Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Overheard in the Novice Coaching Launch

"It's like doing triage at a nuclear holocaust."

To Bill*: Bill, rush the last six inches of the recovery!
To me: I can't believe I just said that. Oh look, it's working!

*name changed to protect the extremely short of slide

Friday, January 07, 2011

Home Bodies

I'm convinced there's nothing funnier than coaching juniors, especially when the girl to guy ratio is 10:1.

Five minutes later: "wait, what days are we talking about?"

"They're on the board."

"Wait, what?"


I think it's only natural that fans and athletes develop connections to the places they grew up near, or train in, or spend most of their careers in. Sports are more than just competition, they're a secular communal experience that can bond a community. One needs to look no further than the New Orleans Saints win in the Super Bowl last year to realize how much sports can affect a group of people. Inspirational sports movies would have no stock if this were not the case.

The level of devotion to a specific site varies from sport to sport. The money sports (football, basketball, baseball, hockey) in America each have their own shrines to worship in; even ones that no longer exist inspiring devotion. Mention the names of any of the great ball fields, and you'll find people who revere them. The Polo Grounds. Fenway Park. Candlestick Park. The old Yankee Stadium. The new Yankee Stadium. I'm sure even Miller Park (Milwaukee Brewers) has its own group of devotees.

Runners, on the other hand, seem to be less specific about their sites. Most of the runners I know remember specific places they've run, or places they want to run, like the Chicago or Boston Marathon. Some of the more serious runners I know cite the Penn Relays in Philadelphia or Track Town USA, Eugene, OR, as places to make a pilgrimage.

I think American rowers tend to fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. We're very territorial of the differences between, say, the Charles and the Schuylkill, and Eastern Sprints vs. PAC-10 teams. However, with the explosion of junior rowing in the past ten years, training sites and teams have spread out to a larger number of areas (rowing in Tempe? How about Alaska?), and loyalty to a certain region seems to be less of an issue than where you're putting your boat in any given season.

There are, of course, places that transcend such characterization. In my mind, Olympic water is sacred. The luckiest people in the US, in my opinion, are the members of the Lake Lanier Rowing Club, who get to train on the course used in the '96 Games. The budding Lake Casitas Rowing Association isn't far behind on my envy scale. Beyond this, there are regattas that should be held in high esteem: the Head of the Charles, the Schuylkill, the Harvard-Yale Regatta, Stotesbury; races that have so much history behind them that they're impossible to ignore on any level.

Growing up in New England for almost my entire life and rowing exclusively in two New England states made the Head of the Charles the pinnacle of achievement in my mind. I rowed for seven years before picking up the megaphone, and have never rowed at the Charles. My high school didn't race there, and I wasn't strong or fast enough to make the Charles boat in college. Maybe someday I'll make the comeback and get into a masters or club boat, but as of right now, I've accepted that the Charles was not in my past and may never be in my future.

Before moving to Boston, I had never even actually rowed on the Charles. I like thinking about the places I've dipped an oar in and the places it's taken me (see this post), and I don't need to list them all here. But the Charles was never one of them, until this fall.

It was mid-September. A friend of mine was coaching a group of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans learning to row at Community Rowing, and I happened to be there checking out the boathouse when word came that they needed an eighth for their practice. I borrowed some workout clothes, and hopped into the stroke seat of a beat-up Pocock eight.

I don't think I'd ever been that excited to row before in my life. Not only was I finally getting a chance to row on the Charles, but I was STROKING? I'd stroked in fours and eights maybe 20 times in my life, primarily being a bow four rower.

We pushed off, and, despite the fact that the rowers had only been rowing since the latter half of the summer, they had picked it up quick and were very eager to row well. We did drills by sixes up to the Lars Anderson Bridge, where we spun around. The sun had started to set by the time we had launched, and we were obscured by the shadows of the city. The coach told us that we were going to head back by sixes, and a few of us wanted to row by eights.

"I don't know if you guys are ready for that!" my friend told us. "What do you think, Oarsman?"

"Feels good to me," I replied. "Let's do it."

We started by sixes, and after rotating through the boat once, my pair and I added back in and we went up to eights. It was a little shaky in the beginning, but my God, the power that that boat had. We rocked back and forth from port to starboard for the first twenty strokes or so, but we were still clearing our puddles by a distance that was quite impressive for a novice crew.

We kept cranking, through the bridges that serve as checkpoints on the Charles. We went by Cambridge Boat Club, the BB&N boathouse, and Henderson Boathouse in short order. As we passed Henderson, our coxswain called a twenty. Before she even gave the two strokes into it, I could feel a surge of power through the water behind me. I wouldn't necessarily call it a moment of swing, but we were moving. We took another twenty as we cleared the last bridge right before the CRI boathouse, ending the piece right in time to spin and head back in.

Through the second half of the row, I began to form an impression of the group that was backing me up. I'm not here to debate politics and regardless of your views on the War on Terror, being in that boat served as an allegory to the type of teamwork that has to work in a military unit. A number of them were just discharged due to injury or their own predilections, and still retained that military mindset. After we got off the water, the seven of them were joking about doctor's appointments or Reserve or Guard obligations that they still faced, and there were a few jokes displaying the inter-service rivalries that they still carried. Even though they were from different units and different branches, they were still able to come together and perform a task well.

After my friend gave the crew some feedback, he turned to me and asked if I had anything to say. I told them that for all I had done in the sport, I had never rowed on the Charles before that night, and that I was humbled and honored that my first time out there was with such a group. Two of them asked if I could come back and stroke them at a race CRI was holding that weekend. I would have loved to, but I was I was honored enough that for one practice, they allowed me into their community of warriors to practice, and for all my rowing experience, I was not worthy enough to step into a boat to race with them.

Sunday, July 25, 2010


Another late day at work. I didn't get home until 6:00, and then I had a number of errands to run afterward. Too late for a row, so go for a run instead.

I left the house and started running up towards the elementary school. I jogged behind the school, to the little league baseball diamond and a trail to the side roads.

I crested the hill and stopped. Standing on the pitcher's mound was a doe. A gorgeous animal, munching on the grass in between the mound and first. It saw me as I started approaching, slowly. Equally slowly, it ambled away towards the first plate dugout, where two more does I hadn't noticed waited.

Two of the three deers seemed skittish and wouldn't let me approach more than thirty feet. But the third alternated between staring at me and grazing as I stepped closer and closer. Finally, when I got within ten feet of her, she started moving away like the others.

We played this cat and mouse game for about half an hour, her trotting away and me following slowly after her. All the while, night started to fall, the sky darkened, and a thundershower rolled overhead. I only wanted to touch her, to befriend her, but at the same time, I felt primal, stalking, trying to outwit her.

She tired of the game before I did, finally running off towards the woods. I headed back to the trail and finished my run.

So often, we focus on splits and times and other factors of performance when we train. After rowing for so long, you fail to appreciate the beauty of the river: the hawk flying overhead, or the sight of a fish leaping out of the water near your boat. But sport is supposed to be fun. It is necessary to train with focus and seriousness, but every once in a while, it's nice to have a reminder of what sports, what life is about.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010


6:30 AM.
Connecticut River.
I place my single in the water,
oars locked tight.
Shoving off, tentative strokes
to get the boat away.
Passing under the bridge.
How many people get to see
what the underside of the bridge
they drive on every day looks like?
Through the currents to silence
and a river turned orange,
the water flat like glass.
I almost feel guilty for disturbing it.
But then I remember
water does not need to train to go fast.
All it needs is a good rainfall
or a particularly bad winter in New Hampshire.
So I press on, swinging, striving, searching,
searching for speed.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

On the Road

It's funny how many trailers you drive by on the highway on weekends. I've run into both high school and collegiate teams going in the same direction, heading where I was coming from, going to the same regatta, and to far distant destinations. While not on the same level, trailer driving reminds me of a quote I read about combat once: it's hours of boredom, broken up by minutes of sheer terror. Great fun. I've made it through an entire year without breaking anything; hopefully I can keep that up through the summer.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Coming Back

I saw my former novice coach at CRASH-Bs last weekend. We were talking, and he asked me if I was still rowing (I think it's pretty obvious from my expansive waistline that I haven't been as of late). I asked him the same thing.

Now, I rowed for a club program while I was in college, but my novice class lucked out. We had a head novice coach, who was trialling for the National Team, as well as an assistant coach/grad student who ended up rowing in Beijing in 2008. Both of them were training while coaching us, and putting their accomplishments alongside ours was both humbling and motivating.

So when he told me that he was doing what he could and finding a level he could race at with that training, I still find myself thinking of the times he's probably rowing, or planning on rowing. Once again, it puts my own life into perspective.

The problems that have been plaguing me for the past four years, the reason I was off the water for so long, are finally starting to ease up. I've been erging regularly, and I've found I can start pushing myself through harder pieces. Looking back on my logbook, though (I'm one of those people who obsessively logs every meter, even warm-ups), I can't help but be a little discouraged. My 30-minute PR is where I would expect my 2K score to be right now. It's not I-want-to-quit discouraging, but to get back to that point seems like a very long way off.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Post-Collegiate Rowing

Jeez, it's been almost a year since I last posted on here. Far too long. I'm going to try updating this thing more often, now that I'm working instead of studying.

Last night, I had a transformative experience. It was one of those things that reminded you why you fell in love with something long after you were first introduced to it; it was like a husband looking at his wife of 10 years and seeing something that reminded him of their first date. A few members of the rowing club I belong to went out for a row last night to catch the moon rising over the river.

I was nervous when I got there; I was going to row a double with Jon, a guy my father's age who runs a residential construction company. He's a pretty good sculler, and I had spent most of my time on the water in a single, where my rough slide control and messy handle heights affected only myself. At least the boat was nice; an old Fluidesign that was still nicer than anything I had rowed before.

We launched a little before 8:00, when the sun was still setting. It descended behind our shoulders as we rowed westward on the river. Despite the fact that Jon and I had never rowed together before and it had been almost 3 years since I had rowed in a team boat, we were moving together well. Once I realized that my hands were moving slow out of the finish, I was able to match his timing, and we quickly caught up with the other shells that had launched before us.

We rowed up to one of the creek inlets on the river, about 5km from the boathouse. Jon and I spun around to catch the moon as it came up over the horizon, partially hidden by the low cloud cover. The safety lights on the other boats were either dim or obscured from view, and the water was glassy and quiet. I could barely make out anything beyond the banks of the river.

As I sat there, watching the moon move higher and higher in the sky, I thought about all the things that I have done, things that I never would have experienced if I had never set foot in a shell.

I have rowed next to manatees and dolphins in Florida. I have rowed both with and against National Team members, worked alongside men who have Olympic gold medals somewhere at home. I have been able to watch the moon rise over the tobacco fields in New England. I have seen more sunrises than most people probably see in a lifetime. I have made friends and found mentors. Most importantly, there are the characteristics of any rower who continues in the sport for years that have served me well outside of the realm of sport: a good work ethic, sportsmanship, collaborative effort, the ability to push beyond perceived limits. The list could go on forever.

The most amazing thing is that all of these things have happened to me, a person with a less than distinguished rowing background. It's these things as much as the viscerally physical feeling of moving a boat that make me love the sport and keep me coming back to it over and over again.

We rowed back to the boathouse as the moon continued to rise higher into the sky. We crossed underneath the bridges near the boathouse, the red and green lights glittering off of the surface of the water. Clearing the bridges, we took a twenty, and the boat took off. I know we weren't going fast compared to most doubles, but the rock-solid set and absolute sense of swing made it feel like we were flying off the water. We spun back towards the dock and took another twenty, a fitting end to the best practice I'd had in a very long time.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

2008 Olympics: Impressions

I don't know how I've managed to get through four days of the Olympics without posting about it. I've been busy with two jobs, so that's probably part of it. Despite my silence, however, I am very excited about the Games; I was more excited on August 7 than I was on Christmas Eve when I was a kid. So imagine my disappointment when I found out the viewing schedule in America for the rowing events. If I remember correctly, they showed every rowing final on television in 2004. I only think that because I have a number of the finals on tape somewhere in the basement. This is only the second Games in which I have been interested in anything other than what was on TV and in the news, so it's not as exciting as Athens was, especially with the way the US 8+'s tore through their heats.

There was an editorial I read online (probably something I found on Row2k) that bemoaned the rampant professionalism of the games, mostly in the "big" sports (i.e. basketball, track and field, gymnastics, swimming). Most of his beef had to do with the fact that in the "smaller" sports (i.e. rowing, canoe/kayak, shooting) only get one chance every quadrennial to make international headlines, so they should get the lion's share of coverage during the Games. While I sympathize with his point of view and I absolutely loathe the number of McDonalds and Coca-Cola commercials each break, the money from these sponsors has made the Olympics what it is today. It's a bitter pill to swallow, but I could almost guarantee that if you asked any US Olympians in the smaller sports if they would give up their spots to protest the commercialism of the Games, they would laugh right in your face.

Coincidentally, most of the coverage I've seen (after 9PM EST) has been of swimming and gymnastics. Honestly, I'm not really a huge fan of events where the results are based on the scores of a panel of judges. This is not to detract from the individual athletes; I wish I had the upper body strength of a gymnast. However, there's nothing subjective about getting to the finish line with your bow ball ahead of another boat. All this being said, as I type, I'm watching the women's gymnastics team final, and I saw something awesome. I tuned in just as the US team was about to begin the vault, and they showed Bridget Sloan at the runway. When she started her sprint, the camera zoomed in on her face, and she had The Look. It spooked me a little bit; this tiny 16-year old who doesn't even have her driver's license with eyes that had a killer instinct. It was great, and it's great to draw inspiration from other sports. Since rowing hasn't really been viewable for me, other sports have been all that I've seen. The other great inspirational moment so far has been the men's swimming 4x100 freestyle relay; I put a photo of Michael Phelps screaming at the starting block on my desktop to remind me of reasons to train.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

One Out of Two Ain't Bad

Check this out...


Heh heh heh

And, just as a postscript: the last time three public universities were on the medals dock at the IRAs was in 2002, when it was Cal, Wisco, and Washington. This is Wisco's first national title in the MV8 in 18 years. Congratulations to the both the Badger heavy men and light women for winning their respective national titles.

Monday, February 04, 2008

I touched briefly on the Mahe Drysdale/Rob Waddell battle in a post a few months ago. My, what a difference a few months makes. At this point, Drysdale and Waddell have gone up against each other three times already, with the score currently at 2-1, advantage Waddell. From what I understand, the Rowing NZ selectors will be choosing the single sculler for Beijing from the results of the national championships and Olympic trials in March.

I'll be honest, I want Mahe Drysdale to go all the way to the top of the M1x podium at the Olympics this year. Following him from his unpredictable win at Gifu in 2005 to where he is today has been a great story, and I can't think of any single scullers who have won an Olympic gold medal after winning every worlds in the quadrennial. It would be an awesome achievement in the sport, and one I would be most welcome to see. However, regardless of which man goes to Beijing, Rowing NZ has a good shot of winning the single sculls title this year.

I can't help but see parallels to this duel and the battle between John Biglow and Tiff Wood leading up to the 1984 American Olympic trials. Most well-read rowers know this story from David Halberstam's "The Amateurs" or Brad Alan Lewis' "Assault on Lake Casitas." I can only imagine the dynamic between Rob Waddell and Mahe Drysdale to be similar to the Wood/Biglow relationship before that trial; it has been widely reported that Drysdale began rowing again after being inspired by Waddell's 2000 Olympic victory. I can't wait to see how this story plays out over the next seven months.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

I Almost Forgot About This

I found this in a journal I use; I forgot about that day until I read the first sentence of the entry. I don't know why I never posted it here. It seems like something I would've written here. This was from two summers ago.
"I slapped my face two or three times with both hands, as hard as possible. The slapping hurt. It snapped me to attention. My adrenaline started flowing...the Yugoslavs, sitting in the next lane stared at me in disbelief. The harsh slapping made me angry -- exactly what I wanted. I did my best work when I was angry." -- Brad Alan Lewis from Assault on Lake Casitas

The rain had just stopped. It wasn't a heavy rain, just a passing shower that wraps around you like a warm, humid blanket. I was sitting in the middle of the river, drops of water running down my glasses and my face. Slowly, dream-like, I gazed around at the armada heading towards me.

I was sitting at the top of the racecourse on the Connecticut River, waiting for all the participating boats to arrive. It was a scrimmage; the course was a little under 2000 meters, and the boats would be started like it was a head race. The only other person racing a single was a lightweight named Alex who was in his first season with the boat club. We had launched early in order to clear the way for the larger boats now heading towards us.

As the current brought our singles towards the starting buoys, we kept paddling, just far enough to drift back down five minutes later.

My body felt languid and insubstantial; my muscles could've been made of marshmallow and I wouldn't have felt any different. I recognized this feeling, the nervousness and anxiety that comes from being at the start. When in a team boat, it's easy to offset this feeling when an external force is telling you to row. It's much harder to control when you're the only one in control of the entire boat. I looked at the reflection of the riggers in the water. My hands were resting on them, my fingers looking far too fragile and slender to endure the trial that was awaiting me.

Brian, the head coach and starter, called Alex and I to the line as the last boats made their way to the marshalling area. Alex started about 15 seconds before I did, moving his single with a fluidity that seems to be a characteristic of lightweights. Brian called me up next. The marshmallows in my arms and legs transitioned to molasses. As my oars came out at the finish of the first stroke, they changed into something else, something undefinable. My legs were cannons, firing off every catch, just to recoil and do it again. I passed through the starting line after five strokes and really started to hit my stride.

Then the velcro holding my feet in tore apart mid-stroke. For one split-second, I thought that I might be able to come back up to the catch and fix them before I fell apart, but it wasn't going to happen. I have a hard enough time doing the feet-out drill with fair warning; it wasn't going to work when I hadn't chosen to do it and I was driving my body backwards at full pressure. Before I even had time to think, my single was upside-down, and I was in the water.

To my credit, I'd only flipped once before this. My first time in a single, they made me try to back off the dock without any kind of warning, and I immediately flipped. But since then, I hadn't had any incidents. But out of all the times I'd been out on the water, I had to pick today to flip.

Training immediately asserted itself. I flung my arms over the upset hull and fixed my oars so that they were in the proper position to keep the boat from rolling while I was floating on it. The coaches, busy with the racing, had me stay with the launches until the rest of the boats passed me. And there were a lot of them.

After one of the other coaches helped me flip the single back over and get in, I had already drifted down past the start about 300 meters, and it was too late for me to re-attempt the racecourse. So I went from where I was.

I was furious. Not only had I been denied the opportunity to race, but two of the eights that had rowed by me were crewed by oars that I coached. Once I started moving again, I took that fury out on the water. Moving that last 1500 meters, I pounded out every stroke with a force that I wouldn't have had if everything had gone normally. I wanted pain, pain that was all-consuming, pain that would replace the embarrassment and humiliation of the past ten minutes. Pain was good.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Masters at the Olympics

Sure, it can be assumed that every athlete at the Olympics may be a master at his or her sport: one does not get to compete for his or her nation without countless hours spent training. But is it possible for a Masters rower to compete at the Olympics? Apparently, a pair from southern Oregon are giving it a shot. Stephen Kiesling and Andy Baxter are reportedly training for the 2008 Olympic Trials before the Games in Beijing in August. Kiesling is fairly well-known in the rowing world as the author of "The Shell Game" and a member of two national teams ('79 and '80). Awesome? Yes. Projected to win? No. But I always love an underdog, and I can guarantee I'll be following this story as the trials near.

This Olympic cycle seems to be geared toward the comeback, now that I think about it. Down under, there's a resurgence of older, more experienced oarsmen coming back to the sport as well. Australian James Tomkins, who hasn't been a factor on the international racing scene since winning the M2- at Athens, raced in the M8+ at both World Cup 2 and 3 and the World Championships. Rob Waddell is also said to have made a push to train with Rowing NZ again after serving as a grinder with Team New Zealand on the 2003 and 2007 America's Cup Challenge. No word on whether Waddell will replace three-time World Champion Mahe Drysdale in the single sculls, but it would make for quite a sight to see the three of these former Olympians with a 28-year spread to line up in the heats in Beijing.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007


This season's going fairly well; we're only visiting a few courses this year, our coach focusing us more on the spring season. Of course we'll be at the Head of the Charles, and there are a few other races we'll be involved in, but that's about it. We're rowing well despite the lack of competition, and I can say I'm really starting to get excited about how things will be shaping up for the spring. Head racing is fun, but there's not much in the way of t-shirts...

I had a really tough piece ahead of me today, and I can't even begin to describe how well it ended up going. I'm having a little bit of trouble going through the middle of longer pieces, and while I'm not flying and dying, there's definitely a slowing trend between the start and the finish. I've also found my arms are weak; they tend to tire during long pieces. True to form, my arms started to fatigue about a third of the way through the piece today. I hung on through the halfway point, wondering if I was going to be able to make it.

Gut-check time.

At two-thirds through, I started to focus on power with the legs, hoping I could just get a little more squeeze out at the catch. The next stroke I started to get the legs down faster, controlling the rate on the recovery. It's tough to describe how it felt at that point. The first (and best) analogy I could think of was comparing myself at the catch to a branch on a tree that's flexed all the way back, and when I pushed off the foot stretchers, it was like letting the branch go. I don't know, everything just flowed. It was great. At 1000m to go, I started winding it up a beat and dropping the split by two to three seconds. At 500m, I let go of the rate and dropped the split as far as I could hold it. Even though it was only a training piece, I felt like I was pulling the 6k of my life. It was beautiful, and the agony at the end only served to highlight how amazing the past four minutes had been. But there are very few things that I get satisfaction from more than lying down on a dirty gym floor, too spent to move, knowing that I went to the edge -- and found there was still more to give.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Joe Rantz, UW Class of '37

The story of the University of Washington crew that took gold at the 1936 Olympics is one of the greatest American stories of our sport. If you don't know about it, I highly suggest you read about it here.

On September 10, Joe Rantz, the seven-seat of that eight, passed away in Washington State at the age of 93. The second-to-last surviving member of the crew, Rantz held a distinguished place in UW and American rowing lore. My sympathy and respect goes out to the family of a man who can truly be considered a hero, both in how he came to UW and through his accomplishments in rowing.