Gently Down the Stream

Richmond rowers train on the James River for their upcoming national championships.

At the starting line, everyone is silent. We try to control our breathing and heartbeats. “Attention…row!” shouts the race official, and the boats roar to life. Oars chop through the water in controlled chaos.

There are five of us in our boat; we are all in our 20s and 30s, and for the past year, we have been training for the 2010 U.S. Rowing Masters National Championships, a one-kilometer race that draws the best rowers from around the country.

We are representing the Virginia Boat Club in Richmond, which can trace its roots back to the nineteenth century when members of the Olympic baseball team founded the Olympic Rowing Club. Despite Virginia Boat Club’s long history, rowing is not very visible in Richmond, and we don’t have the resources that some of the large clubs in Washington, D.C. and Boston have. Instead, we’ve had to improvise. Winter training took place inside the boathouse on borrowed rowing machines. We didn’t have heat, so many of us warmed up in our down coats. We didn’t have weight equipment, so we made up circuits to perform on the concrete floors.

We practice twice during the week and once on the weekend for two to three hours at a time. Starting at Rocketts Landing, our warm-up and workout takes us east, usually to the Deepwater Terminal where we have to negotiate barges and tugboats, in addition to the amateur fishermen who dot the James. By the time we wash the boat and load the equipment back up for the night, it’s almost dark and we are wet with river water and sweat.

Those of us who rowed in college bear the physical and mental scars of six-days-a-week, never-quite-good-enough, NCAA pressures. It was a very painful time, and I never thought I’d row again. I took up marathon running, which actually felt like a break. We went back to school, got married, moved, bought houses, and moved on with our lives. And then we rediscovered rowing.

As much as we try to be the same in our movements on the water, off the water the five of us are wildly different. One of us is a pediatric psych nurse; another works as a packaging engineer for a computer and printing company; another is working towards her Ph.D. in microbiology.

Yet we are all feeling the same rush of adrenaline and lactic acid as we explode off the starting line. The first fifteen to twenty strokes of a sprint race are quick and short. They are designed to lift the shell out of the water and get it up to speed. A good start is essential in a short race like the 1K. The middle of the race is rowed with a longer stroke and with fewer strokes per minute, but there is not enough time to actually relax. Our heart rates are close to 200 beats per minute, and our oars will go in and out of the water once every two seconds or less.

In order to make the boat move quickly through the water, we must do everything precisely in sync. Even an arch of the wrist or a turn of the head could throw the boat over to one side and lose speed. The moment our oars slice into the water must be the same, along with the depth and angle of the blades. We must bring our oars out of the water together, turning the blade to be parallel to the water, and swing it six inches across the surface to turn it and put it in again. Rowing is controlled power. It is physics come to life. It is a dance. Angles and momentum and fulcrums matter but so does heart and experience and feeling.

“You are coming up to your sprint, ladies. Give me a power 20 now! Make it move!” shouts Maura, our coxswain. Her job is to steer, motivate, inspire, chastise, inform, educate, and coach.

At the end of the race, our bodies start to break down, and our technique and power start to deteriorate. But with Maura shouting on the microphone, we struggle to hold on. Will we have enough left to cross the finish line first? •

Follow the Richmond rowers in this month’s U.S. Masters Championships at

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