The Grueling Life of UCI Rowers

Courtesy Of Laurel Dinwiddie

Courtesy Of Laurel Dinwiddie
The varsity women’s eight rowers gather around their Collins Cup.

I’ll start off by stating one of my favorite statistics about rowing, which is that rowing a standard race of 2000 meters, or 2K, is the physiological equivalent of playing two basketball games, back to back. This takes 6 to 8 minutes, depending on weather conditions, currents and the crew. However, large regattas are structured like track tournaments, and it’s not uncommon for a crew to race two or three times in one day. That’s the equivalent of six basketball games.
When people find out that I’m a rower, the most common response I get is “Don’t you have to wake up at the butt-crack of dawn?” Yes, we do. Practice times differ for different teams, but for the last few weeks, the rowers you see walking around campus have been getting up at 4 a.m. to launch at 5 a.m. Practices are for six days a week, because apparently the NCAA mandates that we get one day of rest a week. For the 7 months of training in preparation for race season, we get to sleep in until about 6 a.m. It’s easiest to row in calm, flat water, so we do our work before the weather picks up for the day.
Windy weather is the bane of rowers around the world. High winds make the water choppy and different to row in. If it’s a headwind, the boat comes to a complete stop in between strokes and we have to get about 1,750 pounds moving again for the length of another stroke. This will move us about three meters forward before the next stroke. This is what my coach likes to call “sport specific weight training.” If it’s a tailwind, the sport becomes more akin to sailing, and we have to react quickly to conditions to not get blown around. If a stroke goes bad the oar will get stuck under the water, something called “catching a crab.” These can range in intensity, and if the mood strikes you, search for videos on YouTube for a good laugh.
A day of practice for a rower is a test of focus and dedication. It basically consists of rowing around Newport Harbor while our coach follows us, and for two solid hours, criticizes literally every move we make. “Laurel, keep your back straight on this stroke. No, no, no, no, almost, no…”
From a transcendental point of view, we are constantly searching for that unattainable perfect stroke. It’s a lifelong journey, and rowers who have won gold medals at the Olympics will tell you that it never ends. There is always something to fix, and there will always be distractions. For us, that distraction is drunkards cruising around in Duffies. Although they mean no harm, the constant barrage of people reminding us to “stroke, stroke, stroke” is not that helpful. On a more positive note, we have gotten many offers of dates, and even join cruisers on their yachts for a beer during practice.
Another thing that I could mention is that on a Tuesday afternoon, I am about to walk out the door for my second practice of the day, and my heart-rate monitor tells me that I have burnt 1907 calories in the last 9 hours and 30 minutes. This explains why rowers eat a lot. A mother of a teammate recently hosted the team for dinner, and she went through about 70 pounds of lasagna and 10 pounds of spaghetti, as well as salad, bread and dessert. This was for less than 60 rowers.
A last testament to the intensity of rowing is a little thing we call Tenacious Tuesday. There is a small room in Crawford Hall which houses about a dozen rowing machines. Many people have used these at the ARC, but probably not quite like we do. What coaches like about these is that they are great to physically put an athlete through hell. They eliminate almost all technical aspects of the stroke, and test how hard we can pull. The varsity women’s coach came up with the idea for Tenacious Tuesday several years ago, and the goal of this particular workout, in her words, was to “make you want to cry.” To this day, one particular workout we did on a Tuesday was the most pain I’ve ever experienced in my life.
As varsity rower Denise French stated, “Rowing is not just a sport, it’s a way of life.” For nine months of the year, we are out on the water or in the weight room, training for a seven-minute race that feels like an eternity.
The race is about the ability to suffer, and the crew that has put themselves through more hell in practice will reap the benefits on race day.