BY ED MORAN
PHOTO BY ED MORAN
Like most everyone else in the country this spring, Liz Trond, head coach of the Connecticut Boat Club, was following the early news of the spread of Covid-19, and the idea that her crews would soon be forced off the water was lingering in her thoughts as she was wrapping up a pre-San Diego Crew Classic practice March 12.
“We had practice that Thursday, and we were planning to have practice Friday and Saturday and take a week off to evaluate what was going on. But I just had a feeling when I was on the water that day. We were in two eights, and getting ready for Crew Classic.
“It was kind of a cold and gray day, and we had just finished some pieces, and I said, ‘All right seniors, everybody look around. Give each other a high five.’ I didn’t mean to be dramatic, but I said, ‘Guys, this might be the last time we’re on the water together, ever.’ And I remember two of my seniors, Heidi Jacobson and Kat Lynch, looked at each other and leaned back and hugged. We were planning to come back for Friday and Saturday practice. But when I got home, the news was on, and it was about somebody in Westport who tested positive.”
Westport, in Fairfield County, Connecticut, is not far from where Trond coaches junior women in Norwalk, and to Trond, the news that one person in the county was now infected with Covid-19 was a sure indication that there would be more. So after consulting with her coaching staff and other coaches in the area, Trond emailed her team that CBC was “taking a pause.”
A week later, Connecticut governor Ned Lamont issued a stay-at-home order that lasted into mid-May. During that time, the entire rowing season through the spring and summer was canceled across the country. Boat clubs were shuttered, and coaches and club executives wondered what they could do to hold their membership together, what rowing might look like when it came back, and what had to happen to ensure a safe reentry.
The planning for that began almost immediately. Weekly Zoom conference calls–initiated by Matt Logue, executive director of Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Rowing, and Ted Benford, executive director of Boston’s Community Rowing Inc. (CRI)–grew in attendance every week until the sessions included up to 20 representatives from clubs everywhere in the US.
Ultimately, the picture that emerged did not include rowing in team boats, not as long as social distancing was still a barrier to the spread of the virus. And so, coaches and club leaders focused on how to create safe environments where they could bring members back to the water in singles. For some clubs, like CRI and Three Rivers, that first phase meant members could row in privately owned singles, but not in team or organized group practices. CRI later opened to include adult sculling classes.
For others, particularly youth-based clubs like CBC, that meant finding ways to get juniors on the water in the limited number of singles that organizations owned or could afford to buy after experiencing significant revenue loss because of the closure. And it would have to be done safely and according to government-mandated guidelines and regulations, which would vary from state to state, and even county to county.
But when the restrictions did begin to ease, and some form of practice could take place, Trond had a plan ready. For her team of mostly sweep rowers, that would mean a patient approach to learning how to scull, and figuring out a way to come to the boathouse while staying socially distant.
It would mean adhering to safety rules and regulations intended to mitigate the spread of the virus by limiting practice to groups of six girls rowing in singles, and stretching on private mats on green dots chalked on the pavement 12 feet apart.
It would also mean limited access to the boathouse, athletes bringing hand sanitizer and wipes from home, and club staff stocking the boathouse with disinfectants. It would require athletes to wear masks until afloat, and then to put them on again when docking. Some would even opt to keep the protective face coverings on for the full practice.
It was, and remains today, a daunting exercise in patience that will likely change very little through the next few months, but after 67 days of being away from each other and rowing, the effort has brought back smiles to CBC’s young athletes.
“I’ve been really antsy since this started,” said 16-year-old sophomore coxswain Mia Khamish, following an afternoon practice in late May. “I wish I could race with the team, but it’s nice that we’re all back at practice now because not many clubs are getting to do what we’re doing here.”
Under the current singles-only program that Trond and the CBC coaches are running, everyone rows, including the coxswains. Most have never been in a single.
“It’s interesting, it’s fun, I like it.” Khamish said.
She was surprised when she learned practices would resume. “I thought the quarantine was going to last longer. I wondered how we were going to maintain being six feet apart, how we were going to do any of it, but I realized I missed rowing a lot, and I am glad that we are back, even though our racing got canceled. Hopefully, over the summer everything opens up more and we will be able to do more.”
From the very beginning of the pandemic shutdown, the sharing of information about its impact on rowing clubs, and the planning for an eventual reopening, have been helped by the creation of a weekly Friday-afternoon Zoom call begun by Logue and Benford, and embraced by club executives from across the country.
What started as a call between two of the largest rowing organizations on the East Coast–CRI and Three Rivers Rowing Association–caught on and has been joined by up to 20 club executives every week.
“It’s definitely worked out really well,” said Logue. “It started in late February and early March on the organic side. Ted Benford and I just happened to be on a phone call, and then Mark Davis from Sammamish [Rowing Association, in Redmond, Wash.] joined in, and it has slowly grown from there. They have been a weekly staple on everybody’s schedule ever since.”
The meetings run Friday afternoons from 4 to 5, and the sessions enable club leaders to talk about what is going on in their areas and how each club is dealing with being closed and how they are planning to reopen. Early talk was about staying connected and providing virtual services and workouts to members, how to keep staff working, and dealing with the enormous financial losses the shutdown was causing for each club.
As the pandemic stretched into May and an easing of restrictions appeared to herald the return of some form of on-water activity, discussion shifted to how to open safely and what kind of rowing could take place.
It became clear that because restrictions and guidelines would differ from state to state, and county to county, each club would be facing varying regulations about social distancing and how many members could gather at a time. But it also became clear that when rowing did return, it would be done mostly in singles, with exceptions made only for family members living in the same house who could row in doubles or pairs.
Team boats would be off limits, and likely will remain so through most of the summer. The planning and exchange of information focused on best practices for keeping equipment and common areas clean and free of contamination, and then on ways to get as many rowers back on the water as possible. For some clubs, including CRI and Three Rivers, that meant opening first to private boat owners. And for others it meant finding enough singles and coaches to get junior rowers back on the water.
The sharing of ideas has been invaluable.
“It’s been a very collaborative and thorough process to the degree that people just put out their questions, or put out ideas, and get feedback in response,” Logue said. “It’s part crowdsourcing, and part support group, in the sense that ideas are put out there, and people say that’s a good idea, we’re doing the same thing here, and it becomes very reassuring that nobody is operating in a vacuum.”
The group Zoom calls will continue through the summer, fall and beyond, Logue believes, given the rapid changes in the state of the pandemic and the effort to develop a vaccine.
“The information is changing so rapidly, even what is coming from the CDC. I feel like half of the time is spent just keeping up with the new information, and the other half is trying to act on it before it changes,” Logue said.
Some clubs could see an easing of restrictions that would allow team boats to return, possibly in the fall. Many states have stages of phased-in reopenings, but the stages vary so widely that Logue believes his club will determine for itself when it’s safe to return to a more organized team approach.
“The way this virus is impacting the country, it’s very state and county specific. In Georgia, the way they opened so early and so quickly, they still had regattas on the May calendar. They have since been canceled, but they were still on the calendar,” Logue said.
“Florida just released their summer camp guidelines, and they had no social-distancing restrictions in them. On last Friday’s call, in that one hour, five or six different states released their summer camp guidelines, so people were getting messages about it on the call. It just shows how quickly the information is changing, and how we are trying to adapt to it.
“I had aligned my reopening with Pennsylvania’s three-stage color system of red, yellow and green. Now I am thinking the state is moving faster than is safe and practicable for our operation. So I am thinking of separating from the state system and keeping our rowing reopening phases more aligned with the information from the medical advisors.
“I would like to believe that we’re going to get to a point where we are going to start doing team boats later in the fall, but there are so many external factors out of our control. We could just as easily go back to red as green.”
Uniform Guidelines–Single Solutions
Given the constant changes in the level of infection in differing locations, and the restrictions driven by those fluctuations, USRowing released in May a specific set of guidelines that clubs will have to follow for at least the remainder of the year.
One constant in the published guidelines is that where social distancing is being enforced, only rowing in singles will be permitted. The only exceptions are people living in the same house; they can row in a double or pair.
The move to sculling and rowing in singles became an immediate challenge. There are safety concerns and protocols that should be followed. USRowing has an entire page dedicated to this, and a key line in the lengthy list of rules reads, in bold: “Under no circumstances should athletes who are minors be allowed or left unsupervised on the water.”
Chris Chase, USRowing’s director of youth rowing, says the ideal ratio of athletes to coaches and launches on the water can vary according to experience and skill level, weather conditions, the body of water, and traffic patterns. While there are no hard-and-fast rules, “common sense goes a long way.”
Chase’s biggest concern as the restrictions ease: “Everybody is in a hurry to get back on the water, and corners will be cut. My worry is that in our rush back to what we love, we won’t think about those things as much as we think about how can I get back.”
Before joining the USRowing staff, Chase coached and was the regatta director at the Saratoga Rowing Association in upstate New York. He and SRA have always embraced teaching single sculling and recognized the differences in skill levels and safety concerns.
“You can only get better by doing it more often, but at the same time, in the early stages of your learning curve, it can be dangerous to be out there alone with no guidance and no safety net. The benefits of sculling are great. The logistics of sculling are a nightmare. I can take two eights and get 18 people on the water. I can’t take 18 singles with my one launch.”
Then there is the problem of equipment. Most clubs have a limited number of singles available. Clubs that have large team practices for juniors through competitive adult and masters rely on having eights, fours, quads, doubles and pairs to achieve the maximum level of participation.
While sculling in the U.S. is popular and thriving in some clubs, team boats provide the most availability and the best way to conduct a safe coached practice. There are clubs that focus on sculling and are used to groups of sculling boats on the water at the same time, but even those clubs row quads and doubles in addition to singles.
But since rowing in team boats in a time of social distancing is forbidden in the early stages of state-regulated reopening, sculling in singles is what most of the U.S. rowing community will be doing through the summer and into the fall.
The upside: Getting young athletes into singles early on will mean a more skilled junior base ultimately. Any coach in any club will tell you that kids who start in singles ultimately become confident and capable boat movers in both sweep and sculling team boats.
It has long been a criticism of U.S. junior rowing that not enough kids get the opportunity to row in singles, that European countries start their juniors in singles, and as a result, do far better across the board in senior international sculling competition.
That is not entirely true for U.S. women, who have produced Olympic and world-championship medal results over the last few Olympic cycles, but it is for the men, who had only the lightweight men’s double rowing in Rio, and have so far not qualified a single sculling crew for the Tokyo Games.
More than a few U.S. coaches acknowledge that while it is expensive and difficult to get large teams on the water in sculling boats, rowing in singles results in more technically skilled athletes. One of those coaches is Tom Terharr, head coach of the U.S. national women’s team.
“Every row is a technical row, and every row is a physiological row, and every row is a mental row, and there is no one to blame except yourself. It gives you feedback right away,” he said.
Terhaar believes this is an opportunity, if it is embraced.
“The only way it will have a big impact on our country’s development in both sculling and in sweep is if we decide to use either sculling, or rowing the single, a lot more at a younger level instead of just junior programs in eights.
“I realize it’s expensive and hard to do, and it requires a lot more coaches. But if we could do it, it would be fantastic. Everyone knows it’s a good thing. But before we never had the time. We never had the freedom. Now we do.”
Taking the Time
In the meantime, with so many unknowns, the weekly meetings will continue, Logue says. Three Rivers will watch the progression of re-opening measures in the hope that they, and other clubs, will be able to bring team rowing back to their communities and find ways to endure the financial losses and keep from going under.
If Pittsburgh continues to move forward easing restrictions, and Logue believes his club can safely bring back juniors for summer instruction, he has a plan for that–going out in groups of four at a time with a coach and a launch. He calls them “pods.”
“However long that goes, we feel confident that that is going to be a safe system, and if we need to employ it during the fall, we will still be able to get some good rowing in and training opportunities beyond that.
“I want to be the optimist. I want to have hope that everybody is going to act socially responsible, and wear masks, and really flatten the curve. But at the same time, I am preparing for a situation where we are not able to row team boats until there is a vaccine, whether that is next spring or next summer, or whenever.”
In Connecticut, Trond and her team are all in and moving patiently. There is time. There are no regattas on the schedule through the rest of the summer, and the possibility that fall racing will be held is also a huge question mark. Many see it as more of a long shot.
So she is in no hurry, and her attitude is that if they are going to row in singles, they are going to take the time with the equipment they now have to teach proper sculling technique.
“It’s a slow and steady approach to learn how to function with what we have and not just get more physical boats,” she said. “It’s more about how do we structure it so that we can have as many people rowing and provide a quality experience and quality instruction and pay the bills. We’re in that same balancing act that everybody is in.
“Having 25 boats wouldn’t help me because we’re never going to have 25 people on the water at the same time. So now it’s just, how can we effectively have enough people on the water? It’s going to take a long time for our sweep rowers to learn to row the single well. We want them to learn. We don’t want them just slapping around out there.”