November Masters Feature
October 31, 2012
We just returned from a fabulous weekend at the Head of the Charles. Couldn’t have asked for better weather on Saturday, and Sunday, though cooler and breezy, was sunny and dry. With over 8,000 participants, ranging from beginners to Olympic gold medalists, from high schoolers (and younger), to 80+-year-old senior-veterans, it’s a great regatta for participants and spectators alike.
At Calm Waters, we study the latest world championship or Olympic finals video to see what changes are going on at the top level. To see so many of these athletes racing directly in front of us was quite a thrill. Mahe Drysdale and Alan Campbell, the current Olympic gold and bronze medalists in the men’s single were racing. Olaf Tufte, the 2004 and 2008 gold medalist in the single raced with Iztok Cop in the Champ Double. Cop has won Olympic gold, silver and bronze, spanning an incredible 20-year career. Not to be outdone on the women’s side, Mirka Knapkova, one of our favorites and the current Olympic champion in the single raced, as did the bronze medalist from the Olympic Games. Our own U.S. sculler, Gevvie Stone successfully defended her Head of the Charles title against this class-A field.
As John and I watched from the sidelines, we were more interested in seeing how they rowed than how they placed. Many of the Olympians had done little training since the Games and weren’t necessarily in the best shape. Others had never raced on the Charles, and it’s tough to do well if you don’t know the turns. Neither Mahe Drysdale nor Mirka Knapkova won their event, but we could still learn a lot watching their technique. Mahe has had a lot of back problems in recent years and supposedly did a lot of his training on the bike last year. If you watched him row in previous years, it was easy to see how he injured his back, rowing very much a legs first, then back style, almost to the point of shooting his slide. His back was very strong and he used it effectively during the middle of the drive, but eventually it blew out. Watching him row this year, you could see a completely different style in which the legs and the back worked much more in unison.
Many people are told that a rounded back is bad, but Mahe never started rowing a sit-up style and neither do any of these other top athletes. They are not looking to go up and down, but rather they want their bodies to travel horizontally. After all, they’re working to move their boat across a horizontal stretch of water and going up and down would just slow them down. If the body is stiff, it acts like a hinge or a trapdoor, but we prefer to think of the body as a carpet that is rolling and unrolling, the head and shoulders maintaining the same level throughout the entire stroke.
The other detail we noticed with the Olympians, is that their stroke is very fluid. They do not row arms, then body, then slide on the recovery. Rather, the arms and body move out of bow together with the knees starting up long before the arms and body are fully extended. So instead of thinking arms/body/slide, think body/slide/catch. The elbows are also loose, not locked. If the elbows are locked, they connect to the shoulders and the trap muscles, but if they’re loose, they connect to the lats. Imagine playing tug of war. Where would you hold the rope? At chest height? Shoulder height? No, you’d hold it low, just above waist height. Would you lock your elbows and pull? No, you’d keep your elbows loose and lean back on the rope, using your body weight as effectively as you could. Rowing is very similar. We want to get our bodyweight behind the oar, not just pull on it.
Another point we find particularly interesting is that the older rowers, the 60+ veterans, seem to have figured this out. As a whole, they tend to row technically more like the Olympians than any other age group. Our theory is that experience has simply taught them what works best and stresses the lower back the least. After a while, we get tired of fighting the boat and as we get older, we have less extra energy to waste so we figure out what works best – horizontal and relaxation.
While you may not have been at the Charles or didn’t get a chance to see these athletes, there are plenty of still photos in numerous places. SportsGraphics.com, row2k.com and the Olympic issue of Rowing News contain many great photos.
Enjoy some time off if you have just finished a summer and fall of racing. Next month, we’ll give you some training ideas for the long winter ahead.
Charlotte Hollings and her husband, John Dunn have spent more than 70 years immersed in the sport of rowing. Both have rowed on the U.S. National Team, winning several international medals. Charlotte’s coaching career has taken her west to Stanford University before heading back east to Boston University and then Cornell University. John remained close to home, coaching at his alma mater of Cornell University for 18 years, first as the frosh lightweight coach, then varsity lightweight and finally varsity women. In 2001, Hollings and Dunn started the sculling camp Calm Waters Rowing in Lancaster, Va. For more information, visit www.calmwatersrowing.com.