News & Updates
From The Player’s Tribune – June 2016
Have you ever been cornered and asked, “So, what do you do?” Sometimes, it can be tough to explain. Everyone thinks they know what a pro athlete does. But do we really know? We asked U.S. Olympic rower Meghan Musnicki to explain her job without using any clichés.
There are a few words that are frequently associated with boat rides. Some people say they’re relaxing, some say they’re peaceful and some even say they’re romantic.
Unfortunately, the ones that I go on aren’t any of those things. In fact, they’re draining and painful. There’s nothing tranquil about them.
I’m a professional rower, and I’m here to tell you what you don’t know about rowing as a sport. I know, I know. You’re probably wondering why on earth you need to know anything about rowing. Well, this summer at the Rio Olympics, the U.S. women’s eight will attempt to do something that very few national teams in any sport have ever accomplished: win its 11th consecutive world title. It’s the dynasty in sports that nobody’s talking about.
The first thing that confuses people about rowing is how a rower is situated in a boat. Basic boat directions are as follows: Port is left, starboard is right, bow is front and stern is back. In a boat — otherwise known as a racing shell — those are all the same, but since rowers face to the rear everything is sort of flipped. If I row port, from my perspective, the oar goes off to the right. But if you’re looking forward in the boat from the stern, the oar goes off to the left. Make sense? Don’t worry. I’ll come back to it later on.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ERIK DRESSER
The second thing that people don’t get is how the boat actually moves. I’ll explain, and I promise to make it entertaining. In theory, it’s pretty simple, but actually executing it properly? Thats a lot tougher.
Normally, you can get a good idea of what sport an athlete plays by his or her physique. For example, you may be able to recognize soccer players by their muscular legs. The same goes for basketball players and their height.
Rowers? Not so much. Upon learning that I row, people usually say, “Oh! No wonder your arms look like that!” Well, thanks for the compliment, but the truth is that rowing is almost completely a lower body sport.
Wait, really? But don’t rowers use their arms to move the oar?
What actually makes a shell move can’t really be seen from on land. With an eight, for example, most of what you see from outside the boat are the rowers ‘pulling’ their oars through the water. But inside the shell there’s a lot more going on. Each rower is perched on a seat that slides forward and back on two tracks. Their feet are strapped into shoes that are attached to stationary foot plates. (Depending on the shell, there could be anywhere from one to eight seats — I am attempting to qualify for the eight that will be competing in Rio.)
Rather than telling a rower that their arms look good, let them know that their legs look great. I promise it’ll make their day.
To propel the boat forward, you slide all the way forward in your seat, ‘catch’ the blade in the water behind yourself and drive your bent legs into the foot plate pushing the boat away from you. Virtually all your muscles are engaged at this point as you attempt to ‘hang’ your body weight off the oar handle. Once you ‘drive’ your legs down and follow through with your body your arms come in towards your chest with little effort due to the momentum you’ve created with your legs and core. Finally, you bring the blade through the water until the handle of the oar is once again in front of you, which is referred to as the ‘finish.’ All of these movements combined make up one ‘stroke.’ At this point you have to get the blade out of the water so you can start it all again (in a race you’ll do this approximately 220 times, which takes just under 6 minutes). In one motion, you push down on the handle, extracting the blade from the water, and flip it so that it is parallel to the surface then push your arms away from you. You then rock forward on your seat, bend your knees, ‘slide’ up the tracks, quickly flip the blade back to perpendicular to the water, and once again, ‘catch’ the oar behind you.
Don’t get me wrong — arms are an important part of any rower’s stroke. But to really go fast, your legs, core, and back do most of the work. So, rather than telling a rower that their arms look good, let them know that their legs look great. I promise it’ll make their day.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ERIK DRESSER
Now that you know how a boat moves, let’s talk about an actual competition — also known as a regatta.
During the 2014 World Rowing Cup in France, my eight other boatmates and I were off of first place by open water. Open water signifies that no part of one boat overlaps with any part of another boat. In a 2,000 meter boat race, this is a significant amount. Things really didn’t look good.
That’s when our coxswain (basically the equivalent of a jockey or a quarterback, just in one pint sized person), Katelin, truly proved her worth. The coxswain is vital to a shell’s success: She has to steer the boat in a straight line during our race, help keep the rowers focused on the task at hand and let us know where we are in comparison to the other boats.
PHOTOGRAPH BY NATE GORDON/THE PLAYERS’ TRIBUNE
If we’re winning, there usually aren’t very many mid-race adjustments. But if we are losing, Katelin is tasked with the job of trying to get more speed out of us. This is no easy task. She has to convince us that we have to give more at a time when our minds and bodies are already telling us that there’s nothing left in the tank.
In most sports, momentum is this mysterious intangible. Back-to-back home runs? The crowd goes crazy. Turnovers that lead to threes? Game changers. In rowing, it’s not as easy to see the initial shift of momentum. Inside the boat it’s something you feel before people outside the boat can see. Once it happens, as a spectator, you can see one boat suddenly start to make up ground on another — a move that’s usually spurred on by the coxswain.
Katelin struck a chord when she called for us to do it for our teammates (I should also mention she used some choice words that aren’t fit for print). At that moment, I could feel the energy shift in the shell. Eight incredibly strong and powerful women each dug in a little bit more, and we started to move. The bow of our boat — which, if you remember, is actually behind us — caught the stern of the lead boat. Then we pulled even. Then, with less than 30 seconds left in the race the bow of our shell edged into first.
PHOTOGRAPH BY US ROWING
It is one of my favorite races to date. The feeling in the boat was incredible. All of us came together and got it done. Unfortunately, as you can probably tell it is also incredibly painful, rowers don’t make the most photogenic faces while we’re rowing. Don’t judge.
There’s one simple reason I row port: coordination. There’s no correlation to what your dominant hand is. There are some rowers who are as good on port as they are on starboard, but that’s rare. Given that I’ve been a port for so many years, my right side is stronger than my left. That’s because I twist to the right and most of my force that I generate comes from my right leg, which is closest to the blade. Sure, I could row starboard, but I’d be about as successful as Jordan Spieth hitting a golf ball left handed. It could happen, but it wouldn’t be pretty or work very well.
It may sound crazy, but the group of girls (me included) who qualified the U.S. eight last summer for the 2016 Olympics may not be the ones who actually row in Rio this summer.
In rowing, making the Olympic team is a bit confusing, so bear with me. When you qualify for the Olympics, you’re not qualifying yourself. Rather, you’re qualifying the shell. It’s as if you’re qualifying the jersey of a team, but not the actual players. You might have done the work to get the team to the championship game, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you will be playing in it. Just imagine Tom Brady helping the Patriots win the AFC championship game, and then the Patriots sending out an entirely different team — with a new quarterback — for the Super Bowl.
It may sound crazy, but the group of girls (me included) who qualified the U.S. eight last summer for the 2016 Olympics may not be the ones who actually row in Rio this summer. At the same time, it makes sense that the U.S. would want the top rowers in the shell.
On June 20, U.S. Rowing will announce who will be going to Rio. The date is right around the corner. Even though I’ve been training with the boat for the past seven years (and trying to make Olympic team for over 10 months), I still have no clue whether I’ll be one of the eight strapping my feet into the boat at the Games. I can’t tell you how many puzzles I’ve done and how many batches of cookies I’ve baked to get my mind off of June 20. The whole process is like waiting for an acceptance letter from a college that only admits students once every four years.
PHOTOGRAPH BY US ROWING
Even though I’ve been on world championship teams and won gold with the London Olympic team, I’m still nervous. There are so many capable women that I train with each day, and I respect every one of them. For me to think that my spot on the team is a lock would not only be incredibly foolish, but would also be disrespectful to my teammates.
But no matter who will be in the boat, when you sit down in front of your TV to watch the Olympics, you’ll have the chance to see Team USA make history. As I mentioned, the women’s eight has a chance to capture its 11th consecutive world title (in Olympic years, the Games take the place of the world championships), which is reason enough to tune in. That’s crazy! To be honest though, behind the scenes, we’re not really thinking about continuing our streak. We can’t get caught up in the chance to win another title, we can only focus on putting in the work day after day so when we get to the start line we can seize the opportunity to put our best race out there.
Rowing is exhilarating stuff — I promise you. As you watch, your palms will start sweating and your heartbeat will quicken. And while you’re coping with the nerves, just remember that we’re doing our best to make America proud.
Oh, and remember one more thing — we’ll be doing it mostly with our legs.
Rowing is an awesome sport that is gaining participants across the world on any available lake, river, reservoir or bay. Like any hard-endurance athletes, we rowers have a reputation for being a little crazy with our love of early mornings and embracing the pain of racing.
Rowing is a great exercise for the lungs, back, legs and arms. You’ll find rowers to be a tight-knit community. Unlike other sports where experience matters more, rowing is very friendly to beginners and people pick up and enjoy the sport at any age. There are racing classes for youths, juniors, collegiate athletes and many age groups of masters rowers.
But that’s just the start. Here are five more reasons to give rowing a shot!
There’s no sport that embodies team unity like rowing. It doesn’t matter how hard your friend pulls if you aren’t pulling your weight too, and it doesn’t matter how hard anyone pulls if everyone doesn’t pull in time together. Everyone has to sync up and commit to the same common goal to get the boat to move.
You’ll also spend a lot of time with your teammates, as there’s no such thing as “just showing up and racing.” Every race requires de-rigging the boats, loading the trailer, arriving to the venue and unloading the trailer. This sets the stage for great camaraderie, friendships, and team bonding. Some of my fondest memories of rowing are just hanging out with my teammates around the boathouse.
Attention to Detail
Rowing is all about attention to detail. Unlike other sports with different rules, strategies, and equipment as an athlete ages, the sport of rowing doesn’t change from your first stroke to your last. Rowers learn how to commit to self-improvement with every stroke and practice. Schoolwork will be easy after a season or two of diligent practice.
Rowing isn’t a game. You have to love and value hard work to be a good rower and these are the kinds of people the sport attracts. Every practice encourages each athlete to learn how hard he or she can push him or herself.
In other sports, it’s obvious if you’re the one who always drops the ball or misses the shot. In rowing, you’re often the only one who will know if you’re taking strokes off and not giving it your all. Successful rowers learn self-discipline and embrace the grind—how to push when they don’t feel like pushing. Everything in rowing enforces the personal development of discipline and dedication to your teammates and common goal.
A season of rowing will build strong back, legs and set of lungs to help you in any other sport. Rowing is an excellent alternate sport for athletes who play a fall or spring sport and are looking a sport for another season. You’ll find yourself in great shape and able to outrun many of your teammates, as well as with a new concept of how hard you can really push yourself.
Like what you read? Do an internet search for a rowing clubs, organizations or programs near you and get started soon! June 4 of this year is the International Learn to Row Day and clubs all across the United States and beyond will be hosting events where you can hop in a boat with other beginners and receive help from experienced rowers and coaches to learn the basics.
If you’re in the US, check out U.S. Rowing’s website for more information on Learn to Row Day.
Will Ruth is a high school lacrosse, college men’s rowing and strength and conditioning coach. He holds certifications in strength and conditioning, a BS in kinesiology with an emphasis in sport psychology, and is pursuing an MA in Sport Coaching degree from the University of Denver. Will is a former rower and lacrosse player and currently competes in the sport of strongman. More of Will’s written work, podcasts, and strength and conditioning resources can be found on his website, www.strengthcoachwill.com.
Our first erg race of the winter is just about here! The racing schedule has been posted and the details are posted on the race page, but here are the highlights:
When: Saturday January 28, 2017
Where: Kingsley Association (near Bakery Square)
Departure: Approx. 4:50pm (following the Team Relay)
* Our first event is at 1:00pm. The final event of the day is the Team Relay scheduled for 4:35pm.
* This is the same as a regatta day…we all arrive at the same time and stay until our last race ends.
* Those racing in a Lightweight event need to weigh in…find your coach when you arrive so we can get that taken care of quickly.
* Waivers MUST be completed in order to race.
* There is no team carpool for this event.
Winter Training (preparation for spring racing) begins this week, but we will have just two practices this week.
1. Wednesday Jan. 4 – Weight Training with Crem at the Fitness Center from 6:30 – 7:30pm.
2. Erg practice on Saturday Jan 7. The schedule is being finalized and will be announced shortly.
Next week we will go with the full schedule (M-th and Sat AM).