American Club Rowing Experience, Part 7: What's Masters Rowing Really About, Anyway?

Crushing the erg with PBC (Photo: Hannah Wagner Photography)

My first time racing after college was a blowout. We got up at the start and just walked away, a reasonably solid four that had been moving well together and didn’t see much in the competition to worry about. After 1,000 meters, it was over.

But like, actually over. The race was only 1,000 meters long. The whole "masters" thing is weird.

In practice, "masters" often means the above—a course of 1,000m. I have no idea how you could squeeze in 7,000 events at Masters Nationals (personal estimate) if they were the full 2,000m long; a shorter distance means you can run more races. More races means more racers, and more racers means more rowing. Great!

We all know there's a self-congratulatory, breathy "rowing is the hardest sport" (see here and here) mantra lots of folks in the sport love to celebrate—never mind the fact that in the NHL they play over 80 games per year, MLB over 160, and in boxing you get punched in the face. Even though this mantra is demonstrably incorrect, it certainly can be a barrier to entry. Shorten the distance, reduce the pain, lower the barrier—you're gonna get a lot more rowers. Masters Nationals is huge.

So big, in fact, that over the six events you're allowed to compete in at the four-day regatta, you might walk away thinking, "well, there's no one I haven't beaten—CBC should just mail me the medal now."

Some of the most fun I've ever had at a regatta was Masters Nationals in 2013, part of the big roll-out of Nathan Benderson Park. Younger and less encumbered by 'responsibility' or 'good decision-making skills,' I rode shotgun in the trailer on the way down and back, came away with five golds and one silver, and drank my share of Bud Light Limes. We had four guys that hopped in the coxed four and straight four in a few different events, and handled everything so easily that we couldn't wait to take that lineup to Boston in the fall. For a couple days in Florida that August, we were unbeatable over 1,000m.

"We all know there's a self-congratulatory, breathy 'rowing is the hardest sport' mantra lots of folks in the sport love to celebrate—never mind the fact that in the NHL they play over 80 games per year, MLB over 160, and in boxing you get punched in the face."

But we were oh-so-very beatable over 5,000m in October. We got destroyed.

Even in the splinter dimension where we don't collide under Elliot Street Bridge, we still get maybe eighth in the Club Four that year. Granted, it might be said that after that summer guys took it for granted that we had our act together, took a bit too much time off after and didn't worry too much when the early-fall 6ks were a full minute on the wrong side of 20:00.

Maybe, just maybe, racing over 1,000m didn't give us the full picture. Again, the whole "masters" thing is weird.

The fact is, there are a ton of 40-year olds ex-Olympians you idolized in high school, guys so much better at their peak than you were at yours that you can spot them a full ten years of age and all they need to do is knock out a couple ergs at a Boston LA Fitness the week before Charles and they will absolutely bury you. Have them autograph the shovel.

All that is to say, that if you see 'masters' and think 'recreational' you might be right some of the time but you'll pay—big time—for the times you're wrong.

Yes, without a doubt there are 'masters' teams more into making jokes about how much erging sucks and more concerned with where to set up the food tent than their rig; groups with a built-in Learn-to-Row farm system that graduates folks up to a competitive program. It's probably true that they don't have anyone that rowed for Callahan or Gladstone or Harry or Clarke on their roster, and experience counts for a whole hell of a lot the further you get from two-a-days with a well-paid and experienced coaching staff and dozens of single-minded teammates.

But on those same teams there's always at least one wily old dude, a little more tan and a little more jacked than he should be; maybe he stroked the Dark Blues in the 60s, or maybe he was in a coxed pair that doubled up at Worlds, or maybe he punched Castro in the face. What I mean is, this guy will tell some stories.

Never doubt that those slightly older, somewhat wiser, semi-retired badasses are still out there. Chances are, if you're reading this, you're one of them... or on your way to being one. They don't come out of the woodwork to race all that often, though; but if there's one place, for obvious reasons, that gets them to turn up—it's Mission Bay.

The San Diego Crew Classic Masters 'B' regularly features a who's who of Penn AC all-stars. My first trip to Mission Bay saw the stern pair of the London 4- battle it out with half of the extended Graves family... in the Masters 'A' event. And you may notice plenty of names you recognize from past World Cups in the Palm Beach 'C' eight.

Yes, it seems that halfway between Fort Lauderdale and Jupiter, Florida is rowing's best-kept secret. Did I mention that the whole "masters" thing is weird?

And then of course, there’s the Charles, where you'll see the Molesey "Leg-ends" pull together a murderer's row of 1992-2008 world medalists, Kennebecasis provide cover for the (literal) Rowing Canada Hall of Fame, and '92 gold, '87 fold, and so on really putting it on their sleeve. Countless hours of October productivity are sacrificed to decoding who's who in the masters eights.

And then there's the Alumni Eight thing but I am not even close to ready to get into that.

The crazy thing about masters crews like these is that in the best case they're reunions of guys that spent a bunch of time rowing together in the past, and in the worst case they're rolodexes, however you feel about that. And when the bar is set by several entries as "multiple Olympic golds" it takes real badasses to hang with them. Whenever crews from Marin or Sammamish or, yes, Potomac steal a march on these guys it's a big deal, even if they have a few veterans of their own.

"Having recently been one myself, I speak from experience: guys in their 20s don't know shit. Moving a boat takes skill, but moving a team takes more. A lot more."

These are crews that treat "masters" as a specific event at a specific regatta, to race or not race—not as a statement of purpose. Hang around boathouses in your 20s and you will have a day where a 49-year old kicks your ass at something. Age is relevant only for the couple minutes that your coach spends in an excel spreadsheet, working out averages for the Head Of The Charles entry. I've seen guys two generations apart compare the worst workout they've ever done, and realize they both did it coached by Tony Johnson in their early 20s. And few things can energize someone born after the Cold War than his 55-year old teammate's stories about a bar brawl with the East Germans.

One Potomac Men's Sweep rower recalls:

I distinctly remember when I realized masters rowing wasn't just about the post-race beers (although those should never be overlooked). After having spent a month or so at the club training with guys in their 20s—still in their athletic sweet spot—we had a full-squad 2k test. I was a spry 22-year-old and I made the mistake of sitting down next to Greg Le Sage, then in his mid 40s, who proceeded to throw down a 6:14 and then tell me about how he medaled at the IRA for UCLA, which until then I had thought of as a middling ACRA program. In my first race for Potomac, San Diego Crew Classic, we were pair partners and he was definitely pulling me down the course.

It’s actually really easy to have guys on the same team training for different future goals—Henley Royal Regatta and Henley Masters, for instance—when they share so many of the same past goals, even if they're a few decades apart. A team with a shared mindset that it's about how much work winning the event requires, rather than finding the event which requires the least work—that's a team that can pursue parallel goals, not separate ones. Guys that can mix it up on the swing rows or technical days, blend some boats together for parity—it wouldn't kill you to leave the speed coach at home once in a while, especially when your river's 11 feet above normal and your downstream splits are going to be in the low 1:00s anyway. (You know you're not actually that fast, right?)

Having recently been one myself, I speak from experience: guys in their 20s don't know shit. Moving a boat takes skill, but moving a team takes more. A lot more. Every year gifted captains graduated out of collegiate programs, but the challenges to manage with a club crew are a whole order of magnitude more complex.

Every rower and coxswain on our team, and likely most club rowers in general, have at some point gotten subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) signals to 'hang it up'; watching guys come in and spit in the face of that day after day, year after year, is a treat. A lot of the "masters" racing culture is geared towards accepting, if not encouraging, this downshift—to increase participation.

Learning from teammates that have been refusing to make this compromise for years, decades even, humbles you when you complain about how hard life is and pushes you when you don't think you can go any faster. No matter the race, if I'm in a boat with a dude that's weathered a deployment, a mortgage, and a divorce, I sure as hell know he's not worried about whoever we're racing.

-Peter Clements

Coming up next: 'Iacta alia est'—the die is cast. The team is now pushing off past the point of no return for Henley; what does this mean to the guys taking the trip for the first time, and what does this mean for the teammates that don’t get to go?

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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