Just hours after USRowing's Board of Directors voted to approve a proposal to increase the weight limit for lightweight junior boys from 150 to 160, scholastic and club coaches and administrators across the country became alarmed.
John Musial, a USRowing and FISA referee who also sits on the board of the Scholastic Rowing Association of America, one of the largest scholastic rowing organizations in the country, hadn't yet boarded his flight back to Philadelphia from Tampa, where USRowing held its annual convention and where the vote had taken place, before his phone was lighting up with messages.
"I caught wind that there was a major problem with all of this Sunday morning in the Tampa airport waiting to fly home from the convention," said Musial. "I sat down to go through my email, and I already had emails in my box from people who had heard about the weight change.
"By the time I got back to Pennsylvania, there was already discussion about which way the Scholastics were going to go with all of this. By Monday morning, it was apparent to me that all of the scholastic organizations were going to stay at 150. They were not going to move forward with USRowing's change."
The reaction resulted in USRowing Chief Executive Officer Patrick McNerney asking for public comment via a posting on the USRowing website, and USRowing's board scheduling an emergency meeting, where a follow-up vote rescinded the change.
However, a separate, but related motion on the board's original agenda - a vote to form a study task force to determine if junior lightweight rowing should be allowed to continue, and if so, could it be made safe - stood as proposed.
That motion was passed, and the task force committee membership was finalized last week, according to McNerney.
The series of events set in motion a national conversation on the value and future existence of lightweight junior rowing in the US, and has placed a heightened focus on the work of the task force. The scope of the debate has made it clear that the questions surrounding junior lightweight rowing will not be resolved easily, irrespective of how the USRowing Board ultimately votes.
A major issue facing the task force is that any decision made by USRowing can only be enforced as a rule at the association-owned regattas, including the Youth National Championships.
In other words, if USRowing decides to eliminate weight specific events, scholastic organizations can opt to continue to offer them at their own events, including the SRAA national championships, events run by the Philadelphia Scholastic Rowing Association (PSRA), the Virginia Scholastic Rowing Association (VASRA), the annual Stotesbury Cup Regatta in Philadelphia, and others.
Said Musial: "If USRowing decides to eliminate lightweight on the junior level, that's fine. But they better have a comprehensive, well thought out replacement, and have vetted it through the community. And when I say the community, I mean everybody - big programs, little programs, sweep, programs, sculling programs, club programs, scholastic programs - because it affects everybody differently."
"It's a complicated issue," said McNerney.
Lightweight fours racing in Sarasota
For this spring sprint season, the rules that preexist the recent debate will remain in place, and no board action will take place until the season is ended and the 19-member study group has had time to study all the competing views and options, he said.
"The task force is established," McNerney said. "They received all of the documentation, which I received back in December, all the email commentary from our members, the original notes from the judge referee rules committee that met in September and October, as well as some proposals that were submitted by some of the scholastic organizations.
"There is a lot of good information that has come through from the various scholastic organizations," he said. "All of that has been made available to the task force.
"The task force is large, and I kept it that way because of the diversity of opinion among the scholastic community, so that we have broad representation."
History of the Junior Lightweight Rowing, and the Safety Debate
Lightweights waiting to weigh in
While scholastic rowing dates to the 1920s, lightweight rowing was not introduced until some 50 years later, according to the associations that had available records.
The largest scholastic event in North America, the Stotesbury Cup Regatta, which has been hosted in Philadelphia by the Schuylkill Navy since 1927, first introduced lightweight rowing to the regatta in 1972. The previously all male regatta added girls events in 1978, and girls lightweights events shortly afterward.
The origin of the SRAA championship is traced back to 1935. As rowing expanded as a scholastic sport across the country, more events were added to the program, including lightweight and women's events in the 1970s and 1980s.
The USRowing Youth National Championships were first held in 1995, with lightweight events added in 1998.
In all three regattas, there are a significant number of lightweight entries. The 2017 Stotesbury Cup had 137 lightweight entries, the SRAA 109, and the Youth National Championships 130.
While lightweight rowing has been around long enough for some to think of it as a tradition, the debate about where the weight limits should be set, along with the safety and value of lightweight rowing, is not new.
The set limits for lightweights are currently 130 pounds for girls and 150 pounds for boys, but those limits have fluctuated up and down.
The 2017 proposal to increase the boys weight limit to 160 was made by Bainbridge Island Rowing head coach Bruce Beall, who argued that the current 150-pound limit created an in-between group of young male athletes that limited the number of athletes that would could row lightweight, and impacted the number of entries in regattas that have lightweight events.
"I talked to most of the coaches in the (Northwest) region and it seemed they felt that 150 was too light and had created a class of boys too big to make lightweight and not big enough to be heavyweight," Beall said. According to Beall, those issues were exacerbated by the boys' growth rates, and that natural freshman lightweights could not safely make weight as seniors.
"We had guys who grew out of the weight limit," he said. "They were lightweights as juniors, but couldn't make weight as seniors in a healthy way."
Opponents of the proposal argued that the risks involved in young athletes cutting weight were not worth the gains, and that age-based categories would better serve to ensure fair opportunity in the sport for any sized athlete to participate.
Participation vs. Competitiveness
Further complicating the issue is the fact that scholastic teams draw from smaller athlete pools than regional club teams, and some believe eliminating lightweight rowing would render smaller scholastic teams unable to be competitive.
2017 Youth National Men's Lightweight Eight Final
One such scholastic program is Belen Jesuit Prep of Miami FL. Yunian Cabrera Torres has been coaching a successful lightweight program at Belen Jesuit Prep for several years. The Belen lightweight eight won the event at both the 2017 SRAA championships and the USRowing 2017 Youth National Championships.
Torres said that without lightweight rowing, Belen Jesuit would not have a competitive program.
"Removing lightweight programs from the youth national championship will be a disaster to my program because the majority of my kids, 95 percent of my kids, are Latins who are no taller than six-feet and weigh between 145 pounds to 158 pounds."
Saratoga Rowing Association head coach Chris Chase is among those who believe that lightweight rowing should be eliminated in favor of age-based events, and that moving the boys' weight standard is really a veiled argument for coaches wanting to win rather than offering opportunities to participate in the sport.
"As I understand it, the original purpose was to have it be more inclusive and to have smaller body people enjoy rowing and love rowing," Chase said. "Do we want to win? Absolutely. Am I willing sacrifice the health of my kids to make a superstar lightweight program? No. We shouldn't be talking about competition.
"If we are talking about opportunity, let's talk creating opportunities. If we are talking about competitiveness, then that is a different story."
Exactly when lightweight safety became a critical issue is not as easily pinpointed. But for VASRA, the death of a Boston College lightweight collegiate male rower at the Dad Vail Regatta in 2005 resulted in their adopting the current weight management protocols.
Scholastic organizations, even those that had already implemented increased scrutiny of lightweight athletes, stepped up their efforts and attempts to prevent young athletes from dangerously dehydrating themselves to make weight prior to competition.
At the USRowing Youth National Championships, monitors were stationed inside restrooms at Harsha Lake in Cincinnati to discourage athletes from purging to make weight.
At USRowing events, athletes are required to weigh in two hours before an event. If they fail, they have an additional hour to make weight. But the athletes have to be within one pound of the established weight. More than that and they are immediately disqualified.
In Virginia, in direct response to the death in Philadelphia, the Virginia Scholastic Rowing Association (VASRA) adopted strict weight management guidelines, based on those already being used in scholastic wrestling.
Under the Virginia guidelines, athletes undergo a pre-season medical certification that includes both a urine analysis and skin fold measurements to determine if an athlete is physically capable of being a lightweight rower.
The testing determines each athlete's "baseline weight" and sets personalized lowest weight limits that an athlete cannot go under.
The initial tests are taken one week before a school's first allowable practice, and again three weeks later. Coaches and administrators are required to maintain athlete records and to submit them to VASRA to be used during event weigh-ins.
The VASRA guidelines are seen by many in the rowing community as the best example of lightweight safety. The association is confident in the system and will continue to offer lightweight rowing.
"Right now, we support lightweight rowing," said VASRA president Dorothy Lazor. "We have a number of teams that consistently enter lightweight events."
Lazor said the system does take additional time and resources and is funded by membership teams. Of the 43 organizations that row as part of the association, 39 crews from 26 programs were entered in the lightweight divisions at the association's championships.
“Can you guarantee anything in life - that somebody is not going to try and abuse the system or make some bad choices? I don't think you can. But I think the program that we have in place severely limits opportunities to make bad choices.”
- Dorothy Lazor, VASRA
Lazor said that she understands there are heightened concerns and added that the association is open to discussing alternatives as proposed by USRowing, but said she firmly believes that closing rowing to lightweights without an acceptable alternative is bad for the sport.
"I think lightweights can be a very valuable class, if people would adhere to it properly," she said. "It offers people the possibility of competition that might not be as competitive in another category."
To the question of whether any set of standards or guidelines guarantee against an individual going out of their way to lose weight - even within the existing system - she said:
"Can you guarantee anything in life that somebody is not going to try and abuse the system or make some bad choices? I don't think you can. But I think the program that we have in place severely limits opportunities to make bad choices."
While the Virginia guidelines appear to be the most specific in use, many other scholastic associations and club teams also require athletes to undergo pre-season certifications to try and protect against abuse.
Others rely on restricted event weigh-in regulations, such as the two-hour and one-pound restrictions at USRowing events.
What do the medical professionals think?
The stated concepts and goals for the existence of lightweight rowing is to increase access to the sport for athletes of all body types, but there is no question among coaches and health professionals that some athletes will engage in unhealthy and dangerous methods of cutting weight.
An American Academy of Pediatrics Clinical report titled Promotion of Healthy Weight-Control Practices in Young Athletes details the findings of clinical studies that identify the dangers associated with dramatic weight loss.
The clinical report details both unhealthy and healthy methods for monitoring lightweight athletes. The guideline does not make a clear statement one way or the other, but it is specific in documenting that some athletes will, and do, endanger themselves.
"In their attempts to change body weight and composition, some athletes resort to unhealthy weight-control practices. These unhealthy weight-control approaches may adversely affect health and, in some cases, can negatively affect performance. Pediatricians should have an awareness of safe and unsafe weight-control practices so they can counsel young athletes and family members appropriately," the guideline states.
Among the findings included in the document were these:
"Unhealthy weight loss behaviors occur along a continuum. At one end of the spectrum are individuals with a mild energy imbalance: caloric intake is not sufficient to cover the body's energy requirements. "At the other end of the spectrum are athletes engaging in dangerous weight loss practices that carry a high risk of associated morbidity and mortality; this extreme includes children and adolescents with frank eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.
"In addition to fasting or restricting calories, risky weight loss practices include vomiting after eating, performing excessive exercise, and the use of diuretic, laxative, or stimulant medications. Persistent weight loss via unhealthy behaviors may result in delayed physical maturation, growth impairment, and the development of eating disorders."
The guidelines make it clear that the AAP recognizes the dangers associated to unchecked and unhealthy weight loss among young athletes.
But that does not mean that doctors who work in sports medicine believe that lightweight rowing should be eliminated.
Dr. Rebecca Demorest is one pediatrician who feels that lightweight rowing, under proper supervision, is not only a safe way to increase opportunities in rowing, but is a way to combat adolescent obesity.
Demorest rowed in high school and college and has served as a team physician for USRowing Under 23 national teams. She is also a past member of the AAP Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness and works with junior athletes at Oakland Strokes, which won the women's lightweight eight event at the 2017 Youth National Championships.
Oakland Strokes women's lightweight eight rowing to victory
"I think (junior lightweight rowing) is a touchy discussion because there are pros and cons," Demorest said. "Having been a rower myself, I think the pro is that it opens up the sport to a whole different class of kids who might not otherwise be able to row. It's meant for smaller, shorter, people who aren't as big as traditional heavyweight rowers," she said.
"But the problems come when you have someone who could be heavyweight who wants to drop to lightweight. How do you manage that group of kids? I think that's what really makes it challenging, because there's some kids who clearly will be lightweight, and there are some kids who are clearly always going to be heavyweight. And I feel like the window gets pushed more and more each year for who can truly be lightweight.
"I've had these discussions with my potentially lightweight rowers about who really can be a lightweight and who really should not think about being a lightweight. I think that's where the murky water comes in, from my perspective as a physician."
According to Demorest, the key is first to determine which athletes can actually be lightweights, that can sustain the weight safely and to understand that teenagers - especially boys, who tend to have longer growth periods - are still growing and their ability to remain in a lightweight category could change.
She said Oakland Strokes does pre-season evaluations and that she has one-on-one discussions with individual athletes about their ability to row lightweight.
"You can't just decide I want to lose 25 pounds to be a lightweight rower," she said. "You have to take someone who potentially, genetically, should be a lightweight rower, and discuss how do you safely do this? This isn't you just drop weight.
"I think it's an individual discussion with each patient," Demorest said. "Just like with anything you see kids for, you have to take everything into account. There's not a cookbook medicine approach when you're dealing with people like this.
"My goal is for kids to be active. I'm a pediatrician, I practice sports medicine, I want people to be active. There's an obesity epidemic in this country; I want people to find something they love." Dr. Kristine Karlson is another former rower that believes lightweight categories have a place in youth sports. Karlson rowed on the 1992 Olympic team, is a sports and family physician, and currently serves as team physician at Dartmouth College. She has also worked at FISA events and travels with US national teams.
She will be participating on the USRowing junior lightweight task force.
"I think for the vast majority of people, it can be safe," she said. "But I think there are probably still people who will do things incorrectly. You can't stop every single bad weight making behavior," she said.
"You're always going to have your outliers, I'm afraid, who try to game the system. But if we do away with lightweight rowing entirely, we are closing rowing to a large amount of the population. On a participation level, there's going to be kids shut out. Kids who might learn an awful lot with rowing, if they were able to compete as a lightweight.
"I think it can be workable," Karlson said. "But it's going to require wrestling-type precertification, more attention to weight-making behaviors and more attention to weigh-ins, and sending someone to the heavyweight team in the middle of the season. It's going to require a lot of attention from the coaches, and to say, you're struggling, I want you to be a heavyweight. And that's not going to go over very well."
The Bottom Line
Even before the junior lightweight study committee begins to dig deep into the questions they are facing; before a proposal can be made to keep or eliminate lightweight categories in junior rowing and replace them with age-based events; it would appear that lightweight rowing is unlikely to be eliminated unless the entire rowing community, every club and scholastic program can agree to an acceptable solution.
A daunting, and almost unachievable, task; that, anyway, is a dominant opinion among both those who believe it is time to eliminate junior lightweight rowing and those that say they will continue to support it.
"I can speak for the SRAA," said Musial. "We will continue to support lightweight rowing as it is constituted right now, but we are very interested to see what the outcome of this (task force study) is going to be.
"But speaking personally, for the safety of the athletes, both physically and mentally, I believe it is probably best if we just do away with it all together."
Musial, who is also a high school coach and is planning to have a lightweight girls team, said the problem facing scholastic rowing overall is a lack of a national organization that could make a decision that would be enforceable to all of the different scholastic associations across the country.
"I don't think it's ever going to leave," said Chase. "Not from the high school level. I don't think it's ever going to leave, to be honest. My opinion is, should it be gone, yes. That is my opinion. My realistic opinion is even if USRowing eliminated it at the Youth National level, the regions would still have lightweight rowing."
“I don't think it's ever going to leave, to be honest. My opinion is, should it be gone, yes. That is my opinion. My realistic opinion is even if USRowing eliminated it at the Youth National level, the regions would still have lightweight rowing.”
- Chris Chase, Saratoga
Still, there are clubs and scholastic crews that are going to eliminate lightweight crews on their own because they have decided the risk is not worth the benefit.
"I'm personally very mixed on it," said Boston based Community Rowing Inc. head boys' coach Will Congram. CRI recently decided to eliminate lightweight crews from their program, even though they were using a pre-season screening protocol through the winter training.
"I don't want to say absolutely no to lightweight rowing because that sounds like an attack on a lot of really conscientious and thoughtful and caring coaches out there whose athletes are eligible to race in lightweight categories," Congram said.
"So, it's not about the coaches and it's not about how teams manage it, in my mind. But coaches can't control how athletes behave outside practice, and given that, it's simply that the existence of this category creates a potential avenue for problems.
"It's my feeling that no matter what, you can be the best most conscious coach and you can twist yourself in knots employing all of these different means of monitoring athletes - but you just don't know how athletes are going to respond, and how their parents are going to respond, on their own, to the existence of this category."