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The Things We’ll Remember

BY CONNOR WALTERS
PHOTO BY ED MORAN

I’ll remember the goofy screenshots of my athletes pumping iron after midnight.

I’ll remember the uplifting streams of social media posts from every rowing team out there, re-haring athletes’ pictures of land training, each teammate one-upping another.

I’ll remember the rapid-fire emails to my rowers, soliciting and collecting their erg scores for our first-ever virtual rowing tournament.

I’ll remember the joyful shouts echoing across the water from athletes’ first day back on the water–and the splashes when they flipped during their first days out in singles.

These are not the things I thought would be my rowing memories from 2020. Far, far from it.

I’m a first-year high school head coach and 15-year veteran of the sport and I had never experienced a year like this one. Indeed, none of us ever had. And all of the usual events and moments and achievements and changes of a traditional rowing year–especially an Olympic one!–vanished as the coronavirus pandemic became a fact of life from one winter into a spring, a summer and now winter again.

But there will be so many things that we will remember. And this year, perhaps, the stories we tell will all be a little more special because they will all be a little more different.

And yet there will be so much our stories have in common: the rise of national–and international–virtual erg races, the utilization of video calls and social media to train “together,” the feelings of accomplishment after months of heartbreak and despair.

Because the pure and simple truth is that rowing happened in 2020. It happened in ways that are amazing and awesome, albeit unusual. And so the things we’ll remember from the year in rowing reinforce the notion that our sport and its people are special.

We pursued greatness, and we did it together.

Make Erging Fun Again

March was the month when the chips began to fall. It began with the Ivy League canceling spring sports, soon followed by March Madness, and then postponement of the rapidly approaching NBA playoffs.

Many springtime regattas remained on the books through April, but the steady drip of cancellations–and the shuttering of boathouses nationwide–reinforced a depressing reality that no water racing would soon happen.

What emerged almost immediately, however, was the inaugural March Mania team erg-race tournament, created by Rowers Choice. Hunger and intrigue drove participation in what felt like the first legitimate spring racing opportunity.

“We definitely were the first to make it national news, and in a literal sense we were written up in The New York Times and other big media outlets because we made it fun,” said Rowers Choice CEO Alex DelSordo. “Our first race, March Mania, we had over 1,500 athletes competing in the tournament.”

DelSordo and his team had done some legwork beginning in February, talking with coaches to find out what they might want in order to keep athletes training during a shutdown. The idea was relatively simple: a bracket-style tournament for athletes of all ages and abilities, with competitions for teams of four, or individuals. Each leg had a different race distance, inspired by some of the nation’s best-known regattas.

“We asked, ‘How do we make this thing relatable to the general public?’ It’s basketball meets rowing meets the virtual world,” DelSordo said. “It was after we interviewed so many people and asked so many coaches what they want. I called USRowing and said, ‘With your support, we could make this a truly global event, and [former interim CEO] Susan Smith was all about it. If it wasn’t for USRowing saying we could do it, I don’t think it would have been a success.”

March Mania, and the tournaments that later followed, were successful in large part because they were entertaining. The Rowers Choice team effectively utilized social media to provide the latest, including live results that updated each race bracket. Most people were working and studying at home, sitting in front of a computer for large portions of their days. That made it easy to stay engaged and excited as rowers watched to see who would emerge victorious.

But what began as a way to keep rowers competing soon turned into a first-of-its kind global tournament.

“We had over 100 people reach out and say, ‘This is cool, but is there a way to ante up the bet? Let’s make it popular among the masters and the open rowers,” said DelSordo. “There was a point when the Olympics were canceled, and I read an article about Olympic athletes not getting funding for their Olympic cycle, so I asked, ‘What are the rules behind wagering and gambling and having prize money?’”

The result was the Global Virtual Rowing Challenge, with expanded categories, entry fees, and prize money on the line–for an erg race.

DelSordo says the total amount awarded was roughly $40,000 across all the athletes and categories. It also featured a live-streamed grand final for the junior women’s race, between girls from the United States and the United Kingdom–part of his vision for making rowing more fun and accessible to the masses.

The pandemic has made Rowers Choice refocus its priorities from boat sales and repairs to perhaps something completely new.

“The one thing that we learned is to make our business a non-rowing business,” DelSordo said. “Look at what the NFL does, MLB, ESPN and Barstool. That’s the larger audience, not just the same 5,000 or 10,000 people who look at rowing every day. How do we market our business to reach a national scale? That has been the focus of our business since June of last year.”

Of course, boathouses around the country hosted their own virtual erg competitions, but few of them had two international superstars like Clark Dean and Oliver Zeidler racing in the championship round. It’s no Olympic final, but it was the highest profile racing many people saw for months.

By taking erg racing into the live-stream era, rowing may have tapped into a new way to give more people the feeling that rowers get when being on the starting line–even if they have never touched a boat or if, heaven forbid, a pandemic occurs again. Rowers Choice even launched a program called the Premier Rowing League that aims to make race-day butterflies available to everyone.

“I raced live against a kid from California,” DelSordo said. “I have not competed in two and a half years, but it brought me back to that feeling at the starting line, and I don’t care if my race is only a minute and eight seconds long, it’s still got the same excitement and energy. That’s what people are starting to understand.”

The Story of Stories

Curse the omnipresence of smartphones all you want, and sure, ban rowers from having them in the boat, but without technology and social media, staying connected, motivated, and inspired would have been downright difficult this year.

It’s become commonplace to find some of the funniest and certainly strangest material on Instagram, as teams used the platform to share insider looks at their own training. One could get lost scrolling through their Instagram feeds or watching loop after loop of video stories.

The collegiate rowing world has this down pat, and as the pandemic shuttered universities, the team Instagram feed became the go-to place to see what workouts your teammates were devising.

For some programs, it came naturally. For others, it was the result of a concerted effort. At Hobart College, the Statesmen’s daily training posts began as the team participated in the school’s Yards for Yeardly campaign, which raises funds to prevent and educate people about abusive relationships. Ordinarily, the crew would have been on the water and unable to submit individual workouts. This year, however, Hobart men’s rowing took the competition by storm.

“The goal for the campaign was five million yards,” said head coach Paul Bugenhagen. “We blew five million yards out just by ourselves in a week or two. Then the college upped the ante. I think my team accounted for most of the yards that got collected, and there was some great participation across campus.”

In practice, the team’s Instagram account became a clearinghouse for sharing individual rowers’ daily workouts. One would run 20 miles and post a screenshot showing the pace. Another would bike 100 miles, posting pictures from the road. Bugenhagen sees the posts as reflective of the championship mindset of his athletes.

“I don’t know that we really had a plan around staying connected, but we have guys who are hardwired to compete,” he said. “We doubled down on those aspects now.”

Like many coaches, Bugenhagen also joined his athletes in their work. He says it was a way to cope with the loss of what seemed to be a promising season, as well as a way to better himself, including losing 35 pounds.

“Out of 158 days in quarantine, I missed only one day of working out,” he said. “It ended up being a cool journey, and social media kept me connected to my buddies and my friends. They were amazing in their comments. I had alums say, ‘Coach, I’m working out again, and your posts gave me the energy to go do that.’”

When they weren’t posting online, Bugenhagen’s athletes stayed connected via Zoom. Rather than simply chatting, they would watch a rowing video and discuss it.

“We used that exercise as a way to stay engaged with our sport when we couldn’t do it,” he said.

With his rowers back at school and on the water, Bugenhagen agrees with a comment he heard from a young rower this summer: Rowers were built for Covid. After laughing it off initially, he has come to see how true that is.

“I haven’t seen that same level of selflessness in other sports,” he said. “In our team and our sport, there have been overwhelmingly positive stories around conquering this and how [rowers] have been able to manage it. The situations that have allowed teams to operate and benefit are front and center for me.”

From the Water to the Web

The sculling renaissance that has been hyped and happening in recent years became the only way to row on the water for months–unless, of course, you cohabitate with another rower.

Needless to say, 2020 was the year of the small boat. And as springtime cancellations turned into summer, all eyes shifted to the fall. Could this pandemic really keep rowers away from the banks of the Charles River or out of friendly Chattahoochee?

Unfortunately, it did, but the pandemic also made these signature fall regattas truly open to the masses for the first time.

A release from the Head of the Charles said: “Whether you are new to rowing or are a seasoned competitor at the regatta, Head of the Charles is welcoming all participants to our first global remote event. Competitors are welcome to enter as many events as they like.”

“Historically, our traditional regatta is oversubscribed for each event,” executive director Fred Schoch stated. “This year stands as a unique opportunity for the entire global rowing community to compete.”

Soon after this change was announced, the race rebranded as “4702,” the distance of the famed Boston course. All interested athletes could erg 4,702 meters at home individually or with a group of five, or erg live against a competitor on the traditional race weekend, or row the distance on water and submit a time tracked by GPS.

Unsurprisingly, hundreds of athletes registered. While the erg contest racked up the most entries, the on-water race reflected the massive influx of young new scullers, and backed the longstanding Charles tradition of the youth events being the most highly subscribed. For example, more than 270 boys entered the men’s youth or U-17 categories.

The Head of the Hooch took the online racing concept a step further, partnering with race-timing company HereNOW to develop a virtual-reality app for rowers competing on their ergs.

Available for Android and iPhones, the app connected to Concept2 PM5 monitors for the 5,000-meter race. Rowers could get together beyond just single entries; in team boats a designated ‘coxswain’ would steer crews down the course using the phone.

And forget biking up and down the race course to watch crews all day. The virtual format saved coaches some legwork, according to the regatta website: “The HereNOW VR platform will offer a ‘spectator view’ with several specific locations to watch the virtual race. Boats will pass in front of the viewing point much like a real regatta, allowing spectators to toggle between viewing points and follow specific boats down the course.”

It’s probably too early to say whether these offerings will be recurring options for rowers who don’t qualify or can’t make the trip to either regatta in future years. Certainly they opened up some highly sought-after race spots to anyone with erg access.

They also reminded us that, no matter the format, racing is what makes rowing great.

Do You Remember?

I can almost hear myself saying this to my athletes in the next couple of years, when we slip a little bit and take for granted the amazing freedoms we have in rowing when no pandemic is going on.

“Do you guys remember back during the pandemic when you all 2K-tested at home and nearly everybody hit a PR?”

“Do you remember the ridiculous selfies of your teammates out on a run, or lifting in their basement at one in the morning?”

“Do you remember how you felt when we first were able to get back together on the water? You celebrated like it was Christmas morning, all for the chance to mess around in a little boat.”

Thanks to the marvels of the 21st century, our time in isolation was perhaps not so isolating. Our hunger for racing did not go unsatisfied. Our longing for human connection was fulfilled–as long as our internet one was working. We rowed in ways the world had never seen before.

And maybe it was all an inadequate substitute for what you might call “the real thing.” But in 2020, this was all we had, and it was enough.

We’ll remember that.

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