The idea to pull together the first official World Rowing Indoor Championship and the long-standing Virginia-based Erg Sprints and make them one event, had the T.C. Williams Crew scrambling.
The Erg Sprints, formally known as the Mid-Atlantic Sprints, has been run for more than 30 years and has served as a fund raiser for the T.C. Williams Crew boosters.
But when Concept2, USRowing and FISA approached the race organizers, the reaction was best described by Erg Sprints organizer Lisa Zickar in one word.
Zickar said once the race committee got over the shock, they agreed to partner with World Rowing and Concept2 to become the first host organization for the inaugural World Rowing Indoor Championships, an event that FISA has said will become a permanent part of their World Championships.
And then they started looking for volunteers. By the time the event got started in the T.C. Williams High School gym Saturday, Zickar and the race committee had amassed an army of volunteers and officials, which was followed by a flood of competitors hoping to get either one of the Erg Sprints or a World Rowing medal.
"I think it worked really well," Zickar said. "The excitement level was high both days and we saw lots of great racing. Combining the two events let rowers at every skill level, from beginner to elite, have their chance to shine."
Referees among the hundreds of volunteers and officials on hand in Alexandria
The final numbers: Over 300 volunteers working multiple shifts; 2,138 athletes, 2,306 entries (1,371 Saturday and 935 Sunday including 80 para competitors); 33 countries represented; 27 US states; 150 events; 120 ergs for competition and 85 for the warmup area; 5,861,390 meters rowed (or 3,642 miles) and three new world records.
"We had a really super turnout," Zickar said in something of an understatement.
As in most big erg events, the 2018 Erg Sprints | World Indoor Rowing Championships drew in a multitude of rowers of all ages and abilities, from elite international athletes and para rowers and age groups from youngsters just learning to pull and masters looking for a challenge and a way to stay fit.
Among the sprint records broken was the men's 50-54 age group and was set by Andrew Benko of Dubuque, Iowa - "the rowing capital of the world," Benko said. Benko recently turned 50 and set the record at 6:01.7, breaking the old record he had set himself just a month ago at 6:07.7.
"I'm just doing this for fun," said Benko. "I do it was a hobby and to stay in shape. It's something I started doing 10 years ago and then got serious about. It was fun and a way to set goals and go for them.
"Where else can you come and do something at 50 years old and get a rush like this?"
Near the top of the masters age table was 78-year-old George May of Arlington, Virginia. May said he rowed as a freshman at Cornell University for one season but lost interest and hadn't even thought about rowing again until he saw an unoccupied erg in his local fitness center and sat down.
"I got on it because I needed something to help keep my fitness and I knew it was a totally body workout. That got me started." May finished third in his veteran lightweight men's race and pulled an 8:58.1. "I liked being here," May said. "It's great to see so many people turn up."
Like May, who began rowing to improve his health, James Heberlein of West Side Rowing Club, began rowing at 45 to help deal with a life-long head injury he suffered when he was 21 and the car he was driving was struck by a tractor-trailer truck.
The accident left Heberlein in a coma for five weeks and suffering from a resulting brain injury that caused him to become unable to leave his home or be in most social situations. By age 45 he weighed close to 350 pounds.
"I got up to 360 pounds when I was 45 years old, and I knew I had to do something, so I was looking for a way to burn calories. There was an ergometer that no one ever used at this gym and they said it was too hard, and I said I would dominate it, and so I did. And I lost over a hundred pounds." Heberlein also found himself able to attend large events, and he has done several erg races since; he will race again next week in Boston.
In addition to the sprint event, the weekend featured several distance events, including 20 and 30 minute rows, and a marathon and half-marathon event. While there were three sprint world records broken, at least one record was broken in the distance events.
In addition to Benko, the open women's lightweight record was broken by Christine Cavallo and the 30-39 women's record was broken by Olena Buryak of Ukraine.
Buryak's time of 6:26.1 was two seconds faster the14-year-mark of 6:28.8 set by Britain's Sarah Winckless in 2004.
When she was finally able to speak, Buryak said she was happy with her time and her defense of the world title she won last year at the C.R.A.S.H.-B. Sprints in Boston.
"I'm really proud and happy to be a part of any regatta competitions," said Buryak, a Ukrainian national team athlete. "I'm more happy when I can show what I can do. Today, I think my time was not so bad. I did better in my test seven months ago, but anyway I'm happy."
Walking out of the event on Saturday, late racers and folks working at the regatta were reminded that it is still erg season by a steady snow; on Sunday afternoon, they staggered out to blue skies and warm temps, a sure harbinger of spring rowing. We'll see you in Boston next week for one more full pull indoors.