Lowell Caylor: From the NFL to the Erg

Former NFL player Lowell Caylor never imagined that he would dedicate his life to a new sport after retirement and that it would end up saving his life.

Caylor played defensive back for the Cleveland Browns in 1964, the year the team defeated the Baltimore Colts 27-0 in the NFL Championship Game. When he was at the Browns’ training camp, he saw retired players coming back for visits. Noticing how out of shape many of them were, he made a promise to himself to stay fit throughout retirement.

In the 1980s, after injuries stunted Caylor’s football career, he moved to Denver, Colo., spending his time working in the software sales business and working out at the gym.

“I was running; I was weightlifting; I was doing aerobics classes and there were two funky looking machines at the club,” Caylor said. “Nobody was ever on them. I had no idea what they were. One magical day, there was a young woman [who was] unbelievably fit working out on that machine.”

After she finished her workout on the ergometer, Caylor approached her to ask a few questions. She turned out to be an Olympic rower, training indoors for the winter. The pair sat on the two ergs and she talked him through technique.

Because the club’s members had little interest in using the ergs, Caylor continued training on them because he did not have to worry about a time limit.

“What I was finding out is that I loved what I was doing because the harder I worked, the better I felt, and whatever you give that machine, it’s going to give it right back to you,” said Caylor. “So approximately 35 years ago, the indoor rower became my sole form of exercise.”

In 2006, Caylor was on the erg at his house, about nine kilometers into a 10k piece, when he noticed a sensation in his chest.

“I kept going, and when I was done, I couldn’t stop sweating and I couldn’t stop that chest pressure,” Caylor said. “I called my wife, who was visiting a neighbor, and I told her what was going on. She asked if I’d called 911 and I said ‘no, but I think we oughta go to the emergency room now.’”

After several hours in the emergency room, Caylor was seen by a cardiologist, who decided to keep him overnight “just to play it safe” and do a heart cath in the morning.

“Early the next morning, the guy that’s going to do the procedure is reading the report and he says, ‘indoor rowing, was it a Concept2?’” said Caylor. “As soon as he said that, I was glad to have a friend — somebody who knows something about rowing. He said that he was on the crew team in college and absolutely hated the erg, and I said, ‘well I hate to hear that because I love it.’”

Not long after they started the procedure, the doctor saw that Caylor had 100 percent blockage in his right coronary artery. He recalled the doctor saying that the only reason he was laying there alive was “because of that damn erg.”

He had a stint put in and had some testing done. Not only did he survive the heart attack, but the doctors found no heart damage. They claimed that his heart muscle was so strong from all of the rowing he had been doing.

“At that point, I knew I was going to row the rest of my life,” said Caylor. “I knew how rowing made me feel, not only physically but mentally, so I decided I wanted to share this with other people. That’s why I wanted to open a rowing studio.”

After that, Caylor looked forward to a business trip to Los Angeles, Calif., and arranged to visit Olympic gold medalist Xeno Müller’s nearby studio.

“I was concerned about having a big health club with locker rooms and showers,” said Caylor. “I walked into his little studio on a side street, and there was a long, narrow room with a front door and a back door. He had about 10 ergs lined up side-by-side, and there was enough room to walk behind them to get to the one bathroom they had. When I went home, I told my wife that we could open an indoor rowing studio because it doesn’t have to be big and elaborate.”

Since 2008, Caylor has been running Greenville Indoor Rowing in Greenville, S.C. The club has grown from having two classes a week with five ergs, all instructed by him, to 24 classes run by 12 other instructors. For nine years, Greenville has been Concept2’s number-one health and fitness club in terms of meters generated.

“I do some things differently in my studio,” said Caylor. “The majority of the people who come are the ones who wouldn’t be caught dead in a normal ‘hot body’ gym scene because they feel threatened there. Everybody starts and stops at the same time, but we find a way to make everyone have their own intensity level.”

At Greenville, participants work off of a “cruise pace,” a term created by Caylor that he describes as being similar to on-the-water rowers’ steady state.

“It’s been a method that has worked out really well,” said Caylor. “A newbie can come in and do a class and sit right next to somebody who’s been rowing with me for five years and it doesn’t bother them. I’ll tell anyone who walks into my studio and point to the machine and say, ‘that thing right there saved my life.’”

Caylor puts his competitive side to the test during 2,000-meter testing season. He has won numerous medals over the years, including several from the C.R.A.S.H.-B.s and, most recently, a gold medal from the Tennessee Indoor Rowing Championships.

“I don’t think there’s anything in the world worse than a 2k erg race,” Caylor said. “On the erg, it’s just you against yourself or just you against the machine, whereas in football you have a chance upfront to study the team know their tendencies. I never got nearly as nervous the night before a football game as I do before an erg race. I think it’s because you only get one chance to tap dance, that’s it baby. You get one shot. If you blow it, it’s over — then you have to train for another year. So, I don’t think there’s anything that compares to it.”

Regardless of the stress and the strain of a 2,000-meter piece, Caylor said that starting to row is the best thing he has ever done.

“People come to me and they say, ‘I want to thank you because you have saved my life,’” said Caylor. “I’ll respond, ‘no I didn’t, you did. I just gave you the opportunity to do it’. There’s a comradery and a community that we’ve built with each other. It’s a pretty amazing thing for me to stand back and watch and go, ‘I can’t believe what we’ve created here.’”

One of Caylor’s club members, John Obermeier, will be travelling across the country to put his training to the test and race at the World Rowing Indoor Championships/USRowing National Indoor Championships.

Registration is still open for WRIC/USRIC! Visit RegattaCentral to sign up.

For more information on Greenville Indoor Rowing, click here.

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