Assemble Your Crew: A Look Inside the Growing Sport of Rowing on the Shoreline
While covering athletics in Guilford, Madison, and Killingworth for the past five years, I’ve been introduced to several sports with which I wasn’t previously familiar. One of the fastest-growing of these sports is rowing, and that seems fitting considering we live in an area that’s surrounded by water. I decided that I wanted to look deeper into the sport, the life of a rower, and what makes the whole thing so intriguing. Let’s dive in!
Rowing, also known as crew, is one of the world’s oldest sports with origins that trace back to the Ancient Egyptian times. Some of the first records of competitive rowing are from the 10th century in the United Kingdom, where races were held on the River Thames. It was an early Olympic event with the first men’s competition held in 1900. The sport also owns a strong local presence in the college ranks as Yale University formed the first American college rowing club in 1843 and later raced Harvard for the first intercollegiate athletic event in 1852.
Along the high school shores, rowing seems to generate a bigger presence every year with Guilford, Valley Regional, and Lyme-Old Lyme each offering scholastic programs that are continually gaining momentum. Emily Hutchinson, a captain for Valley Regional crew, discusses why rowers like herself participate in such a grueling sport that constantly pushes participants to their limits.
“The hardest part of competing in this sport is the mental and physical fitness it requires. Each race, a rower is forced to push their body to exceed every limit you can imagine, and this takes extreme determination,” said Hutchinson. “The competitions don’t get easier, because as you continue to condition, you still have to do your personal best, even though your best improves throughout the season. The most enjoyable part of the sport is the rewarding feeling that comes after finishing a race, knowing everyone in the boat put everything they could into the competition. My favorite part of every race is crossing the finish line, no matter the boat’s place, because everyone knows we all gave our full effort, and doing as well as we can is all that matters.”
Sailing the High (School) Seas
Connecticut has a governing body for high school crew called the Connecticut Public Schools Rowing Association (CPSRA). The CPSRA features 13 teams, and there is an annual State Championship Regatta race held at the end of the season in May. Competitions like these give kids the opportunity to be part of one of the ultimate examples of a team sport.
“The reason I stuck with it is because I love the team spirit and camaraderie, both within individual boats and the team as a whole,” said Guilford High School rower Trinity Flynn. “No matter how good or bad a rower is, every single person in the boat is an integral part of the team.”
Typically, high school crews compete once a week. When it comes to practice, the sport features an extremely detailed structure that helps its athletes get ready for the rigors of a race.
“A normal on-the-water training session consists of stretching [and a] boat meeting, technique drills, high-intensity and low-intensity rowing, and a stretching cool down [and a] boat meeting,” said Guilford’s Head Coach Matt Wilson. “The coaches spend quite a lot of time teaching rowers the proper techniques of rowing, including the stroke, catch, drive, finish, and recovery. Every movement a rower makes in the boat can change the boat, so each rower works hard to perfect their technique.”
As is the case in any sport, crew coaches enjoy being around hard-working athletes and high-character people. Valley Regional Head Coach John Laundon likes using the sport as a way to instill life skills that will serve his athletes well for years to come.
“As far as coaching, it’s a privilege to be able to spend time with such great kids and to give them an experience that could mold their approach to life in the long run,” Laundon said.
Let’s Get Physical
As you might expect, rowers need to stay in tiptop shape year-round if they expect to perform their best. Hannah Paynter, a former captain for Lyme-Old Lyme who now competes at Princeton University, is well-versed in the dedication that’s required to thrive on the water.
“They are some of the most dedicated and resilient athletes that I’ve ever met,” said Paynter. “In the fall, the rowing world trains for what is called head racing, where boats race single file. These races are typically close to 5,000 meters in length, which takes about 20 minutes to complete.”
Paynter explained that even though winter can put a damper on outdoor training in the Northeast, technology steps in to provide a big-time aptitude test for rowers.
“[Winter] is the time when most crews gain the most speed. Lifting programs amp up, the rowing machine [also called the ergometer or erg] workouts increase in intensity, and everyone is thinking about the spring season,” Paynter said. “You stare at the screen of the erg monitor every day—a screen that objectively defines your speed, your strength, and your toughness. The winter season ends typically with a 2,000-meter erg test, 2K. Everyone has their target 500-meter-splits planned out and a final time they are shooting for. This erg piece reflects on your winter training, determines your spring boat lineups, and sometimes grants you an opportunity to be recruited to a top-tier university.”
When the season arrives, rowing becomes a chess match in terms of formulating lineups. Although the warmer months are typically considered a time for relaxation, they come with an all-hands-on-deck mentality in the rowing world as people compete for club teams or engage in other athletic endeavors to stay sharp.
“Spring is the main season for rowers. Juniors race both 1,500- and 2,000-meter races against local schools and club teams in their area. The focus shifts from sheer volume on the erg to perfecting your lineup and race plan on the water,” said Paynter. “The spring season concludes in all sorts of championship races. At the close of spring season, many rowers row competitively in the summer for various club programs and even some programs run by U.S. Rowing. Some take this season off to rest and prevent injury by cross-training with swimming, cycling, and running.”
Like many springtime sports, so much in crew depends on the weather. That’s why coaches and athletes have to prepare themselves for the inevitable curveballs that Mother Nature can dish out at any time.
“As our head coach states frequently, ‘Crew is an all-weather sport.’ On many occasions, we’ve faced heavy wind or rain during races, which always adds to the fun of the sport,” said Leo Freund, who rows for Guilford. “Equipment issues are possible, and the coxswain knows how to combat each situation. If it may be for the boat to thwart rowing momentarily or simply adjusting your stoke until the end, they will always be on top of that. Our coaches do an amazing job every practice to prepare us for every situation, as well, while also setting us up for success.”
Wind plays a major factor in whether a crew decides to set sail. Sometimes technological breakdowns occur, further complicating the situation.
“The past two years, the novice regattas were canceled due to weather conditions—wind being a factor. If the winds are too strong, we can’t race, but depending on the strength, they may only have the novice boats sit out due to inexperience. Tailwinds are a gift. They make a race quicker and much less painful as they propel the boat in the direction it wants to go. Headwinds, on the other hand, are less than favorable in a race,” Flynn said. “Equipment wise, the boat’s skeg [fin] can break off, hindering the coxswain’s ability to steer. If this happens during a race, the coxswain would presumably have to have to increase [or] decrease port and starboard pressure to steer. The coxswain’s headset or cox box could also stop working, making the rowers in the bow of the boat unable to hear her [or] his calls. During a race, the coxswain would have to yell louder, and the rowers would have to depend on the stroke more heavily.”
Grow, Grow, Grow Your Boat
While there are always some hurdles with any burgeoning sport, rowing appears to be making some serious headway upstream based on its growing numbers. Paynter knows that this increased level of participation can only lead to more-intense competition.
“I have noticed a change in the number of rowers in the NCAA as a whole. Each year, there are programs who are suddenly vying for Grand Final [the NCAA’s National Championship] spots when they barely made the championship regatta a few years before,” said Paynter. “Schools are pouring resources into women’s rowing all over the country. Within the last few years, the Grand Final isn’t the only race that comes down to the last few meters. The [B and C heats] are equally as competitive with multiple races being decided by a fraction of a second.”
Wilson and Laundon also noted the big gains that their respective programs at Guilford and Valley Regional have seen in recent seasons.
“When the program was founded, it began with 22 rowers. In the next few years, the number grew to over 50 rowers. Since its inception, the participation level on the team has been consistently growing over the last 10 years with approximately 70 to 80 rowers per year,” said Wilson. “As it is a co-ed team, there are between 40 [to] 50 girls and 25 [to] 35 boys on the team every year. However, this past spring, the team consisted of 88 rowers—55 girls and 33 boys—which was almost eight percent of the Guilford High School student body.”
“Over the last few years, interest has increased dramatically,” Laundon added. “[In the spring of 2018], I’m anticipating at least 30 girls and, hopefully, some boys. A few years back we had half the number.”
Connecticut Boat Club coach James Sweitzer said that one big advantage rowing has in its back pocket is that anyone at can pick up an oar and start crafting their skills at any time.
“It is one of the few sports where you can begin the sport as a high school age rower and excel by the end of then and/or college,” Sweitzer said. “Whereas most other sports, the skills required need to be honed over a long period, it’s virtually the opposite in rowing. You’ll find at the college and national-team level that there are many very successful rowers who began rowing in college.”
It remains to be seen just how big rowing will ultimately become in the Nutmeg State, but the signs are certainly pointing in a positive direction. We’ll just have to see where the water takes us.
In rowing, athletes with two oars in each hand are the scullers, and there are three sculling events: the single or 1x (one sculler), the double (2x), and the quad (4x). Those with only one oar are the sweep rowers. Sweep boats may or may not carry a coxswain, which are the people who steer the boat (more commonly called a shell in the rowing community), take commands from the coach, and then give them to the rest of the crew. In boats without coxswains, one of the rowers steers by moving the rudder with his or her foot. Sweep boats feature two rowers either with (2+) or without a coxswain (2-), four rowers with (4+) or without (4-) a coxswain, and eight rowers (8+) in which there is always a coxswain. The eight is the fastest boat on the water.
Athletes are identified by their seats in the boat. The rower in the bow (front) is seat No. 1, the person in front of the bow is No. 2, followed by 3 through 7, and then No. 8, the stroke. The stroke of the boat must be a strong rower with excellent technique. The stroke sets the rhythm and number of strokes per minute, and then the rest of the crew must follow.
Collegiate, national, world, and Olympic sprint competitions are 2,000 meters. High school competitions are 1,500 meters. The race course is divided into six to eight lanes, and each section is marked with buoys. Individuals in each lane hold the stern of every boat steady, while an official, known as the aligner, ensures that each boat is even with the others. Each crew is allowed one false start; two results in a disqualification. If there is a legitimate equipment breakage within the first 100 meters, the race will be stopped and restarted with repaired equipment.