After the 2016 Olympics, Grace Luczak had reached a point in her life where she needed to start a career outside of rowing. She had trained full time since graduating from Stanford University, rowing on five senior national teams including in the Rio Games.
She had not decided to stop rowing or to forgo a possible return to the national team training center for the next cycle, but when she was recruited by the management consulting firm, EY, along with several other Olympic women rowers from different countries, Luczak moved into the working world.
"I joined EY and did an internship that turned into a full-time consulting position," she said.
It's not unusual for someone who has been on several national teams to want to get a working life going while still keeping the idea of coming back for another Olympic run in mind – and that was what Luczak was thinking when she accepted the position with EY, she said.
Staying fit enough while working fulltime can be challenging, and while Luczak continued to train and row as much as she could at the New York Athletic Club, she also knew "there is a huge difference between being fit and being fast."
And so, last fall, as the 2020 Olympic cycle headed into the critical third year, Luczak's idea of trying to make a return to the women's national team training center moved closer to the front of her thinking.
That would mean either working part time or not working at all, as well as finding a place to train that could provide what she calls the "stress less factors" of full time training - money for food and rent, health insurance, access to physical therapy, a nutritionist, and coaching and teammates.
"Working out by myself in New York, and occasionally rowing with another person, is totally different from the established training environment that has been super successful with the women's training centers in Princeton and San Diego, where you have a set schedule, you have a group of athletes, and a coach guiding you along the way."
Luczak had all of this in mind last October when, just after rowing in a Director's Challenge Eight at the Head of the Charles Regatta, she wandered into the display tent of the new Cambridge-based startup company, Hydrow.
Based in part on the model of the video-guided exercise bicycle Peloton, Hydrow was marketing a rowing machine with video streaming of rowers going through on-water workouts in singles. The company was in the development process of filming training sessions, introducing the product to the rowing community, and recruiting athletes to be the on-screen trainers.
Founded under the direction of Bruce Smith, a former national team coach and former executive director of Brighton, MA, based Community Rowing, Inc., Hydrow was interested in founding a company that also created a place where athletes like Luczak could find employment and a training location that provided the "stress less factors" she needed to get back on the path to another Olympics.
What Hydrow was offering was a training environment that was designed specifically for athletes, in particular scullers, in exchange for being on-screen trainers leading live, on-water workouts from singles, all to be shown on a 22-inch screen attached to the rowing machine.
What that meant to Luczak - when all the business talk about production, sales, and the pending delivery of the new product to the market in May was considered - was that she was being offered a place a to row and train every day that came with a salary, equipment, coaching, health insurance, and physical therapy while she worked toward possibly rejoining the US women's national team training center, and another Olympic run.
And, since the company is based in Cambridge, where rowers are forced off the water during the Northeast winters, Hydrow was just about to move their video production and rowing operations to Miami for the winter. That meant year-round on water training, with spring, summer, and fall on the Charles River, and winter months in Miami, Florida. Luczak was sold.
"It was the perfect opportunity for me to plug into a training group," Luczak said. "Moving down with Hydrow meant picking up some more of those elements that make it easier to train."
Dani Hansen working on Hydrow video production
When it was founded in 2017, the company's intention was to push into the rowing machine market, and take advantage of the increasing popularity of indoor rowing and cycling. The initial startup stage included a venture capital and crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo that had exceeded its funding goals of $100,000 by 1033%, raising over $1 million on the platform. In February, Hydrow completed a $20 million Series A round of funding.
Using online sales and live demonstrations like the pop-up tents at the Head Of The Charles and at last year's IRA Championships at Mercer Lake in West Windsor, NJ, Hydrow introduced the product and began making sales. To have real athletes leading the workouts, Hydrow began recruiting rowers for their on-water filming, while also hiring production and sales employees.
US Paralympian Dani Hansen was one of the first athletes brought in and was the initial face of the on-water trainers, and is now the company's lead trainer. As the build out continued, more athletes were added into the mix, along with other employees from the rowing world to be involved in sales, filming, and other roles.
During the initial marketing stage, to some extent Hydrow was mimicking the model of Peloton, but has moved away from that to stress more of the full body workout of rowing versus that of cycling. Another member of the rowing community hired to fulfill the training and coaching model component was Justin Moore, former Syracuse University women's head coach, who has also served as a USRowing coach on the junior and under 23 levels.
In addition to developing the coaching and training aspect of Hydrow, Moore has also been involved in sales and marketing. According to Moore, the initial sales campaign well exceeded goals and expectations, and said the first shipments are on their way from production to customer delivery next month.
Selling online, and from a pop up store in Boston's Copley Plaza, Hydrow has sold more than a thousand of the new rowers. "Within 10 months we had a viable prototype and the first shipments are set for delivery," Moore said, adding that Hydrow plans to have launch events throughout the country to celebrate the delivery of their first units.
Moore said the company is continuing to develop the product with plans to increase filming in various locations. "One of the greatest things about rowing is the beauty of being on the water. We want to take people rowing in a wide variety of beautiful places."
He also said the continued development would move toward the ability for teams of rowers to compete together. "In the near future, our software will have the ability to create experiences, events, and competitions for two and four teams.
"People will have the experience of being accountable to others, but also the great feeling of accomplishing goals with others. We want this machine to connect people to one another."
With company expansion, he said he expects opportunities for employment to increase. And with that, plans to have Hydrow become a center for athlete development are also going to expand, he said.
Royal Henley Regatta Plans
According to Moore, with the first phase of company development nearing completion and the first shipment of rowers set for delivery, the company is now seeking to expand athlete identification and development and provide training and employment opportunities for scullers hoping to compete at the next two Olympics - 2024 in Paris and 2028 in Los Angeles.
Plans to jumpstart that process include sponsoring a men's and a women's quad to compete at the Henley Royal Regatta this July.
"Hydrow is going to fund a men's and a women's quad to Henley Royal this year with the idea of creating a great racing opportunity for people that have real long term sculling potential to develop," Moore said.
"We are talking to athletes right now, and we're hoping to have eight men and eight women come and try out for the quad. Those who make it will have a fully funded trip to Henley, which is very appealing to a lot of the candidates."
Moore said that in his early discussion with Smith about the athlete development intentions of the company, the decision was made to focus on sculling given the fact that, except for club programs, there is no central development location for potential US international athletes that can fund and support younger, developing scullers the way the US collegiate system develops sweep rowers.
"From the very beginning, when I was talking to Bruce about this idea, we both believed it had this kind of potential. One of the goals of Hydrow is to be an incredibly authentic fitness company - meaning not having fitness models leading the workout, but real athletes that have been in the trenches and have competed at all different kinds of levels running the workout," Moore said.
"With that, you have this opportunity to have these jobs created, whether it's a full-time trainer job, or a manager job, or production assistant job, or sales jobs, within the company, where rowers could come in, live in the city of Boston, and train and work and be incredibly well supported.
"Bruce and I felt that the US development system lies largely in the university, and there is not sculling in the NCAA, so we know that it's going to take a longer time to develop sculling athletes. And that means that somebody coming out of university would need to invest six, eight years to sculling to be of real international quality."
Moore said Hydrow will have the potential to provide that kind of development and coaching support, a salary, and at the same time help athletes committed to developing as international athletes not have to completely put off pursuing immediate career or work opportunities outside of the sport.
"We want to help them have a sustainable life and to have a situation where they can work and develop their post-rowing career resume, and live in a very dynamic environment that they can enjoy and be a little bit more of a whole person while they are developing their capacity to go and win and earn world championship and Olympic medals," Moore said.
The 2020 Cycle
Hydrow trainers Christine Cavallo and James Dietz
Currently, there are three athletes working and training at Hydrow with hopes of competing in the 2020 Games in Tokyo, including Luczak, Hansen, and lightweight sculler Christine Cavallo. Sera Moon Busse is targeting the 2024 Games.
The path to the national team for Luczak and Hansen lies in hitting training and fitness goals required to gain invitations to the national team training camps. All the women's team crews, except for the double, are selected in camp.
For Cavallo, who is scheduled to compete in the lightweight women's single at the USRowing's Senior Trials and Speed Order l in Sarasota, Florida next week, gaining a berth on the team will have be through racing.
And, with the probability of the complete elimination of lightweight rowing on the table following the 2020 Games, this could be Cavallo's only chance at making an Olympic team.
There is not a national team training center for lightweight athletes, and those hoping to a have a shot will have to show their speed capability through the NSR regattas and then find a partner for Senior National Team Trials II, scheduled for May 16-19, for this year.
In formulating her plans for training last fall, Cavallo said an invitation to work and train with Hydrow this past winter in Miami, was accepted with a good deal of prior consideration.
"When I was first coming down to Miami, I knew it was a phenomenal company and that they have a ton of support, a ton of financial backing that legitimizes everything that they are doing, but fundamentally it is still a startup; it's still this incredibly fast growing idea," she said. "So it takes a while for that to reach a level of security where I would feel comfortable trusting my entire rowing future in, knowing how quickly 2020 is coming up and knowing how many other things I have put on the back burner so I can train at this level.
"To step away from my degree and my jobs while I was studying to train full time, only then to be sucked into a space where I felt like the floor could be not completely steady all the time, was really scary," she said. "But every single day things just kept falling into place and got better and better."
Looking ahead at the company's plans to develop into a training center for 2024 and 2028 scullers, Cavallo said she believes there is no reason to think it will not be successful for those athletes.
"If I were a 2024 athlete, I don't think I would have a drop of fear," she said. "I would feel very optimistic about everything. I feel like my timeline is short, so I have to take some time for myself to breathe every now and then and remind myself that I have to keep my focus geared up and keep looking on the bright side of things.
"But I think for 2024 and 2028 athletes, this will be an incredible space for them to develop to the level they need to do things like that, and the company will also be in a different place then, where they are able to support even more, and even more, and even more."
Cavallo said that it is hard to accurately predict the success of the plans Hydrow has for the athletes they bring in, "because it is all so new it's unprecedented. But, the same way with any successful college or high school team, it just requires buy-in from athletes who are willing to put in the work.
"The people I am training with currently, they're all incredibly positive people to be around, and so as long as the people coming in can come in with that same drive, I think that is how the company succeeds because those are also the qualities you would need to go far in rowing anyway, and to make any training space positive."