Tag: rowing

“To row was to race and races were meant to be won”

College Racing Rowing

“To row was to race and races were meant to be won”

If you follow me on Instagram then you probably saw my story from early December of the black-tie banquet that I spent most of the fall helping plan and organize. One of the bigger parts of the evening was honoring our “crew of the year” – shout out to the women’s varsity four – and one of our alums as “alumni of the year”. The alum that was chosen gave a really stirring speech that I thought you’d be interested in reading so that’s what today’s post is. I think that regardless of who we row for or where we’re all at in our rowing careers, there’s something in here that we can relate to. I hope you find something that speaks to you that you can carry with you throughout 2018, both on and off the water.

“Good evening fellow Columbians and most welcome guests.

I am humbled to stand before you here tonight and wonder why you would choose to honor me, for I have not come close to matching the generosity of Tom Cornacchia or Dean Dakolias for Columbia Rowing. Nor can I claim to have represented our program on a national team like Nick LaCava or Libby Peters or my classmate Juan Felix. I was never in a Varsity Heavyweight Eight that won the Child’s or Blackwell Cups. I did not contribute to the glory of winning the IRA like that great Lightweight Crew in 2016.

I consider my own accomplishments as a Varsity Oarsman at Columbia to be rather ordinary. Nevertheless, as I contemplate my life since graduating from Columbia, it is clear to me that the experience of rowing at Columbia has been the foundation and the forge of whatever I may have achieved in my life since leaving this great University.

We are here tonight because we share an abiding affection for both rowing and our Alma Mater.

The sport of rowing is not really easy to explain to anyone who has not invested the time necessary to overcome those early awkward moments of uncertainty and instability that are apparent when sitting in an eight and while the mechanics of the stroke itself are not especially complex, mastering the execution of the stroke in synchronicity to create power and propulsion requires a level of skill and sensitivity that may not be obvious to someone watching a shell moving through the water at speed. There are layers of mystery and subtlety that shroud our sport from the comprehension of non-rowers.

This may be one of the reasons why rowing lends itself so well to romantic imagery in poetry, photography and painting. The world of rowing is populated by arcane words and unique rituals and routines. Day after day, we laid our “hands on” the shell, lowering it to our shoulders, “counting down” from the bow, “shoving off” from the dock, and waiting to hear “ready all row”. The comforting and terrifying voice of the coxswain exhorting us to give him or her a “power ten”, obediently raising the stroke rate by going “up two in two” and then “up two more”, while waiting to hear with desperate anticipation for the “last twenty” and the final relief of “paddle” and “weigh enough”.

But I did not come here tonight to reminisce about these gentle memories or to tease you with the imagery of those tiny ephemeral whirlpools and the concentric puddles our oars left behind our sterns or the magical sounds of bubbles dancing along the hull when our boats had achieved that perfect set of balance and precision and power and speed.

A painting by Tomas Eakins we all probably first saw in our Art Hum class cannot satisfy my urge to articulate to you tonight what I felt when rowed. I need a different medium to explain what rowing for Columbia meant to me, a medium that accurately illustrates the violent and extreme feelings that I confronted as an oarsman and which have irrevocably shaped my character ever since.

The vehicle I chose to offer you this evening that I believe expresses these feelings best is The Iliad of Homer, a text I believe should be familiar to all Columbians. Tonight I would like to give you an interpretation of this great epic through the eyes of a Columbia Oarsman, who was a “walk on” to the Freshman Crew Team in September of 1976.

Now I have to confess that I was rather chubby at that time in my life and my previous athletic experiences were limited to long walks with 14 clubs over my shoulder on municipal golf courses. I assure you that I was by no means considered “first boat material” by our coach, Ted Bonnano, when I showed up for that first day of practice in the tanks below this very stage where I stand tonight.

One of the first things I noticed was the ever present underlying competitiveness of rowing. Weight training, running stairs in Pupin Hall, the Hill at Baker Field, the Double Hill at Baker Field, the Loop in Central Park and worst of all, erg tests in that dark and rancid cave off the running track in Dodge were all different metrics to establish where I stood against all the other members of our crew and which boat I would be assigned to sit in. And once in those boats we learned to race. First against each other, day after day, in that diabolical device known as “seat racing”. Next we raced against the Varsity Heavies, or the JV Heavies or the Lightweight Eights and finally against Princeton, Penn, Navy, and MIT. To row was to race and races were meant to be won.

The next and most lasting impression I had in those early days of my rowing career was the level of pain we must endure in rowing, from the first twenty strokes at the start to the final sprint. The level of pain sustained throughout a 2000 meter race is indescribable and inescapable. The burning of lactic acid and the sting of adrenaline in the back of my throat were sensations I had not been familiar with in my previous life as a golfer when serious stress may have been sweaty palms from time to time when confronting a four foot putt for a birdie. At some point around Spring Break of my Freshman Year I remember asking myself a very important question:

“Why would anyone, particularly, chubby Phil Adkins, willingly and enthusiastically participate in a sporting endeavor that is essentially a contest of who could sustain the most pain for the longest possible time?”

Looking back now I realize that what motivated me. What I relished the most, for the first time in my life, were my adversaries. Their presence in my life was a great gift and they served to fuel my deepest desires to dominate and defeat them. For me the most effective antidote for pain was the feral feelings of fury and rage that consumed me whenever I pulled on an oar.

And Homer nailed it from the very first line of The Iliad: “Sing oh Muse of the Rage of Achilles”. For me, rage worked.

Revisit for a moment your own recollections of backing down your eight into the stake boat at the start of a race, the quick glance out of the corner of your eye at your opposite number across that narrow stretch of water as the boats line up, all the while your heart is pounding and your sinews stretch in anticipation of those explosive words: “Get ready … row”.

Compare your own intimate thoughts at that moment of brutal confrontation with the words of Achilles when he squared off against Hector as their final battle commenced and shouted: “I only wish my fury would compel me to cut away your flesh and eat it raw”. As you know, things did not go well for Hector that day.

The Iliad is filled with battles, not all of them with fatal consequences and Homer had a very deep bench of adversaries and protagonists. But the essential theme of the poem is not necessarily rage and revenge. The more significant lesson of the poem is transcendent and another fight in particular reveals to us a deeper, more human and compassionate relationship between combatants that resonates well with our fundamental human need to ultimately reconcile rage with respect for our opponents.

There is a duel between Ajax and Hector that captures these two extremes perfectly and takes us well beyond the sullen and beastly raging of Achilles. The mighty Ajax says to Hector when they meet on the plain between the walls of Troy and the beached ships of the Greeks:

“Come then let us give each other glorious presents, so that any of the Greeks or Trojans my say of us ‘These two fought each other with heart consuming hate, then joined with each other in close friendship before they were parted’”.

Any of us who have exchanged shirts with our opponents or raced in England where opposing crews cheer each other after they race with the thrice shouted salute of “hip hip hooray” may wish to consider the ancient battlefield origins of these unique conventions in our sport as examples of how we can overcome rage and hatred with respect and affection.

As for me, Pain, Rage, and Fury all aptly describe how I felt when I learned to row and to race and to win. But I love the way Homer so beautifully transforms “heart consuming hate” into “close friendship” and through his poem I perceive a much more satisfying understanding of how to compete.

The “close friendship” Homer proposes to us ultimately manifests itself in the idea of camaraderie. And the camaraderie of rowers is special. It is a wonderful thing to see the different boats assembled each year at The Head of the Charles representing Columbia. In recent years I have enjoyed the privilege of rowing around the world and racing out of many boathouses. I have met former foes from Princeton and Penn and reveled in the memories of old and recent races. I never cease to be amazed by the warm welcome I have received around the world within the community of rowing when I introduce myself with great pride when I say “I rowed for Columbia”. I have received the respect of strangers for the accomplishments of our teams over the years.

Tonight I am especially grateful for the generosity of the past generations of Columbians, like the Remners, the Davenports, the Sanfords, and all great Columbians from the IRA Championship Boat of 1928 who after leaving Columbia contributed year after year to our program. They set an example of selflessness and sacrifice none of us have yet to match and one we should never forget. The greatest privilege of my life was to have rowed for Columbia where I learned to defend my seat every day I sat in the boat. I graduated from Columbia University in the City of New York, acutely aware of the consequences of losing my seat to an opponent who was prepared to work harder to take it away from me. Defending “my seat in the boat” became a metaphor for my life.

Columbia has enriched me and you have honored me. I owe you both a great debt.”

Image via // @columbia_lightweight_rowing

College Q&A Recruiting Rowing

Question of the Day

I’m currently a junior in high school. I’m 5’6 and 140 pounds. Recently I have started getting more serious about rowing & want to row in college. As a junior I know that this time is critical for college recruiting but I feel that I don’t have much to offer to colleges. I only row spring season so I don’t have as much experience on the water and none sculling. Last year as a sophomore I pulled an 8:35 2k and was in the lowest varsity boat. This year I’ve gotten my 2k down to a 7:54 and we still have a few months until the season. What would be a good 2k for the start of junior year and to be considered for colleges? I know that I can drop 4 seconds easily since my last 2k as I was just concerned with breaking 8 so it was more of a mental barrier. Is it feasible for me to drop to a 7:40 2k by February if I continue to work out? I’m afraid that I won’t be able to because I’ve already dropped so much time and I really don’t know my physical max yet because I have always PRed each time I have done a 2k but felt like I could have given more if I hadn’t got into my head. Also could I become a recruitable athlete even with my limited experience and pretty slow times? Could I try for lightweight programs even though I hover around a 139-141 right now?

I think the number of people that have sculling or small boats experience going into college is relatively small so I wouldn’t worry too much about that. It definitely helps your technique but I think the majority of rowers I know didn’t start sculling until the summer after their freshman year of college. Only a handful actually sculled in high school and that was only because their teams had the equipment available (whereas as most don’t). Same goes for only rowing in the spring – I know a ton of rowers that only did the spring season, either because it was all their school offered, they played a fall sport, or their school required them to do a different sport each semester. Coaches factor that stuff in too when looking at your times – somebody that only rows 4-5 months out of the year typically isn’t gonna be held to the same standard as those who are rowing year-round. Check out the post linked below for more on that.

Related: College recruiting: Technique and erg scores

I’m not as familiar with women’s times as I am with men’s but from what I’ve heard over the last couple of years, to stand out to top programs (i.e. grand final and top half of the petite finals at NCAAs) you should be in the 7:20 – 7:30ish range. If you’re a little slower (i.e. 7:30 – 7:40ish) but have really solid grades, that can make up for being a little off the pace they usually recruit at. If you’re sub-7:20, well, you shouldn’t have too much trouble getting looks from the schools you’re interested in.

If you’re at 7:54 right now and have been regularly training on your own (steady state, lifting, cross-training, etc.) then PR’ing on your next test should definitely be a possibility. 7:40 seems like an aggressive drop unless it’s been a while since your last 2k, in which case … maybe? I’d probably set my goal at something more feasible though, like 7:50 and if you go sub-7:50 then great but if not, at least you still hit this goal. If getting into your head during pieces is something you struggle with then smaller goals like this will definitely benefit you more (mentally) than striving for something huge like a 14 second drop.

You could actually probably go lightweight or openweight but if your natural weight is 10ish pounds over the lightweight minimum I’d probably have a serious conversation with your doctor first before you tried losing weight. You’ll be lifting a lot (more than you probably are now) in college too so you’ve gotta anticipate putting muscle on from that so that’s another thing you’ve gotta consider if you’re thinking about going lightweight. Personally I’d probably go the route of just staying at 140ish+, partially because there’s not as many lightweight programs and you’ll likely have more opportunities as an openweight. Do that, get a solid amount of steady state meters in each week throughout the winter, train smart, lift, etc. and you’ll have no problem dropping down into the 7:40s.

Drills Rowing Technique Video of the Week

Video of the Week: Eyes-closed rowing

I love eyes-closed rowing. It brings a different sense of calm and focus to the boat that you can’t really achieve when your eyes are open and there’s 20 different things all begging you to steal a quick glance at them. There were two years in particular where my crews did a lot of rowing like this … my freshman/novice year of high school and my freshman year of college. I think this was because we were either learning to row from scratch or adapting to a style that was different than what we’d all been rowing for the previous four years. Like they said in the video, it taught us – all of us – how to really feel the boat and not react to every little wobble.

On days when the set would be really off or we just weren’t having a good row, we would try to turn it around and salvage the latter half of practice by pushing pause on the workout and doing some eyes-closed steady state rowing for 3-5 minutes. This helped us re-concentrate our focus and reestablish that trust within the boat, which in turn led to an improved second half of the row. (Not always but most of the time, even if the gains were marginal.) If we knew we had a hard practice in store, we’d do our entire warmup with eyes closed to emphasize, again, trusting the guy in front and behind you, and to force us to make sure our technique was on point and we weren’t just muscling the blades through the water. It’s definitely a drill worth incorporating whenever the opportunity presents itself.

“Preparedness matters. Details matter.”

Coxing Rowing Technique

“Preparedness matters. Details matter.”

I was having a hard time this week trying to brainstorm ideas for today’s post (because at this point it feels like I’ve written all there is to write about head racing) but luckily one of the other Columbia coaches posted something in our team Facebook group that I thought was worth sharing.

Everyone needs to be prepared to use the drilling sequences to improve. That means knowing what they are, what you need to focus on, how you are going to focus on it, and what outcomes you want. Preparedness matters. Details matter.

I talk a lot about the importance of communicating with your coaches so you understand the drills/workouts you’re doing, their purpose, how it’s executed, what you should be taking away from it, the technical focus, etc. and then relaying that info to the rowers, either before they start the drill or while you’re warming up a just an overview of what practice will entail that day … and the quote above is why. Preparedness matters. Details matter.

This applies just as much to the rowers as it does the coxswains too – probably even more so, which means you also have to be communicating with your coaches and/or coxswains so that you have a full understanding of the drills you’re doing, particularly when it’s addressing a technical issue that’s been pointed out to you about your own rowing. It like that Lombardi quote says, “Practice doesn’t make perfect, only perfect practice makes perfect.” You can do drills or make technical calls every day during practice but if you’re only doing it because that’s what you’re supposed to do and not because you’re actually prepared to do it, with all the pieces of knowledge listed above at the forefront of your brain, you’re limiting what you take away from the work you’re doing.

Just something to keep in mind now that we’re fully into the fall season and gearing up for a busy few weeks of racing.

Image via // @mitmensrowing