Friday, December 31, 2010

Winter Training: How to Tackle Your 2k

Lightweights racing at Crash-Bs in 2012 (Photo: B. Kitch)
The junior and collegiate indoor rowing season is just around the corner, and that means sooner or later you are going be testing yourself for 2,000 meters along with your teammates. Whether it's at your club's boathouse, a regional championship, or Crash-Bs, there are a few tips that can help you to achieve your goals this winter. There are as many ways to approach a 2k as there are people rowing, but given my experience the following, simple tricks can put you in the right place when the electronic starting official let's you know it's time to go.

1. Don't worry if you can't sleep. Being nervous is natural, and look at it from the positive standpoint of neurological and physiological preparation: your body and mind are ready to get after it. That's good. The best advice I ever heard regarding sleep was as simple as this: when your body needs sleep, it takes it (I believe this came from Matt Pinsent or Peter Reed). If you are completely unable to sleep, then you probably don't need it at that time. So, relax. Let your body take over the night before, after you have made sure to properly hydrate and nourish it.

2. If you are testing in the morning, it is beneficial to be awake for three hours prior to intense athletic activity. If there's no way you can manage that (say, if you are set to test at 6am), then give yourself a full hour at the least. The body takes time to fully awaken and it's important that you are running on all cylinders for your test.

3. The warm-up should begin roughly 45 minutes before your test, with a steady-state about ten minutes long. At the outset, you should be at something very easy, in the range of +35-40 on your goal split. As your body warms up a little, you can start to let it creep down to +25-30. This is simply to get your system up and running, and a good sweat going. You can follow this up with a little water, and five to ten minutes or so of ten stroke bursts at or below your race pace. A trick that often worked for me was to close my eyes for the last of these bursts—usually, you'll find that you are well below your goal. Following these short intervals, get up, stretch, and walk around a little. Breathe and relax. You know your goal.

4. Sit down on your test erg as soon as possible. Take full advantage of the five minutes you are usually given prior to the test (this is the procedure at Crash-Bs), and begin by doing a drill: two legs-only strokes, followed by one full stroke. One of the hardest things going into a test is staying relaxed enough in the upper body to keep from wasting energy. This drill will help to remind you to keep your shoulders, arms and hands relaxed as you initiate the drive.

5. Have a race plan, and commit to your goal split. Some people have elaborate plans that they tape to the base of the erg monitor, and some people are more free with their planning—but everyone needs to go into a test with an expectation of where they will be at a given point, as basic or complex as that expectation may be. Personally, I don't like to over think things. People often talk about "the third 500" in daunting terms, so my own, very simple plan eliminated it. I knew my goal, and I knew I'd done the work. I would say to myself, "get to 700m to go," and that was enough. I knew that I'd be able to hold my goal split through 1300m, and by the time I reached 700m to go I would be more than half way through the dreaded third 500. From there, it always comes down to grit and rage—probably the reason I started rowing in the first place.

6. Again, commit to your goal split. Everyone feels like Hercules when they take the first five strokes of a 2k test, and there is always a temptation to linger too far below your goal to be sustainable. This cannot happen. You are a robot, programmed to pull one number. Execute. 

7. Remember to keep the hands moving. The more tired you get, the more likely you are to leave the hands in the finish. Continue to draw all the way through to the body, but keep your swing and momentum by making the handle speed away from the finish a reflection of the drive. If you can manage this, you'll always be able to take up the rate when your vision is starting to blur and you're losing feeling in your extremities.

8. Do not fall on the ground. If you have the ability to go full pressure all the way through a test, then you have the ability to sit up and put the handle down. What flopping on the ground says is that you are not physiologically prepared to handle the distance, or that you've had a bad test. (Take a look at Henrik Stephansen after shattering the lightweight men's world record, if you'd like an example.) Sit up, and pat yourself on the back. Leave the test knowing that you executed your plan, and take satisfaction in that, whether it brings you a medal or not.


Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Six-Part Series: What Makes the Great Ones Great?

Announcing a new, six-part series coming to RowingRelated on the characteristics of great athletes across all sports, and what we can learn from both their actions and personalities. Once a week, the RR Staff will look at one aspect of the successful athlete's character, making use of examples from mainstream sports as well as rowing. In so doing, we will delineate the athletic mindset and provide the reader with a new perspective on how to view professional and amateur athletes, as well as how to make the most of his or her own competitive drive.

We believe there are six common traits among all great athletes in all sports. In this weekly series we will provide an in-depth analysis of each of these qualities and why we think they are necessary components in all great athletes.

1. Confidence
What separates belief in yourself and your abilities from arrogance, and how can cockiness and self-confidence possibly serve to enhance your performance physiologically?

2. Ability to perform under pressure
Be a racer and a game day performer, not just a practice player or a workout warrior.

3. Focus and drive
The ability to be keenly focused and driven to achieve a single goal, drawing on your talent and resources to the fullest extent.

4. Natural talent and ability
Natural athletic gifts, from hand-eye coordination to height and musculature, etc.

5. Consistency
The ability to train and practice over a long period of time to perfect your skills and gain the natural strength and endurance to be able to perform at the highest level.

6. Opportunity
The chance that allows you to discover the sport for which you are best suited, and the opportunity to pursue it at a high level.

What makes the great ones great? We're providing answers. Our one goal: to help guide aspiring athletes to realize their potential, whatever their sport may be.

Series begins Wednesday, January 5th, 2011.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Video of the Week: Polish Quad

This week's video comes to us from Poland. The Polish Men's Quad, which won gold in Beijing, is shown here during what appears to be a low-rate AT training session. The base rating is 26 s/m—a number at which they arrive with the greatest of ease because of their aggressive, unified drive phase and smooth release, not disturbing the boat and allowing it to run out to the fullest extent before placing the blades once again (the shot of the bow sliding through the water is informative). If you watch the sculler at stroke, you can easily see how much thought and practice he has put into honing his technique. Not only is his sculling superb (in my opinion, the he is the most polished sculler of the crew), his breathing is equally as rhythmic and controlled.

If you take a closer look at each one of the scullers, idiosyncrasies will start to emerge. The sculler at bow breaks his arms as he takes the catch, and the two-seat allows his knees to fall over the gunwales just slightly, rather than lining them up exactly with the toes. However, when the camera pulls back and shows the swing (posture with abs engaged at the release, allowing a quick movement into and out of the bow), preparation and bladework, it is evident that this is an extremely unified, efficient crew. This is an important thing to notice as a coach—keep an eye on the big picture in addition to individual technique. After all, they are the reigning Olympic champions.

For more videos and analysis check the 'Videos' Page.


Friday, December 24, 2010

Chula Vista Bound: Is Now the Right Time?

The Wall Street Journal got involved in the debate surrounding the US National Team this week, publishing an article that is the first appearance to date of any reasoning behind the moves as expressed by Glenn Merry himself. The rationale, according to Merry, is directly related to training -- the warmer climate in California allows year round training on the water, and, given the US men's failure to bring home any hardware from Karapiro in November, the US Rowing leadership decided that the move would facilitate rapid improvement in small boat categories. The results from the RR short answer poll show that the move is a divisive issue: 38% believed the move was a bad decision, while 32% backed the move to California and 28% remained undecided. While I believe this is the right move in the long-term, there are a number of problems yet to be addressed in the wake of such a dramatic shift, and only 20 months left to resolve them.

First, let's look at the benefits of the move from the standpoint of training and the long-term:
Let's face it, the climate in Southern California is better suited to outdoor training than the climate in New Jersey. If the top priority is simply time on the water, it is hard to take issue with sacrificing three to four months of unrowable conditions for year-round convenience. The Arco facility has been in use by the US National Team for a number of years now, and many of the athletes and coaches are already familiar with the facility. McLaren is also quite at home in California, having coached at CRC prior to taking on a leadership role with US Rowing. Thus far, the athletes have expressed that they are willing to make the sacrifices necessary to continue training in pursuit of the Olympic dream, and, despite the logistical issues that it raises for all those currently training in Princeton, they have maintained a unified front while beginning to pick up stakes and move across the country. Also, while the Arco facility is currently not equipped to service the entire team, it is at least a workable situation that can be improved over time.

All right, now let's talk about the problems:
There are only 20 months left until London. The move is not scheduled to take place until March 2011, when the athletes would be on the water once again in Princeton anyway, so while the idea of year-round training may apply to future Olympiads, it will have, at best, the cumulative effect of allowing another three months training on the water. Perhaps that is not insignificant, but due to the rushed nature of the move, following a very late World Championship Regatta this year, training for some of the athletes may be interrupted for almost that long as they move out to California and seek both housing and work. According to a recent national survey, the unemployment situation in California is tied with Michigan for second-worst in the US at 12.4%, and Chula Vista is located in a distant suburb of San Diego, so the more affordable housing will be located at some distance from the training center. Add to this the fact that the training center is not currently equipped to meet the needs of the entire team, hence the squad has effectively been split in half between the High Performance Center in Oklahoma City and Arco. This split involves the central issue discussed in the Wall Street Journal article -- that being the goal of producing more results in small boats and sculling events in 2012 -- as the developmental heavyweight group is currently scheduled to train in OKC, along with the lightweights. If the heavyweight group is split between two time zones, it will be difficult to create a consistent, team-wide culture, not to mention put together meaningful comparative data.

If, as the article states, the goal is to bring home five medals from the rowing events in 2012, then is this really the best time to reorganize the entire system for 50% of the National Team? If the stated goal were more long-term, even 2016, it would be easier to understand taking on such a major challenge at this point in time. Between relocating the entire coaching staff (minus Korzeniowski...?), sorting out the housing situation and providing some support for athletes as they seek new jobs in a new location, and (hopefully) making necessary improvements to the Arco facility to better serve the needs of US Rowing, the National Team may have a few too many variables to worry about outside of boat speed to be able to compete at the desired level in London. If the USOC were able to negotiate employment programs for the athletes in the process and aid them financially as they make the move, it would greatly improve the situation. I hope that McLaren et al. can manage to right the ship, and I will always be an enthusiastic supporter of the athletes representing the US -- maybe that's why I'm so concerned.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Coaches' Corner: Swing

One of the most important, rhythmic sequences in the stroke is the movement of the upper body from the finish position through to the body-set position. The video above, published by Everett Rowing Association, is a good example of the benefits of good swing. The stern four of this crew have gone on to prominence in the collegiate rowing ranks, and the eight move very well together out of the bow. Swing is easy to work on during the winter, as is team-wide uniformity of swing, by lining up the ergs at your training session and having the rowers do their steady state training together. If your team can match their hand and body movements as they establish good body position on land, it will solve a great deal of issues when you take to the water once again in the Spring.

Swing begins with good posture at the release. The rower must be sitting tall, making sure that the ribcage is not collapsed over the hips. The abs must be engaged in this position, so that they can easily initiate the movement out of the bow. If the rower is hunched, the movement will become more complicated: rather than simply using the abs to draw the body forward, the rower will have to first sit up, then rock, making two movements out of one, and slowing the swing by damaging the flow out of the bow.

From this tall position, with the abs engaged, the first movement is performed by the hands, which extend straight out from the release, as though on a table. Once the arms are extended, the hip-flexors and the abs draw the body over the hips until it reaches the position it will maintain as the legs are drawn up to the chest. This position should mirror the body position at the release—swing should be distributed evenly on either side of the hips. A metronome is a useful image. The core continues to be engaged, as the same tall posture must be maintained on either side of the hips to achieve maximum efficiency. The feeling for the rower can be described as a shift of the weight from the tailbone onto the feet. Once the weight is placed on the feet, the set can be controlled much more easily.

The key is sequencing properly out of the bow. The proper order ensures that the body and hands will be in the right place as the rower begins to draw the knees up to his or her chest. Proper posture coupled with the removal of any extraneous movements will maintain the boat speed as well as the set. Level hands and early establishment of the body position will help to simplify the catch, and can be monitored during the winter by means of coaching, mirrors and video. Don't let anyone tell you that you can't teach technique on the erg—land training can be equally as useful for ingraining the proper sequence as water training, and if this sequence is learned well, then the process of blade placement will come more easily to your rowers when the ice melts.


Sunday, December 19, 2010

Winter Workouts: Why Do Rowers Fear the Erg?

Op-Ed from the RowingRelated Editorial Staff

Friend. Not foe. (Illustration: B. Kitch)
I am really frustrated by our sport when it comes to the erg being viewed as a torture device rather than a helpful tool that people can enjoy. This negative mindset, which is extremely contagious, plagues the sport, preventing athletes from training to their potential and possibly serving as one of the reasons that careers in rowing, at every level, are often so short.

When compared to other endurance sports, I have not encountered an equal level of disdain for such fundamental mental and physical endurance training.My main problem is that everywhere I turn in the rowing community, whether it's high school rowers, college athletes, or even national team hopefuls, I hear of people dreading the erg. I've never heard about a cross country runner 'dreading' a track workout. True, basketball and football players may dread running wind sprints or other such conditioning activities, but I can live with that because those are not endurance sports. In other words, when strength, power, endurance, mental toughness, and monotonous activity are the bread and butter of your sport, it seems wholly inappropriate to create a culture that disdains such fundamentally important and central activities.

When compared to other endurance sports like cycling, running, swimming, etc., I have not encountered an equal level of disdain for such fundamental mental and physical endurance training. A track runner might complain if he or she had to be on the treadmill all winter long, but the idea would not strike fear into his or her heart, as track athletes are forced to be accountable at all times. I don't know why, every winter, I have to go on Row2k and read ROWING Magazine to find out about "How to get through winter training," or "How to find ways to spice up/find alternatives for the erg." Why can't people just say, "Time to erg? Okay great. What is the workout, what am I trying to accomplish and what is the best way to do that in this workout?"

Another issue: rowers complaining about mysterious injuries that only seem to affect performance on land. How common is it to have an injury that allows you to row on the water but not on the erg? I think that, in actuality, such injuries are exceedingly rare. I've had a number of athletes tell me about an injury they have, but somehow that injury only comes up on the erg. Rarely do I hear about an injury when coaching on the water. It is all too common for people to say, "but it doesn't hurt in the boat." Really? You mean that when you have to carry a heavy load, rowing by pairs, fours and sixes in an eight, have to twist out to one side with your torso and overload that side (all of this in a potentially unstable environment), that it doesn't hurt, but that when you are on a stationary machine that is completely stable and balanced, with a resistance setting that you can control, then it hurts? It seems very unlikely. I have a hypothesis: either it doesn't hurt on the water because you aren't pulling very hard, or it's because you aren't really injured and don't know the difference between pain and injury, or a combination of both. Again, track athletes are held accountable 100% of the time. The coach is standing there with a stop watch. When a rower is on the water, it's up to him or her to "give full measure."

"I'm just not good on the erg, but I'm good on the water." Nonsense.I have a simple solution to this: you can't erg, you can't row. It's amazing how many less injuries occur when this is the policy. Also, I don't care how hard you work when running, cycling, swimming or doing whatever cross-training you might be doing—you aren't going to be in very good rowing shape based on your potential without the sport-specific training development.

Another common phrase: "I'm just not good on the erg, but I'm good on the water." Nonsense. Sure, you might be able to beat someone on the water with a better erg score, but that is because that person is not technically skilled, and thus isn't able to utilize the extra power and fitness that they have. It's not complicated. I don't boat based on erg scores, but I give people with erg scores the presumption—they must lose a seat race to a weaker teammate in order to lose their seat in the boat. If that happens, it's not a good thing. It just means the rower with the stronger erg score is not technically skilled. Show me any good Olympic boat and I will show you a boat with great erg scores. Hamish Bond and Eric Murray of New Zealand are excellent rowers with great boat feel and technical ability, but they also have tremendous power and fitness. What about Mahé Drysdale, or Olaf Tufte, or Xeno Muller? Tremendous erg scores. Sure ergs don't float, but they don't lie either. If you can't pull an erg it means you have no engine. I don't care how beautiful, sleek and aerodynamic your race car is, if it has V6 engine, then the only way it is going to win a race against a race car with a V12 engine is if that V12 is in an extremely inefficient car.

Now, I understand people might have a problem with the erg because it doesn't perfectly simulate the rowing stroke, and can, undoubtedly, end up rewarding things that will hurt boat speed on the water (like rushing the slide). I don't have a problem with those people, because that, to me, is a valid concern and viewpoint. These people are not afraid of the erg and it doesn't cause them mental distress that affects their ability to perform and achieve their best. However, I think it's time for the rowing community, beginning at the high school level, to be more willing to embrace the ergometer as a training tool, rather than coming up with millions of reasons to fear the machine and letting it play games with our minds. In my opinion, this attitude, which is perpetuated year after year in programs throughout the country, creates mental blocks and leads people away from the training intensity they need to achieve their best possible results.

This may be, in part, the result of coaches requiring athletes to go too hard on every workout on the machine. Sometimes, workouts should be easy. I suspect that if one went around to various rowing programs to find out how their 'steady state' speed on a 10k erg piece compared to their 2k or 5k time, and then went around to cross country and track coaches to find out what pace they had their runners run on a typical easy or steady state run, one would find that the rowers work much harder. For instance, let's say a runner runs a 5k in 18:36. This works out to six minute pace per mile, and 1:51.6 per 500 meters. According to the McMillan Running Calculator, easy steady state runs should be done at 2:02.5-2:06 per 500 meters and easy/long runs should be done at 2:18-2:27 pace per 500 meters.

Take a rower who pulls an 18:36 for 5k, which is that same 1:51.6 pace per 500 meters. I bet many high school and college coaches would have that person doing their steady state erg workouts at 1:58-2:00, and would never have them go as slow as the running calculator recommends on the easy/long runs.

Rowers should look at both kinds of training as equally difficult. For this to happen, coaches must bring a balanced approach to both land and water training.It's possible that because rowing is so low impact as compared with running, rowers can handle a faster pace for all of their workouts than runners and still recover. But this is a difference of 8-18 seconds per mile, which would be 45 seconds to a minute and a half difference over 10k. Finishing a 10k a minute faster than someone else is a pretty significant difference, especially if done day after day and week after week. The cumulative effect on the body wearing down could potentially be significant, as the body's physiological systems would be constantly over-taxed. Perhaps this is why so many people hate the erg and "burn out" in rowing—far more often and much earlier in their careers than the majority of runners. Many coaches seem to adopt the approach that Olympian and running coach Jack Daniels refers to as the "Eggs Against the Wall" theory of coaching, which he defines as the metaphysical act of throwing a basket of eggs against a wall and hoping one of them doesn't break.

When you train as hard as most coaches recommend, the few, stellar athletes that can handle the training will succeed, and some of them might even go on to compete in the Olympics. What about all the rest? They will burn out, get injured and leave the sport. The key is balance: your training program needs to be well thought out, with enough days of easy, longer training to complement the extremely demanding sessions. If the erg is used purely for the most difficult of training sessions, it will not only solidify a negative mindset regarding the machine, but also, unintentionally, contribute reduced accountability on the water. If water training is looked at as 'easier,' you will undoubtedly underachieve when it comes time to race. Rowers should look at both kinds of training as equally difficult. For this to happen, coaches must bring a balanced approach to both land and water training.

Finally, I think many rowing coaches fall victim to creating a crutch when it comes to an erg workout, rather than dealing the fundamental, underlying problem. Here is a common example of the kind of patchwork solution to a more serious problem: steady state erg workouts broken up into intervals like 4' on, 1' off when such rest is not needed to accomplish the physiological goals of the workout. In my mind, that type of rest should be used for speed intervals (in other words, when you actually need the rest to recover between intervals). I don't think if you are trying to keep your heart rate at between 60-80% of your maximum, for example, that having a minute off every five minutes will help keep your heart rate down over the course of the workout. At that intensity, if you are in good aerobic shape, you will not notice much variation in your heart rate between an hour straight through and an hour of 4' on, 1' off if it is done at a consistent 'steady state' effort (steady state being heart rate between 60-80% of its maximum). To me, this is appears to be another way of perpetuating the problem of disliking the erg, as it is clearly a concession to the idea that the erg is difficult to deal with mentally.

This belief becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I wonder how many running coaches would say to their athletes, "Today we are doing an easy steady state run of eight miles, I want you to run at your easy/steady state pace for four minutes and then stop, walk or jog for one minute before resuming your steady state run pace until you complete the eight miles." I don't believe many running coaches, anywhere in the world, at any level, would do this. I think they would say, "Today we are going to do a steady state run of 8 miles at your easy/steady-state pace to work on aerobic development. Stay within this zone by running 'x' pace and I will see you when you get back."

Maybe running is in the dark ages and rowing is just ahead of the curve on this one, but somehow I think it might be the other way around.

-The RR Team

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Lightweight Speed: Spring Predictions

Newell Boathouse (Photo: B. Kitch)
The Fall season was dominated by Princeton, but Harvard had quite a showing at both the Charles and the Princeton Chase. Cornell's Varsity performed very well in Boston, but lacks the depth of the front runners. Yale has a ton of power, but as yet they're not applying it well enough to keep pace with their two main rivals. Georgetown also had solid showings at both the Charles and the Chase, but is anyone going to catch Princeton this year?

Lightweight racing is almost always close. For that reason, and because all the programs are given very similar parts to make up the whole, it's considered by some to be the most interesting form of racing. You are unlikely to see the kind of separation from the field that Cal and Washington had in the Varsity VIII last June. Still, the Tigers had a fantastic Fall. Not only did the Varsity break the course record at the Charles (by twelve seconds), but also the Tiger JV took seventh overall. Their performance at the Princeton 3-Mile Chase further confirmed that they are, once again, a force to be reckoned with, as the Tigers took first and fourth.

Harvard showed great depth on home waters and in Princeton as well, placing third and fourth at the Charles, where they edged a very experienced and fast NYAC entry into fifth place overall. They backed up that performance with second and seventh place finishes at the Chase. While they've not managed to catch the Tigers, they have been close, and clearly have the depth to help force their speed as they train for the Spring.

Cornell, Georgetown and Yale have had some quality results, but their comparative lack of depth means that they won't have the same kind of high-pressure, intra-squad training sessions that the Crimson and the Tigers will as they prepare for sprints season. Navy will always have depth, but this year they seem to lack the kind of top-end speed it will take to overcome the front runners. In light of all this, it seems logical to expect Princeton to have IRA-winning speed this Spring, with Harvard making it very interesting. Yale and Georgetown will duke it out for third place, possibly with Cornell in the mix, and Navy rounding out the Final.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

What is Behind USRowing Changes? What Does New Title Mean for Korzo?

In the most recent development from USRowing this December, it was announced today that Kris Korzeniowski will take on the role of Director of Coaching Education, remaining in Princeton while the US men's team takes up its new residences in Chula Vista and Oklahoma City. While I can understand the reasoning behind making use of two training centers given the circumstances, it is difficult to understand the rationale behind this move. Just before CRI's launch of its new coaching education program, USRowing wants to expand its own education programs. Last year, with the fledgling ACRA Championship beginning to establish itself, USRowing created its own collegiate rowing championship regatta. I'm not sure whether this has to do with bandwagon planning or a belief that the governing body of the sport should be profiting from events and programs similar to the coaching education credential at CRI, but it's a strange and similar pattern. Why create competing regattas and programs instead of working together with outside organizations?

Also, from the standpoint of making good use of available resources, putting Korzo behind a desk doesn't seem the best way to develop talent in the US. Whether or not you believe Korzo is a great coach, he's at the very least an extremely experienced one, and he's worked with Mike Teti in the past. CRC continues to lie dormant -- an excellent facility that is well-funded and maintained, next door to one of the best collegiate talent pools in the US, now run by Teti himself. If I were a visiting Martian, not knowing the background but able to read the immediate situation, it would seem a natural fit, so that valuable resources and talent do not go to waste in the limited time between now and the start of the Games in London. But maybe CRC never had a chance at him. While coaching education might be great for development beginning with the junior level on up, the fruits of those labors are in the distant future, and because of Worlds taking place so late this year, the next Olympiad looms large on the horizon. It appears, like many of the recent decisions, to be born not of careful consideration of the situation and possible consequences, but rather of a need to solve an immediate problem that arose because of unfortunate, undisclosed events.

Going back to the beginning, the recent changes appear to be made from a reactionary position. Take the move from Princeton, and examine it more closely. Presumably, if this move were prompted by purely logical forces, it would have anticipated some of the issues, such as inadequate housing facilities in Chula Vista, that might affect the athletes and coaches. Instead, in the rush to move, these things were considered only secondarily, and the result is that we have had to split the men's team in order to provide sufficient resources. What was the event that created the need for the US men to leave Princeton so quickly? It cannot be that the facilities at Arco are better suited to the needs of the team -- while this may be true in the future, the facilities at Arco are, at this point, insufficient to serve the needs of the National Team as a whole. This much is admitted as the primary reason for the relocation of the lightweights to OKC.

Now let's examine the situation with Korzeniowski. Having eliminated the most experienced coach on the USRowing staff, perhaps partly because of the move to CA/OK (though this is merely conjecture), without anyone to replace him, USRowing immediately hires him back in a more vaguely defined position. Why was Korzo released from the coaching staff? Does this new position mean that he will continue to be able to aid McLaren, now seemingly left to coach the 4x, 2-, 4- and VIII in addition to his other duties as Head Coach? Does it mean that Korzo will wander, like an itinerant monk, spreading the gospel of USRowing technique? In the meantime, who will take Korzo's place on the coaching staff? Will Cameron Kiosoglous's duties expand? At this point, it is impossible to say. In any case, it appears to be a move to keep Korzeniowski within the fold. What kind of influence he will have from this position remains to be seen.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Clarification of Changes Made to US Rowing Program

On Friday last week, I wrote to Megan Kalmoe asking her a number of questions regarding the changes made to the US Rowing program. Despite her busy schedule, she took the time to write back with some clear answers. The information is summarized below:

First, all selection regattas will continue to be held at Mercer Lake, West Windsor, NJ. US Rowing's view is that fewer athletes from US Rowing Training Centers will attend these regattas in the future -- boats will more commonly be selected via the camp system, prior to the NSRs. Given this, they will send only a limited amount of athletes to these events, to finalize selection.

Regarding the separation of the men's heavyweight and lightweight teams, Kalmoe said that her feeling is that there is currently insufficient space to run two programs out of the Arco facility. Apparently, many of the heavyweight men will already have to seek offsite housing, as the their number exceeds that of the available residency spots. By making use of both facilities, US Rowing will ease the pressure on the athletes with regard to accommodations, as room and board can be subsidized for a greater number of athletes. Also, OKC is the permanent residence of John Parker, who leads the lightweight program.

Finally, having spoken with the athletes themselves, Kalmoe feels that the US men are optimistic about the changes, despite the challenges that those changes present. Kalmoe says that they are willing to make the sacrifices necessary with regards to moving and sorting out travel, and are eager to put the advantages that each of the training centers afford them to good use.

Thanks very much to Megan Kalmoe, and as more information becomes available I will continue to spread the word.


A Week After Announcement, Many Questions Remain Unanswered for US Rowing

The upcoming changes regarding US Rowing's training programs and facilities, acknowledged last week following a meeting of the High Performance Committee, have yet to be explained in full by the governing body, nor has any official announcement been made regarding the release of former coach Kris Korzeniowski. The decisions regarding the movement of the men's heavyweight and lightweight teams marked a drastic break with the system in place for the last two decades, with Princeton as a focal point for the US National Team, and the new rationale seems to focus on regional, weight-class specific training centers. This much can be deduced from the text of the announcements -- but will the reasoning behind such massive changes be revealed?

There are a number of questions that immediately come to mind regarding the movement of the men's squad(s). The first has to do with selection. Since the new training centers are both over 1, 400 miles from Princeton (Chula Vista is 2, 700 miles away), will NSR regattas be held in different places for the men of each weight class (with lightweight men traveling to Oklahoma and heavyweights going to San Diego)? Or will they continue to be held in Princeton, to the possible disadvantage of the people already training with the National Team? At this point, we don't know the answer. From a logistical standpoint, you are faced with either flying the team over from two places in order for them to race, or creating three separate regattas (one in Princeton for the women, one in SD and one in OKC). Is this something that was discussed in the HPC meeting in December?

The second major question that comes to mind has to do with efficiency. Is it financially viable for US Rowing to operate two international-class rowing facilities with such a limited number of athletes in each place? Also, from a communication standpoint, how will the two coaching staffs stay on the same page? There is a two-hour time difference between California and Oklahoma, which could make scheduling internet-based video-conferences more challenging.

The third major question has to do with creating a team-wide culture and atmosphere. Separating the two men's squads essentially prevents Tim McLaren from having the influence he might have simply because he will not be there for the lightweight team. His presence will not be felt in the boathouse on a daily basis, and inconsistencies will naturally arise between Chula Vista and OKC. This is not necessarily a bad thing -- perhaps it can foster a healthy inter-squad rivalry, or perhaps the combination of Volpenhein and Parker is extremely well-suited for coaching lightweights without the involvement of the Head Coach, or, perhaps there will be a great deal of travel in the weeks and months to come for McLaren -- but it is certainly something that must be acknowledged.

Lastly, no rationale behind the 'release' of Kris Korzeniowski has been revealed. Did it have to do with coaching differences, or is there a strategy behind it? It has been suggested that perhaps Korzo will fill the void at CRC, which has been awaiting a thoroughly qualified Head Coach since the departure of Gladstone for Yale earlier this year. It might make sense, given the new, seemingly regional nature of the US men's team. Will Korzo be the one to resurrect CRC?

Friday, December 10, 2010

Changing Situation for US Rowing

Yesterday, I published an article regarding the changes taking place with US Rowing. After reflecting upon it, I later decided that it was too early to form a strong opinion about the moves, given that so little of the background information has been released. I do, however, feel that it is important to acknowledge the changes taking place, as they have a great effect on the athletes training for London. Up to this point, the most informative article is posted to, as she sits on the HPC (High Performance Committee) as an athlete representative. From her position, she has access to the information behind the scenes, and being that she is there as an athlete representative, presumably she has a sense for how her fellow athletes are handling the situation. Overall, she describes the feeling coming out of the meetings as positive.

The facts are as follows:

The men's heavyweight program will move to the Arco Training Center in Chula Vista, CA, under the direction of Tim McLaren.

Kris Korzeniowski has been released from the US Rowing coaching staff.

The men's lightweight program will move in its entirety to Oklahoma City, making use of the new facilities there, under the direction of John Parker and Brian Volpenhein. OKC will also serve as a satellite development center for men's heavyweight national team hopefuls.

The women's national team will stay put in its entirety in Princeton, outside of the usual winter training camp in Chula Vista.

The following is excerpted directly from Kalmoe's post on the subject:
If you are upset about or confused by these changes, please do something productive about it. Call or email individuals who have accurate information about the changes:

Matt Imes (HP director):
Glenn Merry (USRowing Ex. Director):

Or, please email me directly. As an HPC rep, I promise to answer questions candidly and to be as honest and direct as I can be in order to settle any issues or doubts fostered by these changes.


Tuesday, December 7, 2010

What Attributes Make a Great Coach?

The view from the launch (Photo: B. Kitch)
Having toured the club circuit, I've been coached by a number of great athletes and leaders. Along the way, each coach contributed something specific to the overall picture, and each did so in a different way. I know this is a common experience, and over the years I've often mused about what features most stood out for me, in a positive way, among all my former coaches. Is it possible to list such attributes? Or are there too many intangibles, like personality and even manner of speaking, that play an important role? I figured I would take a crack at making a list:

1. Confidence.
For others to believe in what you are teaching, you need to believe in it yourself, and this takes the form of confidence. This is not to be confused with arrogance, which prevents a coach from improving. Confidence simply means that you have faith in your abilities and in the validity of your plan or training program.

2. Consistency
Rowing styles will vary, but the coach that brings a consistent approach will always be able to get more out of his athletes than one who is constantly changing his vision. Almost any approach can work, as long as you can clearly define how you want the technique executed and you are consistent about what you want to see.

3. Communication
Clearly defined technique is also dependent on communication. A good coach needs to be able to say the same thing in a wide variety of ways, so that it makes sense to each individual, and helps each rower to figure out how to be part of the whole.

4. Adaptability
This is to be distinguished from capriciousness, which keeps rowers off balance and makes for a confusing environment. Adaptability is the skill to work with what you've got in the most effective way possible. It's not wholesale change of philosophy or technical approach, but it can be a change in the gearing of the oars depending on the size and weight of your crew, or race-planning in response to adverse conditions/knowledge of your opponents. It's the ability to engage with a problem, and, using the tools available, be they physical or metaphysical, make the best of the situation for your team.

5. Toughness
Nobody wants to be a part of a team where the coach is begging people to stay. The best way to improve the numbers at any club is to have a hard-nosed, workmanlike ethic. Lead by example. That's not to say that you are brutal about cuts, but you must take a hard line and stick by it—your rowers will respect you and the culture of the boathouse will take on the same edge.

6. Goals
Approach your athletes with standards that they can look forward to achieving, whether its a personal best on the erg or championship performance in the Spring. If the goals are clear at the outset, then the work that it takes to achieve them will be seen as a natural part of the process. It's important to have an idea about standards as well, or benchmarks, that line the way as you progress toward that goal. Are you where you need to be at this point in the season to achieve x?

7. Vision
A good coach must be able to coach the entire boat as well as individual rowers. You must be able to see the big picture. If you spend all day picking apart individual technique rather than emphasizing what you'd like to see from the crew as a whole, you'll wind up with eight guys/girls rowing like eight individuals.

8. Knowledge
This is partly from experience and partly from having dedicated quite a bit of thought to the coaching process. I've seen fantastic rowers who have made atrocious coaches. Knowledge is not simply ability to row—it's the end result of having carefully considered every aspect of the stroke coupled with your own experience in trying to achieve technical excellence.

9. Expectations
You must expect a great deal from their athletes. If you set the bar high and expect that they will achieve what you are asking of them, they will, more often than not, achieve to their potential, which is success. If you assure them that they can't possibly progress that fast because they'll need loads of time to figure out how to row by eights/feather/build rate/execute a start sequence/whatever it may be, then chances are they are going to be pretty lousy at all those things.

10. Attitude
You are a leader. Your rowers want to look up to you, and they will if you are true to yourself and show them that you are not asking any more of them than you are of yourself. If you are doing everything that you can to help them achieve their goals, they will push themselves to the absolute limit for you, because it will be a relationship based on reciprocity.

There are plenty of things that could be added to this list—it's by no means comprehensive. However, in my opinion, these are the most important qualities that a coach can possess. How each one of us gets there is our own, individual journey.


Thursday, December 2, 2010

For International Success, Post-Collegiate Club Rowing Must Become More Integrated, Competitive

Over the past few months and years we have seen a steady decline in the funding and support of 'non-revenue' men's athletics—or 'Olympic Sports' as Steve Gladstone called them while serving as Athletic Director at Cal. This process began with Title IX in 1990, and has recently picked up speed with a number of the state-funded schools experiencing financial setbacks due to the state of the economy. Just recently, we saw the latest victims here in the Bay Area fall to the economic pressures of rebuilding California and restructuring University of California finances, as the Cal Men's Baseball team was cut from the athletics department, along with the Men's Rugby team. Both were programs with a long history of success—the rugby squad was the most dominant such program in the United States, but when it comes time to cut spending, men's athletics are often the first item on the chopping block.

In rowing, the few remaining varsity programs on the men's side divide up all the talent entering the collegiate ranks, and the result is an extremely high level of competition, for very few athletes. This can be seen in the increasing separation between the top club teams and the gold medal-winning varsity eight at the IRA. The difference is natural—programs that have advantages in terms of recruiting power and influence over admissions should always be more competitive than programs without those abilities. But how long will it last? Will we get to a point where the IRA becomes even more exclusive? How can we avoid shrinking the talent pool for the national team still further if varsity programs are diminishing and nothing steps up to fill the void?

A good illustration of this problem can be seen at the Pac-10 Championships at Lake Natoma, CA. Every year, Cal and Washington dominate everything by lengths of open water, with Stanford trailing (okay, sometimes Stanford is close), followed by Oregon State, and then, further lengths back, all the club teams. Cal and Washington have all the recruiting power, followed by the two teams trailing them, leaving the amateur athletes from unfunded programs well behind. For these reasons, there has been a shrinking number of club teams at the event. Many prefer the WIRA (Western Intercollegiate Rowing Association) Championships, which are held at the same venue, slightly earlier in the season, because the WIRA pits programs of similar size and influence against one another. From my perspective, parity among smaller programs appears to be the future of the sport. Programs like Cal, Washington, Stanford, and the Ivies will continue to be the most competitive into the future, because they have an incredible level of alumni support, and would most likely survive intact even if they were to be cut from their own athletics departments as long as they could keep their influence over admissions. However, outside of those schools, the movement seems to be toward an expanding ACRA program (despite US Rowing's attempt to derail the new platform in its infancy by introducing its own collegiate championships).

Looking at results over the past 10 years, there are 12-15 schools that consistently perform well at the IRA. Do those schools alone form enough of a base to field a competitive national team? What about wild cards like Bryan Volpenhein, who rowed at Ohio State, and became one of the best oarsmen in the history of the U.S.? It is my feeling that there is a great deal of talent that slips through the cracks due to the nation's under-developed, post-collegiate club system.

With women's rowing on the rise almost universally as an unexpected result of Title IX, men's rowing will expand alongside it in a club format, making use of the venues and equipment (when possible) of the funded women's program. What this means is that the competition will return to its roots, in many cases, as a contest between students qualified academically to gain admission, rather than recruited athletes, which is closer to true amateurism. It will also mean that for the U.S. to be competitive on the international stage, a new and much more competitive club system must emerge on the men's side, in order to make the most of the talent available after college. This is a system that works very well in Britain, and there is no reason why it cannot work, albeit on a much larger scale, in the US. British Olympic athletes are lottery funded—a great help—but the club system is such a part of the culture that talent is identified and developed long before the question of funding is raised.

The key is to continue to operate programs like the California Rowing Club (currently dormant), Vesper, Penn AC, NYAC, Riverside and others with elite level possibilities in each region. The varsity system is already failing the U.S. on the men's side in terms of development, since so many seats at the top schools are occupied by internationals. The post-collegiate club system has to step up and take on the role of development that varsity-level collegiate rowing once had, before its powers and size were reduced. CRC is a perfect example that this is possible—in only two years, McLaren and CRC were able to field a boat at the Olympics. In so doing, it took some of the talent from the ranks of varsity-level collegiate rowing, as well as top level talent from the unfunded collegiate club system. If what we are seeking are results on the international stage, CRC is a model that must be replicated across the US, and, if USRowing were smart, they might attempt to have a hand in developing that new system—not from a funding or logistical standpoint, but from the standpoint of guidance.

If USRowing can encourage the private club system as to where and how to train, it can do much more than any amount of money could accomplish in regards to providing an underlying structure, not only in terms of a development system, but also in terms of technical consistency across the board. Go to England, and regardless of whether you are at Molesey BC, London RC, or Evesham RC, you are likely to be taught very similar technique, and make use of training plans that the GB international squad uses. If you move on to the GB squad, having mastered the technique at your club, you are unlikely to find yourself having to relearn the stroke and completely change your approach upon arrival. Instead, it will be familiar, because you have taken part in an integrated development system that has prepared you to be there. This is not because the GB team has paid the clubs to teach a similar style, it is because the clubs themselves have an interest in placing members on the national team.

In order to accomplish something similar, USRowing must find a way to mend contentious relationships with clubs, and instead look to help clubs in gaining prestige by developing athletes in a consistent, universal way. As a result, athletes will begin to view the club system as a real avenue to the national team. With McLaren running the show, as someone familiar with a similar system in Australia, this might just be the perfect time to do so.

Impossible? I think not.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Coaches' Corner: Finish and Release

The release (where the outside hand taps the handle down causing the blade to exit the water on the square) is the most important position to master first because it is the key to initiating a good recovery and, therefore, a good catch. It is important that posture is maintained as the handle is drawn through the finish (if the body slumps down into the boat, the rower cannot possibly maintain pressure on the handle as the support structure for the work of the arms lies in the static strength of the core), so the first step is to make sure that your athletes are sitting up tall, which requires development of the core musculature.

The next item to focus on is the position of the hands. The handle should be drawn to the top of the rib cage, at which point the rower presses downwards with the outside hand, making a vertical turn (a 90 degree angle change in the trajectory of the handle), to a point where the rower will have clearance to allow the blade to exit on the square. This cannot be accomplished if the rower is slumped over the handle at the finish, as he or she will not have enough room to make the proper motion. Typical problems that arise from having a curved spine at the finish are hunched shoulders and messy finishes. If the spine is curved, the shoulders will naturally elevate in an attempt to preserve proper handle height through the finish. Too much layback can prevent proper movement of the hands at the release, as the hands must be able to press the handle down, which is impossible if the body is underneath the handle at the release. Drills such as square blade rowing and outside-arm-only can help to correct issues at the release, but there are also ways to work on these issues indoors.

Six ways to work on the release on land:

1. Erging in front of a mirror
Take notice of your posture as you draw the handle through to the finish. Are you sitting up tall? Have you drawn the handle straight through the drive (a flat plane of motion) to the top of the rib cage? Are your elbows lined up with your wrists at the finish?

2. Medicine ball twists
Sit on the floor and grab a medicine ball. Lift your legs off the floor and position your body such that you are sitting only on your 'glutes' (butt), and hold the ball just out in front of your body. Twist from side to side, just letting the ball tap the floor as you rotate each direction. This can be made more difficult by extending your arms.

3. Sculler's sit-ups
This should be familiar to every rower. Sit in the same position as the medicine ball twist, with your body weight supported on your hind quarters. Begin with your knees tucked to your chest, and your arms outstretched. Finish with your arms drawn in at your body, and your legs fully extended straight forward from your hips. Shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles should all be aligned.

4. Stair Jumps
Grab that medicine ball again. Find a suitable set of steps, and begin with hopping up two steps at a time (skip one step) while holding the medicine ball just out in front of your body with both hands, jumping off both legs (to imitate the legs during the rowing stroke). You can divide this workout into timed intervals or sets, depending on how many people are participating. As you get more advanced, jump up three steps (skip two), or four (skip three), if you are feeling ambitious. As you jump, make sure that your continue to hold the ball slightly away from your torso (hugging the medicine ball will not have nearly the effect on the core that holding it out will).

5. Planks
Yeah, they're boring. And they make your elbows hurt (at least, if you're bony like me). But they get the job done. Front planks, side planks. The interval is up to you and how athletic the participants are. Make sure that your back remains straight ('neutral'), rather than allowing it to bow or peak.

6. Two-footed jumps
The same principle as the stair jumps, but without the stairs. This time you can ditch the medicine ball too. Standing flat-footed, simply jump off both legs and tuck your knees as close to your chest as possible, taking care to land very softly on ball of your feet on the way down (landing on your heels is not acceptable, as it will simply have the effect of pounding your knees and hips). The idea is to jump off the legs, then use the core to pull the legs up as high as possible before returning to earth. This, coupled with a soft, quiet landing teaches a dynamic shove with the legs and an aggressive acceleration with the core, as well as a careful approach on the recovery. Best of all, it requires almost no space and no equipment. BEWARE, however, as silent landings are the key to injury prevention. Don't hammer, and perform this exercise on a softer surface, such as grass.

These can be coupled with 'superman' exercises (lie flat on your stomach, then lift your shoulders, arms, legs and head off the ground for 1-3 seconds, and repeat) to work both the front and back of the core musculature.


Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Marin Junior Men Set Gold Standard This Fall

The Marin Juniors have shown a level of dominance this Fall that has the rest of the junior rowing world looking for an answer. The Marin RA boys, led by Graham Willoughby, began their Fall campaign with perhaps the biggest statement possible on the grandest stage available -- a first place finish at the Head of the Charles from a 69th place starting position. In so doing, they trumped Everett's push to surpass Eton College, the 3rd and 1st place starters respectively. Everett can be very pleased that they too triumphed over what has been a powerhouse British school for several years now, but clearly they had much less to deal with in front of them than did Marin, whose coxswain steered a fantastic course and allowed his rowers to ignore the distractions that go along with passing, turning and adjusting speed on the Charles. In speaking with Willoughby, he described it as an almost automated series of decisive moves that his veteran coxswain was able to make -- exactly what you need in close quarters.

Two weeks later, Marin was back in action at the Newport Autumn Rowing Festival. This time, both Marin A and B came across the line well ahead of the competition, showing the added depth of the program in a region that is, by far, the most competitive in the US at the high school level. Following behind them were Newport, Long Beach (look for Long Beach to have a strong Spring this season, as Nick D'Antoni, multiple-time national champion coach with Newport AC, has made a move just up the coast and has the LBJC boys on the right track this year), Marina AC, Oakland, with the third Marin VIII in 7th place overall. All this indicates that there will be another Grand Final this year in Oak Ridge heavily-laden with strong entries from the Southwest Region. MRA just missed it last year in two categories (three seconds total separated them from celebrating a National Championship in the VIII and the Lightweight VIII last year, as Newport AC was able to accomplish under D'Antoni in 2008), and they will be back looking to change all that this June.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Gladstone Will Create Another Dominant Program at Yale

Lined up at the start on the Cooper River (Photo: H. Kitch)

Steve Gladstone made a big move earlier this year, leaving his position at the California Rowing Club to take on the role of head coach at Yale. This left CRC without a head coach, as assistant Joel Scrogin accompanied Gladstone, and led to widespread speculation as to the reasons behind the move. The rivalry between Harvard's Harry Parker and Gladstone, perhaps one of the most intense and important in U.S. collegiate rowing's history, is widely considered to be the main reason for the change of venue. Yale has been far behind the curve for quite a while, but I believe their new chief is going to turn all that on its head.

Each program that Gladstone has touched has turned to gold, and, unlike Parker, who has been at Harvard his entire coaching career (though he has coached crews representing the U.S. at the world championships and the Olympics, in addition to his duties at Harvard), Gladstone has moved around quite a bit (from Princeton, to Harvard, to Cal, to Brown, then back to Cal, and finally to Yale). Every program Gladstone has coached has won an IRA title during his tenure (with the exceptions of Princeton, where his freshmen took silver twice, and Harvard, where his lightweight men had four undefeated seasons and two victories at Henley, but did not attend the IRA at that time). This means that he not only knows how to coach excellent athletes at an elite level varsity program, but also that he knows how to recruit those athletes and rebuild a program. He's had success with both heavyweights and lightweights, he's flexible, knowledgeable, and he's been in this very position before.

When Gladstone came back to Cal in 1997, the program had not won an IRA title since 1976—during his first term as the Bears' Head Coach. In the first two seasons of his second term with the Bears, his varsity squads twice took third at the IRA, and then ripped off four straight IRA Championships from 1999-2002. To paraphrase Gladstone's very own Wikipedia entry, nearly every member of those varsity squads rowed for the U.S. or another country's national team. This shows not only his recruiting talent, but also his ability to develop that talent at the elite level. All of this is why the Bulldogs couldn't be more pleased to welcome their new leader.

Harry Parker has come out with guns blazing—his Harvard squad looks stronger top-to-bottom than it has in several years, as I've discussed. The Bulldogs have some important adjustments to make, as is the case anytime there is a regime change. Gladstone may not be able to pull off the upset this season, but it is coming...soon.


Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Which US Men's Entries Earned Another Round in Karapiro?

The US men's squad came home from Karapiro without a single medal, of any color, to show for its efforts this year. However, there were some crews who showed that they have potential, this being their first chance at the World Championships. Which entries earned another trip around the international circuit?

In my view, the crew that most deserves some time to stay together and develop is the M4-. This is a group that got together only weeks before Worlds, and, despite having no international experience as a unit, managed to place a very respectable 5th in what is one of the most hotly contested Olympic events on the men's side. Also, looking at the way the final played out, it seems that there were some serious issues with fairness and wind interference, so we may not have seen all that this group was capable of this time. I know that the event was slightly weaker than it might have been, had the GB squad not taken Reed and Triggs-Hodge out of the 4- and put them in the pair in order to take a crack at Bond and Murray (and the fact that the Brits made it that close with what has been a truly dominant NZ pair over the last two years is impressive). The British have a decision to make now, since the 4- placed 4th in a tight field -- perhaps they are thinking about trading a gold in the 4- for two medals and a possible defeat of the Kiwis in the 2-? In any case, the US 4- performed very well in its international debut, and, for my money, they deserve some time to develop and gel the way their international counterparts have done over the past two seasons.

The second crew worth developing is the M2x, which performed well in quite a strong field, winning the B Final and placing themselves in the top 50% of the event (along with the 4-, it was one of only two US men's entries to do so). Warren Anderson is a beast on the erg, and is finally starting to figure out how to make use of his strength on the water. Also, by all counts he and Ochal have meshed well, and the results confirm that the US may have something with that combination.

The VIII made a case for itself in the rep, but I think there need to be one or two key lineup changes for this boat to truly be a contender. There is a core that has the potential to medal in 2012, but their lack-luster performance in the A Final in Karapiro showed that there is much work yet to be done. Personally, I don't think putting a first-time National Team member in the stroke seat is a particularly great way of going about things, especially when the guy sitting right behind him is perfectly capable of stroking, and has an Olympic gold medal in the event. Also, the LWT 2x had a decent showing, placing 11th in one of the most subscribed events at Worlds this year (along with the LM4- and the M1x) -- even making the A Final would be an achievement for US Rowing in that category.

Beyond those four entries, however, I think there is much reshaping to be done. In the 2-, the US entry of McEachern and Monaghan raced well, but looking at the list of boats in front of the US going into 2011, there seems to be very little chance at a medal in London. This partly depends on where the priorities of the GB team lie, but with the Greeks, French, South Africans, Kiwis, Germans and Italians to pass before standing atop the podium, the US have a very long way to go. The LM4- hasn't managed to crack the A Final in a meaningful race since Sydney, and until some major changes take place with the US system, it's probably going to stay that way. Entries like the M2+, the LM VIII and the LM4x can be looked at as development boats, so their last place finishes in events with fewer than 6 entries can be chalked up to 'gaining experience.'

When it comes right down to it, this is my stance: outside of the two crews, who, in very competitive, Olympic events, managed to make the top 50%, it's back to the drawing board. What does Tim McLaren think? Well, I guess we'll find out in 2011.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Who's Ahead as Winter Training Begins?

Fall racing is always unpredictable, and not necessarily indicative of Spring speed. However, there are several collegiate programs who made quite a loud statement in the early going this year. Let's take a look given the results from the main event of the Fall -- the Head of the Charles.

The most dominant program on the men's side this Fall was Harvard. The program at Harvard had two boats in the top ten in the the Lightweight VIII, the Championship VIII, the Club VIII, and the Championship IV. That is truly an impressive showing, and while they couldn't catch the blazing fast Tigers in the Lightweight VIII (who blew away the old course record by 12 seconds, albeit in the best conditions I've ever seen at the Charles), they revealed amazing depth in that event, with two VIIIs finishing 3rd and 4th overall, both in under 14:31. The Harvard Champ VIII managed to beat Cal -- last year's IRA Champion -- and take 2nd place overall, behind what will surely be a contender for the national championship this Spring in Washington's Varsity VIII. The second Harvard VIII in the event took 9th, with the Yale Varsity coming across in 14th place -- it appears Gladstone will have his hands full with Parker's boys this season. In the Club VIII, a further Harvard VIII took first, despite being dressed as firefighters for the race, and yet another entry took third, just behind the JV from Boston University. All of this points toward a very strong Spring season for Harvard, who certainly have the bodies to make a Sprints Champion VIII in their program, if not an IRA Champion -- I don't think we will see the same kind of separation between the two dominant West Coast schools and the rest of the pack that we saw in last year's Varsity VIII Grand Final in New Jersey.

On the women's side, Yale had entries in the top 10 in the Championship VIII, the Championship IV, and the Club VIII. Princeton won the Champ VIII, and had a 6th place Champ IV as well, while Brown managed a 3rd place and a 12th place finish in the Champ VIII, as well as a 2nd place finish in the Champ IV. Virginia also had a great showing, taking 2nd and 8th in the Champ VIII. Look for Yale, Brown, Princeton and Virginia to have very fast Varsity VIIIs come Spring, given the depth across the board from each of these programs. It's never safe to count programs like Cal and Washington out of the mix here either, as East Coast head racing is less of a priority for such West Coast crews. On the whole, it's a pretty familiar looking lineup of schools, though Yale may find itself toppled from the podium this year.

I know it's early, but the Harvard men did an excellent job in defending home waters, and I think that Steve Gladstone is going to have to wait until next year before he can challenge Parker's Crimson for the top slot at Sprints. As far as the IRA Championships go, well, Harvard have a lot to prove before I'll put them on the same level as Cal and Washington, but they have taken the first step. Another very notable Pac-10 team is Stanford, who did not show their hand at the HOCR -- instead, they had athletes abroad in three separate entries representing the US in Karapiro (the victorious VIII, the 4- and the 1x). Look for Stanford to be very strong after they reabsorb these athletes back into the mix. However, the Virginia women showed the same great depth that earned them the team championship last year, and I'll look for them to build on that in the coming Spring with a victory in the Varsity VIII.

Then again, we've got a long way to go until June.

Monday, November 8, 2010

US Men's Rowing Performance in Karapiro: Rough Waters

The US men's squad emerges from the competition in Karapiro with very little to show for its efforts this year, though this does not do justice to the improvements that have been made over the past twelve months. The cold, hard fact is, this year's team did not take a single medal of any color home from Karapiro, failing one of the major criteria laid out as a basis for saying McLaren's program is working as we head toward London. Even in events that were not well subscribed (the 2+ and the LWT VIII), the US couldn't manage a podium finish, and of the boats that made A Finals (including final-only events, this amounted to four) the best finish by a US crew was 5th place.

Now, as far as improvements go, there are a couple of things to talk about, most notably the 4-, which didn't even make the B final last year, and which finished in 5th place overall during this year's campaign. A great deal of work has gone into this boat, and the results show that a tremendous amount of progress has been made in what is possibly the most competitive event on the men's side. The problem is, placing your most talented athletes in an event that is probably out of reach (the GB team finished fourth, with a lineup that didn't include two of their Olympic Champions from 2008 -- Triggs-Hodge and Reed -- who were busy nearly toppling the Kiwis from their place atop the podium in the 2-) may not be the best way to up the medal count in London. The VIII also improved, making the A Final this time, but did not have a good showing in the final race of the 2010 World Championships, finishing 6th in a race that left them behind from the beginning. Still, despite the lack of any tangible evidence of their improvements, the US brought a stronger team to World's this year than last year, with fewer boats missing the A/B semi.

Here is the hard part -- what we are witnessing is an attempt to restructure the US Rowing community in the style of a European or Commonwealth system, with a greater emphasis on smaller, skilled boats and sculling, making the top priority crew the 4-. That system works really well in Europe and elsewhere, because the athletes grow up with the sport forming a much greater part of their consciousness, and because they are much more likely to begin with sculling rather than sweep rowing. Therefore, they are much more accustomed to coxless boats by the time they are ready to make the step up to the international scene. This is absolutely not the case in the US, and I have a great deal of trouble believing that it ever will be.

US Rowing is, and will always be, much more driven by intercollegiate rowing than club rowing. One needs only to look at the relative levels of participation to see that much, and this association is getting much stronger now that the NCAA is beginning to take control. The most important boats in intercollegiate rowing are the VIII and the coxed 4, and, because of the restructuring of the national championships, there are no longer any events for coxless boats. The only experience most US oarsmen get in coxless boats is pairs matrix racing in the Fall, or perhaps a little time in the 1x in order to work on stability issues. The most talented oarsmen will spend all their focus and energy trying to make it into the Varsity VIII -- the nation's premier event. This creates problems for the next level, because US Rowing's development system is just like that of the NFL -- utterly reliant on collegiate talent. There are no minor leagues here, as there are in Europe (with it's extremely competitive club rowing circuit), so when it comes time to make a national team, we end up drawing directly from the ranks of collegiate athletes, none of whom know how to move a 4-, but all of whom know how to move the VIII. Why, then, is McLaren trying to install a European system on top of an existing collegiate one, which is entirely based around the VIII?

This kind of change needs to happen from the ground up, and unless McLaren can get collegiate teams to do something they have never done in the past -- that is, come together with the common goal of developing athletes for the national team, rather than teach wildly different rowing techniques and ignore the obvious benefits of having championship races for coxless boats -- this system is not going to work in the US. The highly successful British national team (which topped the medal count leader board this year in Karapiro), has benefited greatly from its club rowing system, which emphasizes small boats, standard technique and year-round training. Club rowing in the US is largely a summer program, and there is very little cross-over in terms of technique from one program to another. This is because of the short-sighted tendency to look only at immediate gain -- whatever seems to get the job done at the moment is the preferred style, rather than having a long-term, consistent approach (look at the difference between lightweight rowing techniques in the US from the early 2000s and those that are used now).

The long and the short of it is, something has to change. If Tim McLaren is going to be successful as the US Men's Head Coach, then the landscape of collegiate rowing has to adapt to the needs of the national team to an unprecedented extent. Should McLaren and the 4- make their way to the top of the event in London, it would be an emphatic, landmark change in the history of rowing in the United States, signaling the beginning of a new era of post-collegiate development. If the collegiate system remains the same, then I don't think the resources at hand will be going to their best use.

The stereotypes about US rowing are, in large part, true. We are very strong, don't row that well, any yet somehow keep winding up on the Olympic podium based on guts and rage. That's a great way to move the VIII. The 4-? Well, not so much.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

US Men Make A Finals in Two Olympic Events

The Men's VIII will join the list of US men's crews in the A Finals this year, winning their rep just ahead of NZ, and sending the Canadians to the B Final. So far the A Finals tally is two, not counting the boats in events with six entries or less (the Men's 2+, the LWT 4x and the LWT VIII). The 2-, 2x, LWT 4-, LWT 2x, LWT 2-, and the 1x have all landed themselves in the B Final, leaving the US men with four shots at the medals, and two chances at Olympic-class medals so far. This could grow to six chances at the podium, should Anderson and Ochal make the A Final in the 2x (another Olympic event), and should Urevick-Ackelsberg make the A Final in the LWT 1x (though in field with Jonathan Koch, Peter Chambers and Duncan Grant, medals will be tough to come by). The 2010 regatta is certainly an improvement from last year, when the US men were completely shut out of the A Finals in Olympic events, and finished second-to-last in the VIII -- an event in which they took the bronze medal only a year earlier in Beijing.

The finals in the VIII and the 4- will be hotly contested, and very much fun to watch (if the reps in the VIII and the 4- are any indication). It has been wonderful to see crews that McLaren has built over the past months succeed on the international level despite being virtually untested, and I'm looking forward to seeing how those crews take on the challenge of the A Finals in Karapiro -- 20 months to go until London. Once the racing is done and the medals are distributed, I'll take a look at the team's performance and rate it according to the criteria laid out in my article last week.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

US Men's 4- Wins Rep to Earn Place in A Final

The performance of the day for the US men's team was turned in by the 4-, led by Silas Stafford of Stanford. The crew placed themselves firmly in medal contention with a solid performance, holding off a late sprint from the Italian crew immediately to starboard. It's a great sign moving forward and exactly the type of performance needed to set the tone as we draw closer to London. Stafford, Stitt, Rummel and Lanzone also make up the first of the US men's Olympic-class boats to make the the A Final this year -- something that is extremely important for Tim McLaren as he tries to harness the potential of the US club system in preparation for 2012 (as I've discussed).

Tomorrow will feature a very tough race for the Men's LWT 4-, in a heat with Germany, Great Britain, Italy, and France -- all perennial powerhouses in the event. If the US can make it through to the A Final from this semi, they too will have placed themselves in medal contention, having raced some of the most experienced crews on the international circuit.

The VIII and the LWT VIII both had somewhat uninspiring results, though the LWT VIII was an exhibition race, there being so few entries this year, and such meaningless races can sometimes be deceptive. The heavy VIII finished just behind two strong crews from Great Britain and Australia, and will have a real test in the reps to come, with both Canada and a strong New Zealand crew on the program.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Strong Start for US Men in Karapiro

The US men's team has opened up very well across the board thus far in Karapiro, with the LM4- making a big statement in their heat, finishing second and going straight to the A/B semi. The LM 2- finished third in their heat (behind quality entries from NZ and France), and will be heading to the reps, as will the M4-, stroked by Silas Stafford, who also opened up very well, finishing 2nd behind an excellent NZ crew. In the 2-, Monaghan and McEachern took 3rd, placing themselves in semifinal A/B in one of the toughest events at the regatta, and Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg did just enough to take the 3rd qualifying position in the LM1x as well, landing himself in the A/B semi. The 2x combination of Anderson and Ochal competed very well in their opener, taking 2nd behind another quality entry from Great Britain. They'll now set their sights on the A/B semi along with many of their teammates. The toughest result for the US to this point has come in the M1x, with Ken Jurkowski coming across the line in 5th place in his heat -- he'll be looking to turn that around in the reps.

It's a solid start, and many US crews have set themselves up to make a statement in the coming week. If the team is, in fact, as strong as it looks to be after the first two days of racing, McLaren may just have the team on the right track. The road to 2012 begins now.

For more results from the World Rowing website, click here. The racing is about to begin once again!

Friday, October 29, 2010

Honeymoon Over for Tim McLaren -- Results Please

As the US men take to the water in Karapiro, the looming questions about current Head Coach Tim McLaren are: can he have the same success in the US 'system' (really a euphemism for a random selection of clubs and athletes all over the country who come together, usually at the last minute, and are thrown into lineups largely based on erg scores) that he had in the much more structured Australian one? Can he impose that same kind of structure on the truly amateur sport in the US? How will the US Team fair in the second year of his coaching regime? What are acceptable results?

Last year's performance at the World Championships did not make a sterling impression on his adopted home, as none of the camp boats medaled -- in fact, the only boats that took home any hardware at all were the victorious Coxed Pair (Henrik Rummel and Troy Kepper), and the second-place Lightweight VIII. Neither is an Olympic event, and the Lightweight VIII had only 9 entries (though, to be fair, it's a larger showing than the 2005 Gifu World Championships). More troubling than this is that outside of the two aforementioned boats, only one other US entry even so much as made the A Final (the 2- of David Banks and Charlie Cole). Naturally, this boat has been broken up and inserted into the VIII (?), and the pair will be OKC Training Center's Ryan Monaghan and Deaglan McEachern -- certainly very experienced (both having raced for the Light Blues in the Boat Race), but as yet untested on the international scene in this combination (though McEachern has raced internationally as a sculler). I just have trouble understanding why the one successful Olympic-class boat from last year was abandoned.

This is also true of the 4-, which only has one remaining member from the combination that had success earlier in the season (Giuseppe Lanzone), and is also as yet untested on the international stage. Again, I take nothing away from the potential of this crew to succeed. The thing is, most of the European and World crews they will be racing have been in their lineups much longer, and have a track record of success leading up to this appearance at the World Championships. There are some intangibles that take time to develop, and sometimes the fastest guys don't always make the fastest combination (remember 1997, 1998, 1999, followed by 2000?).

Being on the outside looking in, I am not privy to much of the information that has gone into the creation of these lineups. But that's just the problem. There doesn't seem to be any of that 'transparency' that the current political regime is so fond of, and what little data there is outside Princeton doesn't seem to align perfectly with the decisions being made. In the grand scheme of things, I understand that my opinion means little, and that if everything goes swimmingly in Karapiro, McLaren may just turn out to be a genius. However, if what we are seeing is a restructuring of the US system for the 2012 games, I've no idea where things are headed, and there seems to be even less cohesion on the part of US Rowing than ever before (especially now that it's spread somewhere between Princeton, Chula Vista, OKC and Berkeley). At the moment, the momentum seems to be with OKC, as I wrote two weeks ago. But what does that mean? Two years ago, the place to be was CRC -- now coachless and stagnant.

Perhaps we are also seeing how the long-term, unanticipated results of Title IX are affecting US Rowing. The women's team has a highly structured system, and a great deal of results on the international circuit. It can draw from a huge intercollegiate pool of athletes, many of whom get their start in junior programs with an eye toward being recruited to college. Opportunities abound. The men's team, on the other hand, has a dwindling number of varsity programs from which to draw athletes (and so is more dependent on the less-stable club system), little-to-no financial incentive (outside of pure love of the sport) for its athletes to make a cross-country move in order to be considered, and declining results on the international stage. To make matters worse, the few remaining men's varsity programs in the US have increased their international recruiting, leaving even fewer spots to develop future prospects for the US on the men's side.

There doesn't seem to be any over-arching structure, which could guide all the training centers popping up here and there toward some kind of common goal or technique, and the result is what we have now: a new 'elite' training center emerging every couple of years or so, sending a new batch of athletes out to Worlds, few if any of whom return to that same system or continue to be developed. Case in point: the Coxed Pairs race from trials this year. The result was a 0.2 second margin with the victorious combination from OKC going to Worlds, while the second-place crew (which clearly could have been on the other side of that result on any given day), made up of Steve Kasprzyk and Troy Kepper, must watch from home. Both Kasprzyk and Kepper were on the Worlds team last year, and Kepper was one of only two Americans to come home with a gold medal. But, apparently, he is not worth developing.

I truly hope that this is not the case this year, as I wish them nothing but success, and I'll be excitedly watching the results. One of the things I love most about the sport is that it is still largely amateur (at least in the US), and that causes some of the very problems I've discussed. Still, I think we can do better in creating a more organized, if not more centralized, training system that doesn't let people who have proven they can be successful on the international stage fall through the cracks.

I also know that Tim McLaren is an excellent coach for individual boats, as he has proven time and time again on the international scene, most recently with his success with the Men's 2x from CRC, which qualified for the Beijing Olympics, finishing 9th in only their second season together. But he made have bitten off more than he can chew coming into the highly disorganized, high-pressure situation, plagued by low athlete retention, in which he now finds himself. That being said, if he can show significant improvement this year in Karapiro (Olympic-class boats making A Finals, at least 3-5 podium appearances overall), I think he has earned a full Olympic cycle. If the team falters once again, missing finals and coming home empty-handed, as, given the overall lack of international racing experience on this year's squad (outside of Jason Read), I'm afraid it might do, then something has to give.

Prove me wrong, please, Tim.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

"I Row Crew" — Rowing in 'The Social Network'

Like many of the rowing faithful, I've been keeping up with the saga penned by Dan Boyne about the filming of the rowing scenes in David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin's The Social Network, and I must say I had high hopes going into the film. The first problem I encountered: the phrase, "I row crew." It was uttered so many times before anyone "rowed crew" on the water that I had trouble buying any of it later. It's understandable that the character of Mark Zuckerberg makes that mistake, since he has no idea about the sport. But when the Winklevoss twins themselves utter the phrase several times, one begins to wonder where Boyne was when these lines were not being chopped or changed. Seriously, who says that?

As far as the actual rowing goes, the first scene, which has the twins out training in a pair along with the rest of the Harvard squad, is not all bad. It just ends that way. The line, "Those guys are freakin' fast" is certainly every bit as cringe-worthy as Boyne indicated, and it's followed by a sudden, dramatic increase in stroke-rating by the Winklevi, which lasts until they are off camera (it's almost as if they too are embarrassed).

The heart of the matter is the Henley scene, where Harvard is pitted against the Dutch in a reenactment of the final of the Grand Challenge Cup in 2004. The rowing is not terrible, and they shot this scene at the actual venue during the HRR in 2009, so no complaints there. The trouble is, it is shot with an edge-blur, and in slow motion. The slow-motion is supposed to disguise the fact that the two crews are at impossibly low stroke-rates coming through the enclosures, and, coupled with the edge-blur (which makes the rate of motion of the environs -- close-to-normal -- less obvious), it almost works. To a rower's eye, however, it looks like they are doing a piece at a 22 in the Henley Final. Also, it's paired with close-ups of the Dutch making 'pain faces' and looking nervously over at the competition -- they are ever-so-scared of those dynamic Harvard boys!

The outcome, of course, follows history. However, the half-a-length loss is subsequently discussed as one of the closest races ever. Really? What about the Boat Race from 2003 (which takes place on the Thames and covers just over 4 miles), which came down to 1 foot? I suppose it's just a bit of fluff to make the twins look good in losing (actually, much of the movie is that way).

I know that the amount of people who actually know anything about the sport makes up quite a small percentage of the population, so ultimately, it's up to the Hollywood execs, who know what sells to the everyday moviegoer. However, given the amount of hype this movie has gotten in the rowing community, I expected more rowing than most people would be interested in seeing, and more accuracy (if not in the rowing itself, then at least in the dialogue about it). Still, it's probably the most accurate depiction of rowing in a major motion picture to date, and for that, Boyne and the gang are to be commended. And hey -- at the very least, it's better than Take That's new video, featuring a 'quintuple.'