World Indoor Rowing Championship Gets High Marks

Photo by Connor Walters.

For about as long as there have been ergs, there have been people racing on ergs. But for as long as people have been competing in ergattas, there had never been a formally recognized world championship—until this year.

During Presidents’ Day Weekend, more than 2,500 people competed in the inaugural World Rowing Indoor Championships in Alexandria, Virginia. Although this year’s event bore new significance, it was hosted by veterans of the erg race circuit.

For more than 30 years, T.C. Williams High School has run the Mid-Atlantic Erg Sprints, one of the country’s biggest indoor rowing events. Participants range from under 10 years old to over 90, and a selection of alternative races mean athletes can race as much (marathon) or as little (500m) as they like.

In retaining the beloved Mid-Atlantic events while growing the number of entries, the organizing committee shifted to a two-day format for 2018. With over 1,000 youth racers, the first day of events was highlighted by performances from some of the nation’s best junior rowers.

James Wright, a senior at Philadelphia’s Germantown Friends School and 2017 Junior National Team member, charged from third to first place in the final 500m of the junior boy’s event, edging out competitors from Russia and Germany.

“When that 400 mark came running up to me, I know I need to shift down to a 1:30, and then after that, I was kinda like either I go now or I go home,” Wright said. The Stanford University commit clinched the inaugural title in 6:08.7.

His counterpart in the girls’ event, Elena Collier-Hezel from Buffalo’s West Side Rowing Club, has her own national team ambitions. A junior, she crushed the open girl’s field in a personal best of 7:04.8—with 13 seconds to spare.

“I heard that there were gonna be some college coaches here, and I also kind of wanted to catch the eye of the national team if I could,” she said. On Sunday, she steamrolled the field in the junior women’s 20-minute row. Odds are a number of eyes will be watching Collier-Hezel from now on.

The girls lightweight sprint races saw a determined Delaney Evans, from Y Quad Cities Rowing in Iowa, earn the gold. After missing a medal at C.R.A.S.H.-Bs last year by five meters, she admitted she was a little nervous coming into the world championship.

“I feel like I prepared for this, and it all came down to this race, and I got what I wanted out of it,” Evans said. Her time of 7:16.4 was almost five seconds ahead of silver medalist Lindsey Rust from Friends of Port Rowing.

Lightweight boys champ Henry Bellew from Maryland’s Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School appeared in disbelief after his performance: a stunning 6:15.1 that tied his personal best.

“Transitioning to world championships kinda heightened the intensity of everything,” he said. “Coming out here with all the guys from my team…it was just an awesome environment to be in.” Bellew, a senior, will row for the Harvard lightweights next year.

Sunday racing kicked off with the marathon and half-marathon racers. Then more than 80 adaptive rowers began competing at 2,000m and 1,000m distances. Rowers of all abilities contended for a chance to be called world champions.

Among them was Hallie Smith, a 24-year-old from MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital Paralympic Sport Club in Washington, D.C. With a 2,000m time of 9:18.5, the 2017 U.S. PR1 single sculler earned the first indoor world title in the arms and shoulders event.

“I feel great, and I beat my PR by 12 seconds, which feels amazing,” she said. “I want to obviously medal this coming year [at the world championships] in Bulgaria, and I definitely want to make it to the Tokyo Games in 2020.”

In addition to the para-rowing races, Sunday morning’s events also included a live stream of Functional Electric Stimulation (FES) racing that was taking place in Boston. The footage was an exclamation point on an ergatta that does a fantastic job providing opportunities for adaptive athletes.

Racing against his own world record was 50-year-old Andy Benko from Dubuque, Iowa. After defying 20 years of history and setting the men’s 50-54-year-old 2k record in January, he pushed his mark even further, pulling a 6:01.7.

The U-23 and open events were thrilling finales to the weekend’s racing, with two more new world records.

The first went to Stanford alumnae Christine Cavallo, who had Linda Muri cheering her on in the open women’s lightweight event. Cavallo, who qualified from California, stormed out to an early lead and kept building it. She completed the piece in 6:54.1, topping the previous mark by six-tenths of a second.

“She had a really well thought-out race plan, and she stuck to it,” Muri said. “She’s doing all the heavy lifting, but I could say something and she just responded right away.”

In the women’s open event, predictably it was Ukraine’s Olena Buryak who was out in front. The so-called “Queen of Indoor Rowing” won the gold nearly 30 seconds ahead of the field, setting a new 30-39 women’s record of 6:26.1. That’s another world-best time to go with her overall record of 6:22.8.

Jakub Podrazil of the Czech Republic threw down the weekend’s fastest time. He took the lead early and never looked back during the men’s open championship race. Podrazil was asked, after finishing with a personal best of 5:44.8, how he felt about winning the title. With a smile, he said, “I feel a little bit tired.”

China swept the women’s U-23 final with an impressive trio of sub-7 performances, and the U.S. also was denied medals in the U-23 men’s lightweight event, which was won by Artur Mikolajczewski of Poland.

Mexico’s Alexis Lopez edged out Georgetown University’s Reid Noch by .3 in the U-23 lightweight championship, finishing in 6:18.2. Andrew Knoll from the Naval Academy won the open U-23 race, putting down a strong second half to defeat Hungary’s Marton Szabo.

And then, following a string of high-intensity relays and sprints, the racing was over. Race organizers feted the new champions while volunteers packed disassembled more than 120 Concept2 ergs.

It’s unclear yet where the 2019 World Rowing Indoor Championships will take place; they are expected to change location every year. After year one in Virginia, the bar is undoubtedly set quite high.