Books on Rowing, pt. 1

A few weeks ago I was asked about “rowing books” and which ones were worth checking out. My coaches in high school made the point that in order to gain a real appreciation for the sport you’ve gotta spend time learning about its history, the people, etc., which was something that always stuck with me. Below are some books that I’ve enjoyed that all have a “historical” perspective to them, with the time periods of each ranging from the 1930s, through the 70s and 80s, up to as recent as 2007.

The Amateurs

“The Amateurs” is about four guys training for the Olympic trials in Princeton for the right to represent the US in the single at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. It talks a lot about how rowing is a sport where you’re only famous amongst each other – there are no lucrative contracts or multi-million dollar endorsement deals and the only people who really know your name are your teammates, competitors, and coaches.

Another thing it talks about is “being the best”. If you’re going to the Olympics, obviously you’re one of the best but if you’re in the single, you are the best. There’s only one of you whereas those who aren’t selected will have to contend with rowing in the pair, four, or the quad and sharing the glory with someone else. In the single, the glory is all your own. Because of that, the book also delves into the psychology of the athletes and how their brand of motivation is much different than those of us in sweep boats.

The Last Amateurs

This one is about the 2007 Boat Race, specifically the time the author spent with the Cambridge team, studying and noting their every move for the duration of the year leading up to the race. The forward is written by Sir Steve Redgrave, who makes a very good point that I think illustrates why the competition is so fierce in this race – in any other race, there’s a silver medalist but in this race, there isn’t. There is no silver medal or second place – you’ve either won the race or you’ve lost it, and that is something that will stick with you for the rest of your life. Those who compete are literally defined in life by whether or not they won against the competing Blue Boat.

The Boys in the Boat

Written by a guy who’s never rowed or been in a boat before, “Boys in the Boat” is about the University of Washington crew that competed at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, in front of Hitler, and won gold. This was a shock to the world because the rowers that comprised this crew were unlike any other rowers currently competing in the sport, either at home or abroad. Unlike what Washington’s current persona gives off, this is a legit underdog tale that’s intertwined with a lot of fascinating history about the sport and the development of rowing on the west coast.

I’m currently reading this at the same time I’m reading The Amateurs and, as I previously mentioned, The Amateurs talks a lot about how rowing isn’t a big name sport and it’s lucky to get a paragraph written about it in the newspaper. The Boys in the Boat, by stark contrast, talks consistently about how big rowing used to be in the national media – it was comparable to any major sport being played today and got just as much attention as most major sports do now.

The Red Rose Crew

This is one of the (very) few books on rowing that highlights the participation of women in the sport. “The Red Rose Crew” is about the formation of the first women’s crew to compete internationally (at the 1975 World Championships and the 1976 Olympics in Montreal) and talks about the obstacles they had to overcome in the mid-70s right after the passing of Title IX, which is what paved the way for the introduction of women’s rowing. They had to overcome the obvious obstacles of everyone doubting them, including their coach, who didn’t think that women could handle the rigorous amount of training it took to become a competitive crew. That coach, by the way, was Harry Parker.

Blood Over Water

This one is co-authored by two brothers, David and James Livingston, who both competed in the 2003 Boat Race, which if you remember from this video I post in February, was one of the most epic races in the entire history of the race. In addition to that and all the other drama that happened right before the race (of which there was a lot), what made the ’03 race unique was that it was the first one in over a hundred years where brothers were competing – and not just competing together but competing for opposing crews (David studied at Oxford and James was at Cambridge).

Similar to The Last Amateurs, this story begins a year before the race and chronicles each brother’s progression into their respective boats while at the same time focusing on something that is undeniably a central part of the story – the relationship between the two and how it was affected and strained by the pressures of the race. At one point they stop speaking to each other although the media hype made it difficult for them to ignore each other completely. The book itself is broken up into narrative sections, each one narrated by a different brother telling his point of view of what was going on at the time, which helps to give a really well-rounded look at the race and everything leading up to it.

Mind Over Water

Normally I’m not one for anything or anyone that tries to derive life lessons from something or over-analyzes “personal growth” because so often it comes off as trying way too hard, which admittedly at times this one does too, but I kind of just got this one. To understand books like this you have to look past the cliches (of which there are many) and really apply what’s being said to your own life and situation(s). When you do that it’s a lot easier, in my opinion at least, to get the message that the author’s trying to convey.

There are three sections to this book, each one relating a different part of rowing to one’s own life. The first part is about finding your way, the second about balance, and the last one about giving everything you’ve got to achieve the endgame. Several people mentioned in the book are familiar to the Boston scene and were also central figures in the The Amateurs. What I like about this book is that it kind of puts into words the transformation everybody goes through from the time they start as a novice to when they’re a few years into the sport and start to really feel the effect that rowing has had on them, not in a physical way but in a more emotional, developmental way. It’s an oddly personal read, which I think is great because it gives everyone an opportunity to take something different away from it.

Next up: Books on rowing, pt. 2

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