Wednesday, November 18, 2015

I used to row.

Mukashi booto wo koide imashita. 

Rowing Ruminations, Part 2

(Again, inspired by the book "Flat Water Tuesday" but no spoilers. And I'm turning into a rowing blog…)

People who’ve never rowed might think that rowing is arms and upper body strength, but it’s the leg muscles that do the bulk of the work. (I think more people understand this now than they did when I rowed because rowing ergs have become so popular.) It makes sense when you think about it. In most people, the thigh muscles are the strongest muscles in the body. (One exception would be my current girl crush.) It makes sense to get those muscles involved in the rowing stroke. This is done by putting the rowing seat on wheels, and putting rails under those wheels. (An upperclassman on my squad once told me that before seat rails, rowers would make moving back and forth easier by greasing their bottoms. I do not know how to verify this, and I have not read this anywhere so far.)

(ETA: I found a passage about greased rear ends in the book "The Shell Game" by Stephen Kiesling. In 1870, Yale rowers greased their rowing trousers. They also used oatmeal mush.)

Of course, the arms and upper body do their share of work as well. The swing of the upper body and the pull of the arms must be in perfect synchronization with the legs to maximize the force sent to the water. And the hands. Oh, the hands. The friction between the oar handles and the hands will tear them apart. Those callouses are like merit badges, and rowers are proud of them.

All the oars held by all the rowers should go into the water (the “catch”) at the same time, and be pulled out of the water (the “finish”) at the same time. The forward slide of the seat must also begin and end at the same time. The knees extend at the same time, the bodies swing at the same time, the arms flex at the same time. Synchronicity keeps the energy sent by the bodies to the water from going to waste.

The stronger the rowing strokes are, the faster the boat will go. The better the rowers match their movements, the faster the boat will go. The better the boat is balanced, the faster the boat will go. So the running, the weight training, the circuit training, the erging in front of the mirrors (with or without the short girl yelling at you), everything is about going faster.

Which brings us to yours truly, the coxswain. The coxswain steers the boat, and gives instructions about how hard and how fast to row, and also gives the rowers information about how well (or badly) they are rowing, and how far behind (or ahead) they are of other boats. The cox is responsible for keeping the whole boat safe. It’s the ultimate multi-tasking fantasy or nightmare, depending on how you look at it. The other day, one of the youngsters at work asked me what sports I did when I was a student. I replied that I was in crew and that I coxed, and explained what coxing was. He said, “oh, so you did nothing.” I carried on a mental debate with myself the rest of the day if that could be considered grounds for writing him a bad evaluation.

Steering is done with a rudder. In most racing boats, the rudder is about the size of a credit card. Since a coxed four is about 12 meters long, it isn’t exactly going to turn on a dime.

When I coxed, I had a stroke rate meter in my right hand (with the neck cord wrapped securely around my wrist), a stopwatch in my left hand, and the toggles of the rudder cables hooked between my fourth and fifth fingers. My hands were (are) tiny even by Japanese standards, and operating all this stuff was really hard on my hands, not to mention my brain. I made a lot of other mistakes too, which meant I got yelled at a lot, which I didn’t like very much, which meant I made even more mistakes, which meant more yelling. The rowers wouldn’t yell at me when the coach was around, but when he wasn’t around, like during exam time, they’d let their emotions run free. Reminding people of their position on the totem pole was standard procedure in our major, in our industry, and in athletics in Japan. A part of me is glad for that time because I got an understanding of the status quo in our society (not just in rowing, not just in athletics, but society as a whole).

The coxswain doesn’t actually contribute to the power of the boat, so it’s better if they’re small. But cutting too much weight is, of course, dangerous, so most leagues have a minimum weight for coxswains. Coxswains weigh in before races. Unlike boxing or wrestling, the point is to be at or above minimum weight. If you’re lighter than that weight, the race officials will give you weight plates or sandbags to carry on the boat when you race, so there’s no strategic advantage to being below minimum weight. When I coxed, in the early to mid 90s, minimum weight for Olympic coxswains was 50 kg for men and 45 kg for women, and most Japanese leagues, including ours, went by those numbers.

It’s common for coxswains to cut weight. It was then, and it probably is now. Every racing season, I watched my upperclassmen (and later younger) coxswains go for weeks with only the tiniest morsels of food, my heart full of dread that they’d develop eating disorders, because I have a pathological terror of them. I guess guys are just lower risk for that shit. (Doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen, just that it happens less frequently. Much less.) I was also afraid that they’d keel over from hypoglycemia, but none of them did that either. I’m still kind of amazed that they didn’t. 

I met my mom’s friend Y once in Toda (more about Toda another day), and one of the first things she said to me was “aren’t you kind of heavy for a coxswain?” I quickly replied that I coxed men and I was underweight for that, and she nodded in understanding. She was an elite level women's coach, so she was right in her world saying that about me; I was a college kid insecure about my looks, so I was right in my world feeling uncomfortable about it. Sometime after I left rowing, the minimums were revamped to a more inclusive 55 kg for men and 50 kg for women.

(Yes, there's more to say. I'm scaring myself.)


Annie Crow said...

This is all fascinating. More, more!

pumpkinmommy said...

What a can of worms I have opened! And I haven't even written about my first race yet...