American Club Rowing Experience, Part 4: Ergos in the Ballroom

Potomac Boat Club training on Rivanna Reservoir (Photo: Andrew Neils)

Your erg room used to have a piano in it (probably).

You realize that there weren't always ergs there, don't you? And if your erg room used to have a piano in it, then somewhere in your boathouse are old black-and-white photos of formal parties in the building (picture the July 4th Ball from The Shining). And if this is all true, your boathouse surely has a ballroom (you know, a room for having fancy… galas?) It’s hard to imagine the Social Register crowd ever presenting their daughters to society in the same room where I puked after a PB on "The Cooler," but I'll be damned if it isn't still universally called 'the ballroom.'

So few of the fundamentals in rowing—if any—have changed. Catch together, finish together; push with the legs. For the love of God, back the blade in, bow four.

But a sport is more than its fundamentals. At some point, the ballroom became the erg room. That's a big change.

Get past the letter "E" at Masters Nationals, for instance, and you'll find a class of athlete that never touched an erg in college—because they didn't exist yet. (Well, at least in their current form.) Think back to your collegiate racing experience for just a moment: You rowed the erg. You erged... a lot. Just try and reverse-engineer what your experience might have been like without the erg. Then trade out composites for wooden hulls. Imagine rowing with tulip blades. Hell, conjure up in your mind’s eye an an All-American IRA grand final (I kid! ...kind of)—go ahead, I'll wait.

So, the fundamentals of the sport remain mostly the same, but lot of things on the periphery have changed—and for many, it's the sum total of everything on the edges of the sport that defines your approach to it. What's been an erg room for ten years was a ballroom for one hundred.

"Those 'Nasty-Ass Vesper Oarsmen' that won the Olympics in 1964? I know we're talking about Philadelphia here, but you can bet money they rubbed some of their club the wrong way."

This isn't at its core a 'Boomers vs. Snapchat' thing—it's a perspective thing. Even at the lower levels, most high school and collegiate rowing tends to embrace being loud and sweaty and competitive and generally somewhat obnoxious, and if you're reading this column (instead of working, or studying) you probably take this as a given. But not everyone is out there to qualify for the Boston Marathon; some people just want to go for a jog—and there are plenty of rowing analogs for the experience of getting a contemptuous look after a polite "on your left" on your favorite track.

At some point in your club career, a member of your club will chew you out for making a mess, and it'll have nothing to do 'with who is from what generation.' You'll be called 'ungrateful,' or your crew will be labeled as 'party animals' (... who wake up at 4:30am every morning). Your sweat puddle is 'disrespectful,' no matter how much you clean up the area—even if you mop the whole floor. "Yeah, well maybe you should try breaking a sweat," you’ll think to yourself, mainly because you're a little smug and more than a little self-absorbed (no? Just me?).

But you were sweating all over the ballroom—why would you do such a thing?

Sweat on the Riverside Boat Club 'ballroom floor' (Photo thanks to Brendon Stoner)

Times, methods, and requirements change, and you can't celebrate the achievements of the past while tut-tutting crews on their way to the next round of club glory. The modern land-training regime of high erg-mileage and—especially in the D.C. summer—buckets of sweat, is certainly one component of continually-improving standards of performance. The fundamentals haven't changed, but the way we chase speed now is pretty loud and sweaty and smelly.

"The best beers you'll ever drink will be bought by a stranger because you won a race."

This isn't entirely new, of course—I shudder to think what Brad Lewis' squat rack smelled like. But this modern regime is anathema to a lot of the athletes that came before it. You have to keep this in mind throughout your club career, in order to not come off as a jerk.

Achieving your goals requires busting your ass on land, on the water, and in the weight room—and side-eyes from the "stroll through nature" crowd or unsolicited criticisms from the weekend warrior squad are only a distraction. Cleaning up after yourself is the bare minimum for being a good member of your club, but bringing trophies home is pretty important, too.

History can be a great source of strength for a club, program, team, or individual. It's a lot easier to win a race if you've won it before; it's a lot easier to argue your club should buy top-of-the-line hulls if they've always bought top-of-the-line hulls. It's great to have teammates or fellow members that won the [Oxford and Cambridge] Boat Race or made national teams or rowed under That Legendary Coach That Changed Lives. But time machines don’t win races, and once-in-a-generation coaches aren't always succeeded by replacements up to the task. Speed yesterday doesn’t guarantee speed now.

Remember that those that came before you—they had to deal with this, too. Those 'Nasty-Ass Vesper Oarsmen' that won the Olympics in 1964? I know we're talking about Philadelphia here, but you can bet money they rubbed some of their club the wrong way. Big goals make big noise, and conspicuous effort makes you, well, conspicuous. Any crew that's done something great for the first time had to deal with a lot of folks that resented the way they chased that dream—and probably were a legitimate headache to a lot of folks at their club just trying to steal a paddle or a workout or a peaceful morning.

On the other side of the coin, there are probably a lot of athletes—teammates, even—that might be from a different generation or a totally separate experience with the sport, that love seeing hard work and sweat and grit no matter how loud it is or how bad it smells. Achieve great things, and strangers—whether they’re members of your club or not—will buy your next round. The best beers you'll ever drink will be bought by a stranger because you won a race.

Boathouses are never big enough, and never have enough equipment to share. Sometimes there's not enough ergs or sculls or hulls to go around, and sometimes members just rub one another the wrong way because of personalities. Sometimes, you’re a minor inconvenience, and sometimes, you really are being a pain in the ass.

In other words, there's someone at your club that doesn't like you. That's no reason to not do everything in your power to win.

-Peter Clements

Coming up next week: What ‘training to win’ means as a club athlete. Taking weekends off to go do time trials; training every morning and finding the rare afternoon; cutting deals with your family, etc.

Note: This series will be regularly published on Tuesdays between now and 2018 Henley Royal Regatta. View all posts in this series by clicking the label 'ACE Series.'


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