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The Case for Single Sculling

BY COLLEEN SAVILLE
PHOTOS BY PETER SPURRIER
VIDEO BY ADAM REIST

“The single is like an amplifying mirror of whatever imperfection you have,” Ted Van Dusen, owner and operator of Composite Engineering, Inc.—the home of Van Dusen Racing Boats USA—tells me on a Sunday afternoon in February. “To be out in this definitely unstable boat that is very light. It mirrors right back in your face in no uncertain terms—so you learn very quickly.”  

As a former coxswain, I muse on that for a moment. The best feedback on performance I ever got was from my athletes and a tape recorder that captured my race-day calls. The notion of looking directly into some kind of proverbial mirror feels unfairly exposing. Like a never-ending seat race with yourself.  

I’m speaking with Van Dusen and other experts in the realm of sculling to better understand what makes the single so special. Having never rowed one myself, I’m at the mercy of my own assumptions and what others are willing to share. True, there is a sense of freedom and inherent flexibility that comes with rowing a boat of one. But my real mission is to understand what makes this boat class so universally captivating—to find the ways in which it has and continues to evolve our sport.

With no expectation that I’ll get a reply with the Tokyo Games just months away, I send 2016 Olympic silver medalist and one of America’s preeminent single scullers Gevvie Stone an email asking for 10 minutes of her time to talk. To my delight, she gets back to me to say she’s available. Then she replies again minutes later suggesting I call her now. She’s training down in Texas and is currently stuck in traffic driving home from practice, giving her an unexpected few minutes to connect on this day.

Stone picks up my call and I make a point to jump right in, not knowing how much time we will have. I ask her what first drew her to the single, hoping to better understand its allure, particularly given her pre-single background rowing team boats.  

“I confess that I had a little bit of time in the single trying out for the quad in 2008,” she tells me, “but I really didn’t get into the single until I came to Boston for medical school. I had a pretty tight schedule in terms of med school classes, in addition to not having anyone to row a team boat with. The single was the default choice. It gave me the freedom of flexibility with my schedule. I could train when I wanted, which made it incredibly time-efficient. If class got out a half-hour earlier I could practice a half-hour earlier. Just the virtue of being able to do the training plan I wanted at the level I wanted was enough.” 

“The single provides you with immediate feedback on how your rowing translates into boat speed. Part of the magic is that you can layer in teamwork while still learning individual boat feel. You can get everything out of it if you balance it right.”

-Gevvie Stone

Flexibility. Check. But when did she decide it was her boat? “I can’t say I loved it at first. It did give me freedom, which I appreciated, but it also can feel pretty lonely,” she says. “A big part of why I fell in love with it was because I began feeling more comfortable in the boat itself, but I also found a group of people to train with. I started training about a year in with the masters men from Cambridge Boat Club. It gave the single the camaraderie that a team boat has for the hard practices. Since then, I really try to do hard work with other people, because I think just like in a big boat, where working with someone else forces you to elevate your game, working alongside other people forces you to do the same in the single. It provides you with immediate feedback on how your rowing translates into boat speed. Part of the magic is that you can layer in teamwork while still learning individual boat feel. You can get everything out of it if you balance it right.” 

I ask Stone why, when there are boats like the quad or the eight that move so fast, the single reliably commands some of the biggest crowds? “I think the single highlights some of the dichotomy of the sport, in that the better you row it, the easier you make it look: this amazing harmony between effort and beauty.”

She pauses, thoughtfully, then continues. “I think that is what intrigues the outsider. People know in the back of their mind when they watch the Olympics that these athletes are working insanely hard, because it’s an Olympic sport and that’s what people do. At the same time, if you don’t know better, rowing looks easy. Especially in the single because there is an inherent flow to the boat.” As Stone prepares for what would be her third Olympic Games, flow is clearly something she’s got down. 

From sprint racing to head racing, I decide to speak with Mitz Carr next, the defending champion in the women’s grandmaster single at the Head of the Charles. In addition to her athletic pursuits, Carr is also a former coach, current New Haven Rowing Club member, and an active part of what makes Connecticut’s Head of the Housatonic come to life each fall. I’m hoping to build on my conversation with Stone by learning from Carr what has made the single a lifelong passion for her, and how she balances the desire to win with an appreciation for the process. 

I ask Carr about her training and approach to the Charles each year. “I am so demanding of myself in that I want to put out the best performance I’m capable of. It’s not as much about the other people, and it’s not as much about the rowing world, it’s just me personally wanting to hold my feet to the fire on that day. How do I put the pressure on myself throughout the year to make sure that all of my activity starts to ramp up and support what I need to do to get there.” 

“When you’re trying to prove that you’re a boat mover, the single is the only proof you will ever need.”

– Mitz Carr

When I ask Carr what the single has taught her about both rowing and herself, she inhales for a moment and then recalls one of her biggest challenges. “One of my toughest Head of the Charles memories is being 18 seconds ahead of everyone at Cambridge, only to roll myself out of my boat three strokes before the finish line. That was 2018. I know I’m a little late on the square on the starboard side. That’s not a new thing for me. I rowed port in college. And I knew those oars were a little light and it was gusty, and I caught the gust at the exact wrong time. I was so shot. I remember [coach] Dave Vogel asking me, ‘What on Earth? How could that happen after working that hard, that late in the race, when you had that much of a lead?’ But I was so shot. I had trained the last 100 strokes, and remember thinking, ‘I have to put that out there. I trained for it.’ Then three strokes from the finish, I knifed [the blade] in. I was so spent,” she explains.

I recall the mirror analogy Ted Van Dusen so wonderfully described earlier. “It mirrors right back in your face in no uncertain terms,” he said. This was the “no uncertain terms” part. Knowing now the impact the single had on Carr as an athlete, I ask her about its implications as a coach. “It’s the only proof you’ll ever have,” she says right away. “As a coach, you’ll spend the rest of your life hearing athletes say, ‘I’m better than that. I’m better than where you put me in that seat.’ They’re constantly looking for a proof source to demonstrate how good they are. The one quality we all know about rowers is that they tend to over-value their contributions. ‘If this were a boat of eight of me we’d be flying.’ And it’s constantly the case that, yes, some people can’t put it together on the erg and yet they are great racers. Others have some technical flaws that don’t translate well into certain boats. But when you’re trying to prove that you’re a boat mover, the single is the only proof you will ever need.”  

So how does one master the art of rowing the single, if mastery is even possible? Surely Malcolm Gladwell would concur that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, in this case, would still not be sufficient. “You have to spend a ton of miles at steady state, quietly finding where you find the load and where you best move the boat,” Carr explains. “I don’t know how anyone else would do it. That’s what I did. I spent enough time over my sculling life that I can feel when I have the boat and I know how to accelerate and hold on to it. You have to find a way to be able to identify that moment.” Hearing Carr, it’s clear that a focus on reps is a large part of the answer.

Stone, unsurprisingly, has similar feedback. “You just spend more time in the single. And you make a point not to be too hard on yourself. I think a common mistake, in the beginning, is that people think, ‘My oar caught the water, that’s not supposed to happen,’ or ‘Sometimes I flip.’” I can feel her smiling through the phone. “The best of us do that. I’m not rowing with my oar completely off the water every stroke of every practice. I would love to, but I’m definitely not. I flipped when I was coaching Radcliffe in Florida in the winter of 2017 just shoving from the dock because I left my oarlock undone. I think the more time you spend in the single the more it teaches you. It’s an endless learning curve, and that’s one of the really fun things about the boat, how much it can teach you just by doing it. That’s how you get better. You just put the strokes in.”

With a renewed appreciation for single sculling at the elite and masters level, I consider the ways in which sculling has influenced the junior rowing landscape in recent years. Some of the best junior programs have dedicated sculling coaches and equipment. There are entire youth regattas structured around sculling. It is no longer the case that a middle schooler will be dubbed a starboard at age 12 and remain a starboard throughout college (or beyond). Many of the best youth rowers are learning to scull first and only later to sweep, taking a page from their European counterparts.

I ask Van Dusen what the changing landscape has looked like from a boat-buying perspective. “There’s no question that today that more youth are rowing singles than in the past. The better rowers in the youth program…often their parents will buy them a single when they graduate so they can keep going and row summers when they’re in college.”  

Sean Wolf, who handles all of the Canadian rowing shell manufacturer Fluidesign’s sales across the United States, shares what that trend has looked like for him. A Bostonian through and through, he says “kids start sculling wicked young now. And they are rowing singles really well. Look at Clark Dean, who went from winning youth nationals to winning junior worlds. Even middle school kids are learning how to scull. Take Sarasota and even Saratoga. You see these programs and think, ‘Wow, this is so cool. How does that kid row so well and not feel afraid of anything?’ It blows my mind.”

Maybe Wolf is on to something. Perhaps the key to success in the single is to look into the mirror, but only long enough to appreciate the ways in which it is making you faster. Look often, fail fast, and remain unafraid. That, of course, coupled with those reps. 

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