So What’s So Great About Rowing Anyway?

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My wife is very unfortunate. She now lives with not one, but two rowers in the family (our son and me). This means that she has to constantly listen to (and occasionally pretend to slightly care about) the two of us talking about today’s workout, erg times, the set of the boat, which seat we rowed that day, and any number of other topics that are of absolutely no interest to anybody who doesn’t engage in this particular activity.

So what’s the big deal…it’s just a boat and some oars, how hard can it be? And for that matter how much fun can it be to do an aquatic trudge up and down the same stretch of river repeatedly….in the rain…at 5:00 am?

Sorry, no answers here, but I do have something like an analogy: It’s like golf without any of that annoying golf stuff.

I tried golfing a couple of times. Stupid sport. Whack the ball, go find the ball in the trees, throw it back out onto the course, try to whack it again. Repeat until you either

(a) complete the course
(b) get fed up
(c) run out of beer.

Like I said, stupid sport. But every once in a while the stars align and you manage to whack the holy petunias out of that ball. That little sucker just flies straight and true right down the fairway and your brain immediately releases some strange cocktail of chemicals into your blood stream that makes you forget the last 27 hours that you’ve spent on Easter egg hunts out of bounds and instead you bask in the meth-like rush of that one good stroke.

Rowing really isn’t anything like that at all, but it’s not entirely unlike it (hey, I said this was only like an analogy, right?).

Rowing involves getting up while it’s still good and dark. While most people haven’t even hit their snooze button for the first time, the rowers have already carried the boat down to the water, tied in, and are starting the morning workout, rain or shine, except that there’s no shine because it’s dark…remember?

Rowing involves getting blisters on your hands, getting wet (it is a water sport after all), working muscles you didn’t know you had, and once again being the new guy in a sport where it seems like everybody else has been doing it all of their lives while you’re that kid who just moved into the neighborhood, hovering around trying to convince the big kids to let you play.

At first rowing seems like good exercise out on the water. That alone is enough to make it worthwhile. But soon you begin to realize just how complicated the whole mess is. Every little detail makes a big difference. Raw physical power has to be channeled through finesse; an incredibly strong stroke that is ill-timed and poorly executed will actually slow the boat down.

And speaking of the boat, there are generally a few other people that would really appreciate it if you would tailor your efforts to match with theirs. Unless you’re rowing a single (sculling), you can’t make a boat go fast without understanding how to work as a team.

I’ve played a few team sports from time to time. In every case there were a few athletes that stood out as simply better than the rest of us. If you were fortunate enough to have them on your team, well, you could pretty much simply attend and have a good chance of winning the game. Sure there was “team” effort, but there were also stars that were fully capable of making the difference between winning and losing.

Rowing isn’t like that. With rowing the team is the thing. You can do fairly well if everybody is competent, but you’ll never excel unless every single person in the boat works together at an almost atomic level. Each stroke needs to be perfectly synchronized in a dance that starts with every blade engaging at the exact same moment, continues with a smooth burst of synchronized raw power that accelerates the boat, and suddenly transforms into an almost delicate slide back up the track toward the next stroke.

Most of the time it’s darned good fun. But occasionally (and for new guys like me it’s pretty darned rare) it all comes together and suddenly….magic. The boat feels like it’s flying. The surge of power is exhilarating and even the sounds become intoxicating as the hiss of the air bubbles under the boat suddenly becomes audible and eight oars feather together creating a single “thunk”. You actually feel the entire group become a single unit and it hits you what rowers mean when they talk about “swing”.

And then the brain does the chemical release thing, the rush hits, and you forget the weather, the time of day, the muscle pain, and pretty much anything you ever knew about anything and get fully caught up in the moment. The addiction kicks in, and suddenly  you’re no longer just a guy in a boat, you’re a rower.

One Response

  1. Being a part of the rowing team has shown me the sheer magnitude of human potential. Put a person in a boat, hand them an oar, give them a taste of what winning feels like–and soon enough, they will be practicing for five hours a day, will be getting up three hours before the rest of their campus to row in subzero temperatures, and will have the unstoppable willpower of a champion.

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