In an era of early specialization in sports, rowing is an outlier. While middle school programs are popping up around the country, most rowers do not step into a shell until high school or even college. Despite this late start, rowing quickly produces successful athletes, some with as little as two or three years experience before representing their country internationally. Novice rowing and coaching is often overlooked in favor of more exciting rowing; a necessary nuisance, a quick stepping stone to weed out the future varsity from those who won't finish the first week.
On the heels of the announcement of Tokyo as the 2020 Olympic venue, think about this: there are kids out there who don't yet know what rowing is, but will be competing in Tokyo. Talk about potential!
Here are a few stories of those first seasons of rowing—the blossoming of athletes from naïve teens to curious parents; this is not about the end of their journey, be it an Olympic medal or a perfect career. This is about people who fell in love with rowing.
Three-time national teamer, and 2012 Olympian Will Newell learned to row from the best. Though he didn't begin rowing until his junior year of high school, following his brother on to the Wayland-Weston crew, Tom Bohrer saw something in the former runner that lead him to boat Newell with the varsity in his first season. Though he had the fitness for rowing, his technical abilities were limited—it was work just to figure out how to move his hands to set the boat.
"I was allowed to be competitive very quickly, and was learning a ton at that point. If I hadn't had those opportunities and such an amazing first season, there is a chance I would have gone back to running which would have completely changed the trajectory of my life. It is continually amazing to me how many decisions and events were set in motion by that one season of rowing"
The golden moment for this Olympian was when the first medal hung around his neck—in his first year of rowing his boat finished second at Youth Nationals. "I don't think anything I've won since has approached the feeling of getting a medal that first season other than perhaps qualifying for the Olympics. And even that could go either way."
Wendy Wilbur, Radcliffe Assistant Coach of Heavyweight Crew and a three-time Worlds medalist (with a total of seven appearances at the World Championships), got her start in rowing at UMass Amherst. She recalls a conversation with her frosh coach, Mary Lockyer Browning, who had coxed at the elite level pulling her aside at the end of her first season and telling her she had potential to make it to the national team.
"Can I make the team this summer?" Wilbur remembers asking enthusiastically. And while Lockyer Browning convinced her to just continue rowing and learning for a few more years, that one statement sparked an idea that lead to success.
How better to start your own learn-to-row program than teaching yourself to row? That's exactly what Matt Chase, founder of Westerville Crew, in Westerville, Ohio did in the mid-1990s.
"I was at the movies with my son," he recalls, "The River Wild with Meryl Streep. The opening credits showed a sculler on the Charles River and I remember thinking 'Wow!' I was inspired. Well, one thing led to another and that spring, my son and I drove to Philly and bought a double. "
His son went to college shortly thereafter and Chase began rowing with his twin brother Bruce. The two would row it as a double in the mornings, and a pair in the afternoons.
"The first time I stepped in the boat, I stepped right into the bottom and heard a crack in the carbon fiber," says Chase. "And then I learned you can't row with the oarlocks backwards."
The duo got a Speedcoach and "if the splits were going down we figured we were doing something right." They eventually became very good self-taught rowers, winning a gold and bronze in the 2x and 2- respectively at Master's Nationals. Chase took his newfound love of rowing and began his juniors club.
Without formal training in rowing or coaching, Chase would watch video of other teams and study their technique then bring a new piece of technical knowledge to his own team. As he grew as a coach and an athlete he developed his own technique that would be consistent with his athletes instead of the revolving door of new ideas that he had relied on early in his career.
These stories of the early years are just a handful of the thousands of stories of novice rowing. While some quit, some succeed, and others go on to dedicate their lives to rowing, every rower starts at zero. It's the coaching; the patience and support, the respect and understanding that makes the first season of rowing fun and memorable. What was your novice season like?