Much of the work for making your boat fly has been done already—the long months of winter training, the early season drilling to ingrain the movements that make up good rowing. Now you are looking at a final month to get all the speed you can out of your boat. Rowing, however, isn’t a sport that lends itself to quick fixes. So what to do? We asked some of rowing’s leading minds to share their secrets for picking up a second or more by doing things you may never have heard of before.
Korzeniowski, the affable émigré from Poland who began his transformation of American rowing in 1978, has coached seemingly every class of boat on the U.S. national team. He began with the women, and has been head men’s coach, head of sculling, and technical director. He is currently head of coaching development for USRowing. In the clinics he regularly gives with great energy, one of the most significant points he makes is that we need to stop thinking of the catch as a fixed point where the oar should go into the water. This “locking it in behind a post,” as he calls it, is one of the most destructive images a coach can use.
“In 1986,” he recalls, “our men’s eight went to the world championships after beating the Russians at the Goodwill Games in Moscow. We had great athletes: Andy Sudduth was stroke, David Krmpotich, Ed Ives, John Terwilliger. But one day I watched us doing steady state on the course at Nottingham and the Italian lightweights went flying by us, also doing steady state. I watched and saw our catches—big vertical motions. Locking it in. It looked like chopping wood. The Italians looked light; their boat was running. We still got a medal, but not gold.
“The next year with a whole new eight, practically all undergraduates, we started working right away on missing water. Yes, we tried to miss water, so that we were not putting the blade behind a post. The idea is to take it on the run. I changed the sound I made for catch. Before it was ‘chak, chak.’ In 1987, it was “shahk, shahk.” Softer, smoother. Catches were much better.
“After many miles, we were not missing water anymore, but we were perfectly scooping with the speed of the boat. I know, it could be very tricky to ask rowers to miss the water, so instead use the most natural way. Without any talking, just row quarter and half slide at higher cadence. This way there is no time to ‘chop’ or to ‘lock in’ and pull. This is the most natural way to learn to row high cadences efficiently, changing the direction of the blade just before the entry into the water.”
Catching well won’t just shave seconds off your time, it will change the way you row and lead you to real boat moving.
Larry Gluckman has served as head men’s coach at Princeton, Dartmouth, and Trinity. He is famous for building up whichever program he has been connected with; all of those institutions enjoyed unprecedented success while he was at the helm. After stints with Concept2 and Craftsbury’s elite athlete program, Gluckman retired from full-time coaching, but still appears on the clinic and conference circuit. At one of these clinics, he described how his Trinity boats practiced the first strokes of the start every time they began to row. Intrigued, I asked him about this.
“I decided we needed to do something every day to be 1 percent better than our competition, given the environment in which we rowed and the Division III control of practice time. I started ‘start every time you stop’ at Trinity after being confronted with uncertain water and time. The pressure of the starting pieces depended on where we are in the practice. The later in practice, the firmer the starts. Usually they were the first five to eight strokes.
“The second 1 percent improvement mechanism was doing our technique work at three-quarter pressure. To make everyone conscious of how connected technique and power are, the rule was that if your boat was rowing by fours and could not keep up with another boat, you would have to go to sixes. If you were already rowing by sixes and couldn’t keep up, then you would have to do the technique work by eights.”
“Finally, every workout was scripted. As the athletes entered the boathouse there was a sheet with the lineups and the pre-, post-, and on-water script. I figured we had on average 100 minutes of practice time. Eight to 10 for the pre-row; 70 to 80 on the water; and eight to 10 post-row. I provided each coxswain with a copy so they could do some of the workout even if I wasn’t alongside them. We had a location in each direction that the crews would turn if I was not with them. We tried to maximize water time, be efficient, no nonsense, and put the opportunities for success squarely on the shoulders of the athletes.”
USRowing’s high performance director since 2012, Curtis Jordan was both the women’s and men’s head coach at Princeton from 1980 to 2009. He spent two years in Australia before returning home to guide the U.S. national team. All tolled, Jordan coached at five Olympic Games. “Many crews will race with a dirty hull. They may clean it the night before but it could be stored outside and gather dust overnight. It is amazing how a coat of dust will adhere to the surface of a boat. I always like to wipe the hull of a boat the moment before it goes on the water to race.” On a few occasions, rivals implied that he was treating his boats with some magic formula. But that was never the case. “I’m just superstitious.” This is probably the easiest thing a coach can do and it has the additional virtue of keeping him or her busy.
Don’t forget to wipe:”It is amazing how a coat of dust will adhere to the surface of a boat. I always like to wipe the hull of a boat the moment before it goes on the water to race.” says Curtis Jordan.
When Tom Terhaar took over the U.S. women’s national team in 2001, the squad had a reputation of losing the big races to Romania. In fact, it hadn’t won an Olympic medal since 1984. He set about changing that by adding sound technical rowing to the existing regime of hard work and commitment. The success that the U.S. women have enjoyed under him is unprecedented: eight consecutive championships in the big boat, including at the last two Olympic Games. “We try to strengthen our boat’s rhythm, especially in the last three weeks. So we do a good bit of half-slide rowing because it quickens them up and encourages them to remove the extra motions in their stroke. We’re looking for simultaneous pressure in the fingers and feet. It’s like doing some speed work without the physiological toll. We will do 6 x 15 strokes at half slide with some steady rowing in between.”
For the past 19 years, Lori Dauphiny’s Princeton women’s crews have always been near the top of collegiate rowing; her Tigers are one of only three programs to qualify for the NCAA championships every year. Her boats have won more races than any other coach’s at Princeton. She has also coached numerous senior and U-23 national team crews over the course of her career. “I try all kinds of things. Small lineup changes if I am not completely satisfied—oftentimes within the current boat personnel. I almost always resort to rigging, which can take up too much of my time. I look at heights, spread, changing the load on oars, changing blade design. I look at the placement of foot stretchers. Or I might just pick the biggest weakness in our 2k performance and hone in on that area until they nail it.”
Volker Nolte is head rowing coach and assistant professor at the University of Western Ontario, where he teaches coaching and biomechanics. A native of Germany, Nolte was the lightweight men’s national team coach in Germany between 1984 and 1990 and in Canada from 1992 to 2000. His crews have won multiple world championships, with his lightweight men’s four finishing second in Atlanta. Nolte is an internationally acknowledged expert in biomechanics. He presents frequently at scientific and coaching education conferences worldwide, and his research focuses on coaching and the biomechanics of high-performance sport, especially rowing. “I think that it is always a good idea to make changes on race day according to the conditions. If we have big headwind or big tailwind conditions, the race time could be two minutes different, right?”
I told him that, in my experience, many coaches are reluctant to make changes to the rigging on race day. “But you must not do this only on race day. Make the changes when you have winds for practice. If you have a time trial planned and it is windy, do two pieces with one rig, two pieces with another.” Nolte uses a wind meter and compiles data on how his boat performs with each configuration. When he does make a change to allow for wind, his rule of thumb is, “two centimeters is a big change; one centimeter is a regular change.” He changes the oar length, leaving the inboard the same. “I have already established the best positions and angles at the catch and finish and the optimum stretcher position, so I do not want to change those things—only the oar length.”
Bryan Volpenhein and Luke McGee
Bryan Volpenhein and Luke McGee together share the responsibility for the U.S. men’s rowing program. Both were successful oarsmen: Volpenhein stroked the U.S. eight in 2004 to its first Olympic gold medal in 40 years; McGee won a gold medal in 2003 at the world championships in the coxed four. Volpenhein has coached various national team boats, while McGee’s career in the launch was spent primarily at the University of Washington, where he helmed the freshman program.
“Every coach spends the hours before the race cleaning and polishing their boats with a variety of products,” says Volpenhein. “At the worlds and World Cups, the boat builders are busy doing the same thing. If you are leasing their equipment, this is a service they provide and they even use their power buffers to get it super polished. I have no idea if this make any boat faster, but it makes you feel better.”
Volpenhein also noted that he has seen a lot of what he calls “boat covers. Especially, if rough water is expected, you see lots of people installing large, questionably aerodynamic covers that attach to the bow and are supposed to keep the water out and maybe even cut the wind.”
After 28 years of coaching the Harvard lightweight men, nine lightweight national championships, and numerous noteworthy national team postings—most notably as coach of Beijing singles silver medalist Michelle Guerette—Butt took the reins of the Harvard heavyweight men’s program following last year’s passing of Harry Parker. He’s famous on the Charles River for towing his crews with a rope from his motorboat to get them used to moving faster.
Quite a few years ago, I asked Butt about final race tune-ups, and he told me that when he got to the final week of the season, he would ask his guys to pull “one hundredth of a second harder through the water. If we can increase our speed through the water by one hundredth of a second, times the two hundred strokes in a race, we’ve got two seconds.” And how many races are decided by less than two seconds?
I like this. Because isn’t pulling as hard what it’s really all about? Now get out there and race!