"Mileage makes champions" - almost every rowing coach knows the phrase, but relatively few know who first said it, let alone anything about the man who made it an accepted part of our sport. Steve Fairbairn, an Australian oarsman and coach who made his way to Jesus College Boat Club at Cambridge University, made it the central tenet of his approach - although perhaps more importantly Fairbairn advanced the use of the leg drive in the evolving rowing stroke, along with other changes that together came to be known as "Fairbairnism."
Significantly, Fairbairn wrote at length about his training and technique, resulting in five books that have become cherished items in many rowing coaches' libraries. Heretofore the books have been very hard to come by, with dog-eared copies found in second-hand booksellers stores going for $200 to $2000. Fairbairn's words may be famous, but the chance actually to read them was hard to come by.
To fix this situation, rowing historian Peter Mallory undertook a complete editing of Fairbairn's writing, available now in four volumes as Kindle e-books on Amazon. Mallory has also completely rewritten his first book, An Out-of-Boat Experience, now available as a Kindle book as well.
row2k talked to Mallory about his discovery of Fairbairn and Fairbairnism, about Fairbairn the man and coach, the process of editing the books, and about what modern coaches might still discover in the books - and also about what inspired him to rewrite his first book.
row2k: How did you find your way to Fairbairn?
Peter: When I began my research into The Sport of Rowing in 2004, his name came up on the very first day and kept coming up over and over for seven years. On the day I met him, U.S. Women's Coach Tom Terhaar told me that he still reads Steve, that he often found inspiration from Steve. Since my ultimate goal in writing The Sport of Rowing was to trace the evolution of modern rowing technique back to its roots, I immediately realized that Steve had played and continued to play a major role in elite rowing's evolutionary history.
row2k: What were your first impressions of Steve?
Peter: His passion. His commitment. His prodigious physical endurance. His enormous self-assurance.
row2k: What did you recognize from your prior research?
Peter: Steve turned out to be an interesting guy, and uncovering his roots has not been entirely straightforward. He readily volunteered that he had learned much of his approach to training and boat moving from his predecessor at Jesus College, Cambridge, a pretty good professional sculler named Joe Sadler, now largely forgotten, but Steve's explanation has some holes in it.
Unlike Steve, his older brothers had been directly coached by Sadler, but when they returned home to Sydney Rowing Club, they had to be converted back to what later became known worldwide as Fairbairnism. That suggests that Steve was exposed to and adopted his principles of boat moving in Sydney before he left for Cambridge, which explains how he could hit the ground running on his very first day at Jesus College.
Steve's was a time when sliding seats were a relatively new innovation, and the most effective role for the legs in rowing was not yet well understood. Individuals all over the world were independently making nearly-simultaneous advances through trial and error.
The most famous and influential innovator that immediately preceded Steve Fairbairn in Britain was Ned Hanlan, and Steve certainly had the opportunity to be present to watch the 1882 race in London where Hanlan wrested the World Professional Singles Title from Ned Trickett.
But Fairbairn never once mentioned Hanlan. Steve was a loyal Australian. Perhaps he never forgave the Canadian Hanlan for beating Trickett, a fellow Aussie.
Incidentally, Hanlan transformed the world of professional rowing with his "revolutionary" technique, but it was Fairbairn who introduced similar innovations to British amateur rowing and eventually to the entire rowing world.
row2k: What seemed "new" in Steve's teachings?
Peter: Steve preached "Mileage makes Champions," and that flew in the face of the culture of his time. Amateurism made it seem that trying too hard at anything was somehow unsportsmanlike. Regardless, historians agree that a portion of the success of his crews must be attributed to them just plain being in better shape.
In Chapter Nine of Some Secrets of Successful Rowing (1930), Steve described a fall and spring's worth of work for his Jesus College Crew. It is remarkably similar to a modern schedule, rowing six days a week, alternating days of hard work with days of drills. The minimum daily row would be six miles, with a steady progression to a couple of sessions per week of eleven miles for beginners by the third week of the First Term. By that time the upper boats would be going sixteen to eighteen miles on Saturdays. After that, increasing amounts of competitive work in preparation for the Fall Bumps, a series of intense sprints.
These distances are not materially different from that of academic crews of today, though head races instead of bumps are now on the fall schedule.
Practices during the spring and preparing for Henley were filled with intense head-to-head racing with one's teammates in workouts which closely resemble interval training.
During vacation periods Steve encouraged his rowers to "take plenty of exercise, conditioning the body, and fitting the muscles." He recommended walking at "a good swinging pace" of four miles an hour, packing along one's essentials over long distances. How long? Twenty miles a day. That's five hours!
And this was 85 years ago! "Mileage makes Champions" indeed!
Many before me have observed that Steve wasn't teaching a specific technique as much as a state of mind. While the majority of the coaches of his day taught the rowing stroke as a series of steps to be executed with great care and discipline, Steve told his followers to focus on the organic whole. Row the blade in, surge through the water in "one cut" and send the puddles "boiling aft." Do that, and everything else will take care of itself.
row2k: What seems outdated today?
Peter: We live today in a mild backsplash or neutral-splash world, and Steve taught his followers to row the blade in going forward. I originally thought of that as a hopeless anachronism . . . that is until Fairbairn-disciple Mike Spracklen coached the Canadian Men's Eight to the 2002 and 2003 World Titles rowing their blades in.
row2k: What seems still very current?
Peter: Truthfully, very little has changed since Steve's day. Mileage still makes Champions, and there is a new Orthodox majority that teaches the rowing stroke as a series of steps to be executed with great care and discipline. But as in Steve's day, the most successful boats are those who row instead with an organic fluidity, who combine ultimate competitive efforts with "watermanship," a term Steve loved.
Today's equipment is made of different materials, athletes are far more numerous, physically bigger, they train smarter and harder, and they go faster, but there have been no fundamental changes. Good rowing is still good rowing.
row2k: Did you come across any surprises?
Peter: I realized that on my own as a college undergraduate half a century ago I had discovered the "Jesus Bell Note," one of the aspects of the rowing stroke that Steve is best known for. If you enter the water just so, you carve a vacuum behind the blade, and when the vacuum collapses, the water makes a clapping noise as it rushes back and hits the back of the blade. I used to love to make that unique sound.
row2k: What did you learn about Fairbairn the man?
Peter: Steve was a very handsome man, a talented story-teller, and a natural leader with supreme self-confidence.
He was a big man for his day. They didn't publish heights back then, but I imagine he was about 6'2" in an era when many rowers were 5'8" and below. Steve was a lean 185 pounds and thought nothing of walking 30 and 40 miles at a time. He was also supremely coordinated, one of the great multi-sport athletes on his age, excelling in swimming, running, athletics field events, cricket, Australian rules football and, of course, rowing.
But he was never the very best rower of his time. Stanley Duff Muttlebury, his Cambridge Blue Boat teammate, was bigger AND stronger AND more successful. This perhaps explains what kept Steve hungry and still coaching for decades to the end of his life.
row2k: Can you explain the type or extent of your editing of the original Fairbairn book?
Peter: The quality of the original texts was uneven, with punctuation inconsistencies, misspellings, typos, etc. The new texts have been brought to a higher level in these areas, but no attempt was made to modernize the language or punctuation.
There were some factual errors in the original texts. In the 1951 edition, Steve's son, Ian, made several corrections. I have made a few more, carefully following Ian's formatting and protocols.
Steve loved to drop names, but these names elicit little recognition from the 21st Century reader. When appropriate, I have identified the individuals with a brief description. This, too, follows the precedent first set by Ian Fairbairn.
There are a few terms that Steve used that would be unintelligible to the reader of today. Again, I have added brief explanations.
Otherwise, I have gotten out of the way and let Steve be Steve.
row2k: You have also rewritten your first book. What inspired you to do that?
Peter: As I first began to research Fairbairn ten years ago, I kept hearing resonances with my 2000 memoir, An Out-of-Boat Experience. It hadn't been intended. As I mentioned, I hardly knew the name Fairbairn before 2004, but I quickly discovered that Steve and I had a lot in common.
When Steve and I were introduced to the sport, we both were taught the Orthodox approach of our respective eras. Steve rebelled immediately, while I was far less perceptive. It took me upwards of 20 years to put my finger onto what was bothering me, but when I finally figured it out, my solution turned out to have a lot in common with Fairbairnism.
All this led me back to An Out-of-Boat Experience, the story of the personal journey I took to arrive at what I believe to be the ideal approach to boat moving.
row2k: What has changed since you first wrote the book?
Peter: Well, not surprisingly, I learned a lot about rowing history during the decade it took me to produce The Sport of Rowing. I also became a much better writer in the process of assembling those four long volumes. And I'd like to think I gained some perspective and grew up a bit since the year 2000. Today I also have a bunch of new friends and new stories. Nearly a fifth of my life has gone by in the intervening years.
In the end, I found I had more to say and better ways to say it.
row2k: What hasn't changed?
Peter: The rowing. The truths I learned in my lifetime, the truths that Steve Fairbairn taught a century ago, the truths that all who read this will encounter the very next time they take up an oar, those truths are as timeless today as they ever were.
There are only so many ways to sit backwards in a boat and pull on oars, and they were pretty much all tried by the time Steve Fairbairn came along. For nearly 200 years now, the most open-minded of us have had a decent handle on what works in boats and what doesn't, but still it remains an art, and that's why there will always be value in rowing a mile in another person's footstretchers. I learn something new every time I experience Steve's passion and every time I share my own.
Rowing becomes infinitely more powerful the minute you share it with others.
For more, read also Göran R Buckhorn's review of the Fairbairn books on Hear the Boat Sing.