Anyone who has not rowed in a really close boat race cannot comprehend the level of pain. – Dan Topolski
In 1936 the United States Men’s Olympic eight-oar rowing team won the gold medal in Berlin. These rowers from the University of Washington were the sons of laborers, farmers, loggers, and shipyard workers. They had beaten their acclaimed arch-rival, Berkeley. They had prevailed over elite East Coast rowing teams. They had defeated Great Britain, whose Olympic team were oarsmen from Oxford and Cambridge. People who read their story are moved and inspired by it, seeing it as a story of underdogs who came out on top.
Perhaps it is. But rowing began as a “blue collar” pastime. Rowing contests had long been popular with sailors and fishermen and in fact dated all the way back to ancient times. But the modern sport of rowing was created by working class men in eighteenth-century England. They were ferrymen and taxi service providers on the River Thames.
Boatmen began to compete with one another, first for pleasure, to see who would arrive at his destination first. The races became popular and started to attract crowds. Rowing evolved into a bona fide sport when wealthy enthusiasts began offering prizes to the winners. By the 1820s Oxford and Cambridge had established their famous Boat Race.
Rowing eventually caught on in the United States, too, initially in the port cities of New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. It was one of the first sports to become popular here, particularly among those who could afford it; Yale University started the first collegiate rowing club in 1843. The oldest intercollegiate athletic event in the country is the Harvard-Yale Regatta, established in 1852.
Because of the cost of boats, equipment, maintenance, and training facilities, rowing was expensive. But people liked watching it in the same way people enjoy watching other expensive sports like auto racing. (In fact, NASCAR has similar origins to that of rowing – ordinary working people deciding to race one another while transporting certain goods.)
In competitive rowing, the boats, or shells, come in two types. In a scull, a rower has two oars. In a sweep boat, each rower has one oar. Each seat in the boat is numbered according to its position going from bow (front of the boat) to stern (back of the boat). Where there is a coxswain, he or she occupies an extra seat, usually at the very rear, facing the direction the boat is headed, while rowers face the rear.
For sculls there is the single (one rower), the double (two rowers), and the quad (four rowers). For sweep boats there is the pair, the coxed pair (two rowers and a coxswain), the four, the coxed four (four rowers and a coxswain), and the eight (eight rowers and a coxswain).
The coxswain (COX-un) or cox is smaller than the rest of the team but is a vital addition to the boat. This person’s main job is keeping the boat in its lane. If it moves out of its lane it can be disqualified, so the cox keeps it straight, steering it by pulling wires attached to the boat’s rudder. The safety of the boat and everyone in it is the cox’s responsibility. The cox is also the voice of the boat: he or she calls out instructions to the crew and motivates and guides them till the end of the race.
Take, for example, the men’s eight. At the front of the boat are the bow pair, seats 1 and 2. At the back of the boat are the stern pair, seats 7 and 8. The rower closest to the stern, in seat 8, is the stroke. The stroke sets the pace for the crew. Everyone else follows his timing, placing their blades (oars) in and out of the water exactly when he does.
The stroke establishes the crew’s rate (number of strokes per minute) and rhythm. In addition to having great stamina he is one of the most technically sound members of the boat.
The rower directly behind the stroke in seat 7 closely follows the rhythm set by the stroke and helps transmit the rhythm to the rest of the boat.
The middle rowers (numbers 3, 4, 5, and 6) are the heaviest and most powerful rowers. Their nickname is the engine room. These rowers, being closer to the centers of mass and buoyancy, have less effect on boat movement so they don’t have to be as technically proficient. They can concentrate on pulling as hard as they can.
The bow pair are the stabilizer of the boat. The hull is narrower at the front of the boat and rowers can easily feel any subtle movements there. The bow pair have to be able to make appropriate adjustments while keeping in sync with the stern pair. Bowmen are usually smaller than the rest of the rowers.
From the start of the race the cox is instructing the team, letting them know when and how to adjust their rowing and at times telling them who’s ahead or behind and by how much. He drives them forward, and they’re going to need it. Not long after they begin rowing, every fiber of their bodies is going to be screaming at them to give up.
Pain is an inescapable part of sports. But with rowing, there are no “time outs” for pain. The race doesn’t shut down because people are in pain. You brace yourself for the pain and when it comes – and it surely will – you begin to fight it. Rowing is essentially a contest to see who can endure the most pain. That’s what some rowers say. Here is rower John Seabrook’s well-known observation:
Marathon runners talk about hitting “the wall” at the twenty-third mile of the race. What rowers confront isn’t a wall; it’s a hole – an abyss of pain, which opens up in the second minute of the race. Large needles are being driven into your thigh muscles, while your forearms seem to be splitting. Then the pain becomes confused and disorganized, not like the windedness of the runner or the leg burn of the biker but an all-over, savage unpleasantness.
As you pass the 500-meter mark, with three quarters of the race still to row, you realize with dread that you are not going to make it to the finish, but at the same time the idea of letting your teammates down by not rowing your hardest is unthinkable.
Yes, rowing is about pain. But sometimes a crew doesn’t just keep pushing ahead through pain; they actually rise above it.
Legendary rowing coach Ky Ebright said that a boat cannot be jerked through the water. There is a rhythm of the water and everything must flow smoothly. And sometimes a team will begin to adjust to each other through what Michael Socolow calls a nonverbal and unconscious “cooperative physicality.”
If one rower barely drops his hands, somewhere else in the eight, another will slightly raise his to maintain balance and harmony. The process is automatic. Every single stroke is slightly different, with numerous tiny, simultaneous adjustments constantly occurring, until a crew move beyond conscious adjustment and into the realm of unspoken sensitivity to their environment and teammates.
With all eight oars in sync like this, a team can reach a moment when the boat seems to lift out of the water, says one rower.
…Then all of a sudden the race is over and you don’t remember anything about the race except that you ended up two boat lengths ahead.
This moment is what rowers call swing. This, more than anything else, is the goal of rowing.
Rowers will tell you that they’ve only experienced swing in perhaps three or four races in their entire careers. You can’t conjure up swing or force it to happen. You have to have some other way to get through. Trevor Teller tells what keeps him going until he’s over the finish line.
The reason I never stop is because giving up before the end would make all the pain pointless.