Friday, December 28, 2012

'Game of Inches: Masters Nationals, 2012' by Joe Abrams of the Dolphin Club, San Francisco

'Racing the heat' (Illustration: B. Kitch)
The following is Part One of Joe Abrams's account of his trip to the 2012 Masters Nationals at Lake Quinsigamond:

Driving West on I-90 in an oversized rental car, three thousand miles away from home, we were enjoying the freedom of a 4-day road trip. Marcus was his usual jovial, chatty self—the perfect antidote to my anxiety. We were still tired, feeling the effects of our red-eye flight two nights earlier, and it didn’t help that Marcus had stayed up till 4am the previous night, finishing up a project for work. But, after several cups of coffee, this morning’s trip from Cambridge to Worcester was going by quickly—we were absorbed in discussing our racing strategy. In truth, we knew exactly what we needed to do. Hundreds of hours and countless loops on Lake Merced in San Francisco had prepared us for this trip to take on the fastest boats in the country.

Finding a parking spot along the road leading to Lake Quinsigamond was proved challenging. There were almost two thousand boats entered this year at Nationals, from all across the country—the largest turnout ever. And by 8am, both sides of the access road were already bumper-to-bumper, packed with boat trailers and cars with boat racks. We finally shoehorned the Crown Vic into a spot far away and began the long walk back to where our boat awaited us on our trailer. Along the way, a familiar voice called out, “Hey Boys! Nice parking job! But what’s up with that undercover cop car you’re driving?” It was our old buddy from the Greenwich Crew who lived in Connecticut, but who had spent one summer rowing with us in San Francisco while on an extended work assignment far from home. Over the years he had stayed in touch, tracking our races from afar and popping up on email unexpectedly to congratulate us. Of course, his “congratulations” usually contained some sarcastic reference to our being “soft Californians.” As Marcus and I took in the hectic scene full of strangers all around us, he was a welcome and familiar voice.

The forecast called for high winds and thunderstorms in the afternoon, 90 degree heat and 90 percent humidity—so different from the cool, foggy Lake Merced we trained on back home. But in the morning calm before the impending storm, the water on Lake Quinsigamond was still smooth and flat, with just a slight cross-headwind pushing its way down the course.

A few hours later, we were paddling out to the starting line for our first qualifying heat, carefully dodging other shells warming up in the area and motorboats with race officials directing traffic. It felt good to be back in our brand new Filippi. It had survived the long trip from San Francisco without a scratch. Having our own boat with us—especially a fast one—was a huge advantage where tenths of a second can make the difference between a gold medal, and no medal at all; we felt fortunate to have it with us for the big race.

Pre-race adrenaline was now displacing the butterflies, Power bars and Gatorade from just a few hours earlier. We contemplated the trial that lay ahead: 1000 meters in roughly 120 all-out strokes. For the first 250 meters, our oars would feel light and our legs elastic; by 500 meters we would begin to doubt our stamina—legs would stop compressing all the way and lungs would need twice as many breaths per stroke. At 750 meters, with just 30 strokes to go in the race, the exact moment when we would have to take the stroke rate up for the final sprint, there would be only one thought on either of our minds: “Can I make it?” Each stroke would feel like a race in and of itself.

We waited in the staging area, taking a few last sips of Gatorade and then dumping the rest. I recited our race strategy one last time quietly to Marcus: “…30 strokes high and hard off the start, settle down for 30, squeeze 10 hard at 500m, 20 more for boat run, then up 2 beats every 10 strokes for the last 250m.” If we did this right, like we’d been doing in practice for months, we knew we could win.

“Five minutes till the Men’s Masters ‘A’ double, Heat #1…Gentlemen, you may enter the starting area.” Along with the five other crews in our heat, we gently backed our boats into the waiting hands of the volunteers on the floating docks. It was Marcus’ job in bow to keep an eye on the competition and call out the race plan during the race. My job was simple: hold a consistent stroke rate throughout. By nature, I am eager to bark out commands and prone to panicking when the competition gets ahead. Marcus is the opposite, and prone to daydreaming: the role reversal in our boat worked very well for us, forcing Marcus to stay alert and me to stay calm.

Just before polling the crews, the race official high atop the starting tower called out to us on his megaphone: “Gentlemen, we may not get a final in this afternoon, if the storms come. So row this heat like it’s a Final. The fastest heat time may determine the actual winner.”

We were in Lane 1. Our bow was perfectly pointed down the center of the lane. “All boats, we have alignment.” Marcus stopped tapping. The starter began polling the crews starting with lane 1: “…DOLPH/PAC, Lincoln Park, CBC/Union, Community A, Community B…Attention…Go!” We were off.

The first 6 strokes were quick, effortless, clean, the kind of acceleration that made each stroke feel light, and after 30 strokes we were in the lead, opening up a comfortable margin on all crews. The starter had warned us that the Final could be rained out later, so we needed to race this as if it were the final. We were steering right down the center of the lane—no wasted time or energy correcting our course. At 750m I called our final 30 sprint, imagining we were neck and neck with some other crew and hoping Marcus would respond to this imaginary challenge to squeeze out our best possible time. When the horn sounded, we had crossed the line with the fastest time of either heat, by a nine second margin. Despite the headwind, our winning time of 3:33 was only five seconds slower than what had been our previous ‘personal best time’ as a crew. Needless to say, we were very pleased with our effort.

A few hours later, jet lag was finally catching up with us. Fortunately, we’d found a group of fellow rowers from the West who invited us to relax and recharge on some lawn chairs under their large canopied shelter between races. As our final race time drew near, so did the predicted squalls from the North now moving into the area. Within minutes the skies opened up and we were caught in a downpour, scrambling to put on warmer clothes/raingear and push lawn chairs to the center of the overhead tarp to stay dry. Occasional gusts would send sheets of water tumbling off a neighboring shelter’s canopy—blowing it sideways and sometimes splashing us below. At the first clap of thunder, we exhaled. We knew our day was over. The afternoon races were canceled due to lightning and we were declared the winner of the Men’s ‘A’ final. It was a welcome relief. Now we could conserve our energy, eat and sleep and be ready for the more important race the next day—the race we’d flown 3000 miles for: the Men’s ‘C’ double, featuring the fastest Masters doubles in the country.

Part Two of Joe Abrams's account will be posted next week, on Friday, 4 January 2013. Thanks very much to Joe for submitting the piece, and looking forward to the (very dramatic) conclusion!

[Updated: Read Part Two here]

-RR

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Will it make the boat go faster? Drew Ginn breaks down his approach to rowing technique



If you haven't seen this yet, it's well worth a watch. The above video, which splices together footage of Drew Ginn and Duncan Free rowing the pair prior to the Beijing Games (as well as some of Hamish Bond and Eric Murray training together in the lead up to London) with a now famous discussion of rowing technique, which Ginn recorded while driving home from a training session. The approach he suggests is well thought-out, and based on years of personal testing with various crews at various speeds, and the results reflect the level of thought and empirical data behind this discussion. As Ginn mentions, too often in rowing we find ourselves doing things simply because that is the way we were taught to do it. This is something we've touched on here before, and it bears further thought—to achieve to the best of your abilities requires constant analysis and evaluation. Are there some aspects of your program that might not stand up to the question, 'will it make the boat go faster?'

Coming up tomorrow: Part one of a two-part, first-ever RR masters feature by Joe Abrams on his experience racing at Masters Nationals, 2012.

-RR

Monday, December 24, 2012

Video Of The Week: Indoor Training with the French Under-23 Team



For most, it's holiday break time, and, here in the Northern Hemisphere, that means lots of training indoors as we build strength and fitness through the winter months for spring racing season on the water. So, we figured we'd give you a bit of inspiration—the above video shows the French U23 squad nailing it down via weight circuits, indoor cycling, and ergometer work. The key, as always is to have your eyes on the prize—as coaches everywhere are fond of reminding their athletes, this is the time of year when races are won.

Wishing everyone Happy Holidays from the whole team at RowingRelated! Only a few more days to vote in our reader poll—what would you like to see more of on RR?

Want to suggest the next 'Video Of The Week?' Shoot us an email at rowingrelated [at] gmail [dot] com, send us your suggestion via Twitter (twitter.com/rowingrelated), or get in touch via our Facebook or Google+ pages.

-RR

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Coaches' Corner: Sweat the Small Stuff

The Release (Photo: B. Kitch)
We know that the most talented teams or athletes do not always win. It is part of what makes watching and competing in competitive athletics so much fun. It is when the details are handled better that a team with a little less talent can prevail.

We've all heard the phrase "don't sweat the small stuff" when it comes to managing our jobs, relationships, hobbies, etc. We tend to like this advice, because it allows us to focus on the big picture while letting the details fade off to the side. The idea is to prevent yourself from getting bogged down in the minutiae of a particular problem or pursuit, when the larger scale issues have yet to be resolved, or are the issues of real importance. While this may be valuable advice in many areas of our lives, I believe it can prove very detrimental when it comes to competitive athletics. This is true both for athletes and coaches, but especially for coaches, as they are the individuals responsible for organization and structure. If attention to detail is neglected when it comes to organizing and structuring a program or team and its individual athletes, the team will likely fall short of its maximum potential, and will have trouble performing better than an equally talented team or individual that has managed the details well.

At the top, it's down to percentage points
If you gave all of the top coaches, in any sport, a test on the Xs and Os of their sport, there probably wouldn't be much difference in their knowledge, understanding and command of all of the basic and advanced aspects. In American football, for instance, my guess is that pretty much every top college and NFL coach can sit in a room drawing up a playbook or reviewing film and be at the top of their field in terms of their big picture understanding of the specifics of coaching offense and defense. Despite a very similar ability to understand and manipulate the big picture aspects of their sport, some of these coaches succeed, while some fail or have only moderate success. The same is true in rowing. I don't think there is much separation among the very top collegiate coaches, or national team coaches from one rowing federation to the next, in terms of their knowledge and technical understanding of the basic, fundamental aspects of the sport. They all have a very good understanding of how to move a boat, how human physiology works, etc. It is the valuing and managing of the details that separates the best coaches in the world from everyone else.

I am often very impressed with the knowledge and command of many top coaches who struggle to have winning teams at the highest level. While they have the basic skills and expertise necessary, this isn't a math problem—it's not something that can be solved on paper. There are many more variables, not all of them easily defined, and this is where the details come into play. Details are the reason a coach can come in and have a substantial impact with the same athletes in just his or her first year of working with the same group that was unsuccessful the year or years prior.

A great example of this can be seen with Jim Harbaugh and the San Francisco 49ers in the NFL. In just his first year with the team, he led the team to its first playoff appearance in nine years and an appearance in the conference championship game. Perhaps this is a case of the team simply being "ready," and Harbaugh just happened to be the guy who came in at the right time and was made to look good, but frankly, I am skeptical that this is the case (one need only look at the performance of quarterback Alex Smith from 2010 to 2011 to understand just what an effect Harbaugh had on the team as a whole).

Another great recent example of this can be seen in British distance runner Mo Farah, who went to work with well-known American coach Alberto Salazar less than two before the 2012 Olympics, having never won a medal at the World Championships or Olympics. In just his first year with Salazar, Farah became a World Champion for the first time in the 5000 meters while also earning a silver medal in the 10,000 meters, and later became a double Olympic champion for the same distances in London at the age of 29. How did Salazar get it done? "First of all, he is an obsessive stickler for detail who looks at every nuance of his athletes' performances in the restless search for improvement," reports Simon Hart of The Telegraph, UK (read the full article here).

Speech! Speech! Speech!
How do you talk to the athletes. Phrasing matters. How is everything conveyed? Are you setting them up for success? Are you on time for practice? Are the athletes on time for practice? We all know races can come down to tenths of a second after a year or more of training. With margins this slim, it makes sense sweat the details and make sure you do all the little things both for yourself and your athletes.

The other trick when it comes to details is that they are not always formulaic or patterned. In other words, every team and every individual is a little bit different. Similarly, the same team or individual athlete might need something different from a detail standpoint if the details of the situation are different. Perhaps your all-star, national champion athlete is injured or sick for a month or has a psychological problem derailing the training for a bit. Or maybe the crew that you led to success as an underdog last year is now in a different position as the favorite this year, having the target on their backs. Each of these situations calls for the details to be managed differently.

Don't let the phrase "don't sweat the small stuff" be confused with "don't worry about things that you can't control." These are two entirely different statements and I believe the latter to be beneficial, if not necessary for peak athletic coaching and performance, while I believe the former to be a detriment in many instances. International success, as discussed above, has less to do with talent differential and more to do with how these percentage points are managed—one need only look as far as the men's eight final at the Olympics to get a feeling for this idea. It is in the details of how the team is organized, selected and coached.

Sometimes this is a quick fix, sometimes it is over a few years. If the details were in recruiting and getting the right athletes, it will take several years to get the right athletes in place and teach them the right mentality. However, often the athletes are in place and it just takes the optimal management of the details to get it done. When we are talking about the elite level there is very little margin for error. Look at the difference between the German men's squad of the 2008 Olympic Games, and the 2009 world championships (and throughout the rest of the quadrennium leading up to 2012, when they took gold in the men's eight and men's quad). We all know the effect confidence or lack there of can have on your performance. This psychological variable can have a major impact in determining success based on how it is managed.

A few more details
All the training and fitness can be plenty good enough, but if the taper is blown, it can ruin the opportunity to have a peak performance on the day. Sleep & nutrition are also vital aspects that are too often neglected or mismanaged. The erg scores might be good, but how is the blade work? Is the rigging optimal and measured appropriately for the crew? Do all the electronics in the boat work? Has the boat been cleaned and all of the parts checked to make sure the equipment is working as smoothly and efficiently as possible? What time did you eat breakfast before the race? How long is the warm-up? These are just a few examples of the many important "small" things that might get (slightly) overlooked by coaches and athletes who spend all year logging hours and pounding the mileage to ensure maximum strength and fitness. The bottom line: when you spend that kind of time, and give that kind of effort, it's vital to make sure that your work is not undone by what may be as simple or seemingly unimportant as going to bed 30 minutes earlier. When it comes time to race, will you be able to say to yourself on the starting line that you've done everything in your power to achieve your goal?

-Justin and the RR Team

Monday, December 17, 2012

Evening Edition Video Of The Week: The African Rowing Championships, 2012



The above (very nicely produced) video covers the eighth African Rowing Championships, which were held in Alexandria, Egypt from 28 November-2 December, 2012, and saw athletes from nine countries compete across 16 events. While Egypt dominated the racing, taking home no less than nine gold medals when all was said and done, Algerian athlete Amina Rouba had a golden regatta of her own, as noted on the official website of FISA:
The standout athlete was Amina Rouba of Algeria. Rouba picked up three gold medals from racing in the lightweight women’s single sculls, lightweight women’s double sculls and women’s double sculls. Rouba, 26, was Algeria’s sole rower at the London Olympic Games where she competed in the women’s single sculls finishing 26th. [To read the full write-up on the FISA website, please follow the link.]
The event reflects ongoing efforts by the governing body of World Rowing to grow the sport on the African continent, with a recent and notable example coming from the London Games in the form of Niger's Hamadou Djibo Issaka, who competed in the men's single sculls at Eton Dorney as a 'wild-card' selection (more on the above, and video from the 2012 African Olympic Qualification Regatta here).

Want to suggest the next 'Video Of The Week?' Shoot us an email at rowingrelated [at] gmail [dot] com, send us your suggestion via Twitter (twitter.com/rowingrelated), or get in touch via our Facebook or Google+ pages.

-RR

Friday, December 14, 2012

Jérémie Azou Sets New Lightweight Record for France



Lightweight standout Jérémie Azou of France has added yet another feather to his already considerably feathered cap, setting a new French record for lightweight men on the ergometer. Azou, who already holds the LM1x world best time (6:46.93, which he set at the U23 world rowing championships in 2011), blasted through the 2,000m test in 6:02.9. This result comes on the heels of his fourth place finish at the Olympic Games in London with lightweight double partner Stany Delayre, less than 0.8 seconds from a bronze medal. (The duo of Delayre and Azou had won back-to-back World Rowing Cup medals in Lucerne and Munich immediately prior to the Games.) Even more amazing? Azou celebrated his 23rd birthday in 2012.

The lightweight men's indoor world record for 2k is 5:57.4, set last year by none other than Danish lightweight Henrik Stephansen (for a video of the test, click here). In 2012, Stephansen decided to take a crack at qualifying for the Olympic Games in the men's heavyweight single–not only did he succeed in qualifying, Stephansen placed 13th overall. His teammates in the LM2x, Mads Rasmussen and Rasmus Quist, went on to win Olympic gold in one of the most dramatic races at Eton Dorney, sprinting through local favorites and defending Olympic champions Zac Purchase and Mark Hunter on the way to the top of the podium.

Keep sending us your submissions for our rowing recruiting video contest! The final deadline set for 31 December, with some JLRacing swag on the line, as well as a chance to be featured on RR as our Video Of The Week to kick off the New Year.

-RR

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Oxford and Cambridge Trial Eights Take to the Tideway Tomorrow

Barnes Bridge, Tideway, London (Photo: © B. Kitch)
Tomorrow morning, Oxford and Cambridge will send their Trial Eights down the Boat Race course (from Putney to Mortlake) on the Tideway in London, in what will be an important, intra-squad tune-up for the main event, set for 31 March, 2013 at 4:30pm GMT. Dark Blue and Light Blue athletes seeking selection for the top boats have been divided into four crews.

Two crews from Oxford, this year called 'Hurricane' and 'Spitfire' for the two most important British fighter planes during the Second World War, will face off against one another. Hurricane includes Yale alum William Zeng at stroke (perhaps most famous for his eloquence following the disruption of the Boat Race last year), and GB 2012 bronze medalist Constantine Louloudis in the six seat, while the latter includes Canadian Olympic gold (Beijing) & silver (London) medalist Malcolm Howard at stroke.

Cambridge will line 'Bangers' up against 'Mash' in a culinary battle royale. The Bangers include two former Washington Huskies, Ty Otto (2012 Olympic alternate with the U.S. team) and Niles Garratt, and former Wisconsin Badger, Stephen Dudek, while 'Mash' will be coxed by another former Husky, Sam Ojserkis, and includes another Olympic medalist in Britain's George Nash at five seat.

Complete crew lists can be found on the official website of the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race, with racing set to kick off at 11:10am local time in London.

-RR

[Updated 13 December, 2012]: The official results from the Oxford and Cambridge Trial Eights are now posted.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Video Of The Week: Patrick Loliger Salas trains for London 2012



The above video puts together some silky smooth shots of rowing, a look at cross-training, and a little background on what it takes to push yourself to become better every day in pursuit of the Olympic dream. Patrick Loliger Salas of Remo Mexico has made some waves on the international stage, and is a two-time Olympian, having finished 15th in Beijing, and 14th in London, less than one second behind Danish lightweight phenom Henrik Stephansen at Eton Dorney last summer. Here, we get some insight into his thought process and emotions as he takes on the challenge of racing at the highest level, in his own voice (for those not proficient in Spanish, there is closed captioning available). Through the winter, it's important to keep in mind that every day is an opportunity to improve–rather than looking at the coming months of intense training as an obstacle, approach each day, and each session, as a chance to make yourself, however slightly, better than you were the day, or the session, before.

Thanks very much to Vanessa for submitting the video! We've gotten some very solid submissions already for our rowing recruiting video contest, with the final deadline set for 31 December. Submit a video for a shot at some JLRacing swag, as well as a chance to be featured on RR as our 'Video Of The Week' to kick off the New Year.

Also, make your voice heard in our reader poll (at the top of the page)–what would you like to see more of on RR?

Want to suggest the next 'Video Of The Week?' Shoot us an email at rowingrelated [at] gmail [dot] com, send us your suggestion via Twitter (twitter.com/rowingrelated), or get in touch via our Facebook or Google+ pages.

-RR

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Changing of the Guard Continues in International Rowing: Ginn steps out of crew, into launch

December 2012 issue of Rowing Magazine
With midsummer approaching Down Under, a wave of retirements in the international rowing community has already drastically changed the landscape for the 2013 season, with the most recent announcement coming from Rowing Australia: four-time Olympic medalist Drew Ginn has decided to trade in his oar for a megaphone, and will be taking on a new role as joint head coach of the Aussie national team, alongside long-time coach Chris O'Brien. Not long ago, Kiwi Olympic bronze medalist Juliette Haigh announced her retirement from international rowing, as did Kiwi Matthew Trott, and it appears that Mahé Drysdale may be on the verge of calling it quits as well, after winning his first Olympic gold medal in London. Here in the U.S., Luke McGee and Bryan Volpenhein will be the new duo in charge of the U.S. men's team, as we've already discussed, while the DRV (Deutscher Ruderverband) will have to move on without the architect of their phenomenal success this quadrennium, following the departure of Hartmut Buschbacher. How things will shake out in 2013 remains a mystery, but it does appear that there is an ongoing changing of the guard in world rowing, with a number of younger coaches taking on new, prominent roles at the outset of a new quadrennium.

2012 is winding down, and what better time to reflect on the events that shaped such an amazing year in our sport? That's what the current issue of Rowing Magazine (pictured above) is all about, and we selected some of our favorite moments and top highlights from an outstanding, full summer of racing, which included (arguably) the most competitive Olympic Rowing Regatta to date. In this issue, you'll also find my in-depth interview with Luke and Portia McGee, as Luke makes begins his work as U.S. men's coach in Princeton.

To subscribe, or for a look inside a free digital edition, please visit the official website of Rowing Magazine.

Congratulations to Drew Ginn, Juliette Haigh, and Matthew Trott on your athletic careers–you're all outstanding competitors, we'll miss watching you in action on the water, though, in Drew's case, at least we can take solace in the fact that you'll be guiding the next generation of Aussie oarsmen!

-RR

Monday, December 3, 2012

Video Of The Week: Training with the Norwegian U-23 squad in Belgium



This week's (slightly delayed) video comes to us from the Norwegian under-23 men's rowing team, highlighting a day on training camp in Belgium. Again, here's a solid example of how to put a great recruiting video together (hint: small, waterproof digital cameras of an unspecified brand seem to do the trick), giving insight into multiple aspects of training, as well as showing multiple angles of the rowing stroke to create an overall impression of just what it takes to row on what looks to have been a three-session day for these guys in the coxless four.

Submissions for our rowing recruiting video contest have already started coming in, with the final deadline set for 31 December. Submit a video for a shot at some JLRacing swag, as well as a chance to be featured on RR as our Video Of The Week to kick off the New Year.

Want to suggest the next 'Video Of The Week?' Shoot us an email at rowingrelated [at] gmail [dot] com, send us your suggestion via Twitter (twitter.com/rowingrelated), or get in touch via our Facebook or Google+ pages.

-RR