I was on the shore.”
This time he and Gantulga will have bow number 8, going off between the Coconut Grove Rowing Club and Dawson College from Montreal. They have absolutely no idea what to expect from an event that historically has been described in Homeric terms, for both good and ill. They’ve heard about how the Peking University eight abandoned ship a few years ago after swamping at the Eliot Bridge. “I’ve seen the picture of the coxswain standing,” says Baasandavaa.
The Jamaican bobsledders came back from Olympus with their heads still attached to their bodies and, with time, became reasonably proficient. For puzzled countrymen who’ve only recently learned what long-oar boating is, a trip to the Head of the Charles might as well be a voyage to Jupiter.
“I don’t think many people understand the difficulties of coming here and the rigor of the race because they don’t know what rowing is,” muses Baasandavaa.
Their Boston pilgrimage already has attracted media attention back home, where the reaction generally has been: Good luck and don’t sink.
“Everyone at home has been incredibly supportive,” reports Gantulga. “No one gave us a weird look.”
The important thing is that the world sees Mongolian scullers paddling alongside Yanks and others in a sport that does not involve close-quarters action, at least not intentionally. The world championships can wait for another year.
“It’s a good start for the association,” says Baasandavaa. “The first international race we are participating — and it will not be the last.”John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.