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Did the Pandemic Drive Down Erg Scores?

BY COLLEEN SAVILLE
PHOTO BY LISA WORTHY

A recent Harvard Business Review article about leadership in the Covid era said the “second wave” will require a renewed sense of personal resilience. The piece resonated with me because the qualities of resilience–strength under pressure, a willingness to move through it rather than around it, and the ability to rebound quickly–are inherent to us rowers.

It’s been a tough year for rowing. Beyond the postponed Olympics, one of the most difficult adjustments was shifting from training as a team to training in isolation. Only recently have most teams been permitted to train in small groups, masked and six feet apart. This kind of independent training requires extraordinary self-discipline and motivation, since you’re accountable only to yourself.

 Without any real races this year, virtual events–from the first-ever virtual Head of the Charles, to the USRowing Virtual Summer National Championships and USRowing Virtual Fall–helped fill the void by providing rowers of all ages and categories opportunities to test their relative speed on the erg. True, nothing can replace live competition in rowing, but in addition to bread baking, puzzle solving, and TikTok dancing, indoor rowing went viral this year as the next best thing.

In fact, when the pandemic struck in early March, rowers turned to the erg and broke records like never before. In just 75 days, 131 new records were shattered across the world. And while some athletes focused solely on logging meters during isolation training, those aware of world records within reach went for it. Notable among them: Isaiah Harrison, who at age 16 now owns 12 indoor-rowing world records for his age group–from 500 meters to the marathon–most of which he broke during lockdown.

Is Covid why rowers have been setting so many personal records on the erg? 

“You’re going to see a lot of people, whether they like it or not, spending more time on the erg” said Chris Chase, director of youth rowing and coaching development at USRowing. “And virtual events like Rower’s Choice make it captivating. They make a lot of it live and hold everyone’s attention by keeping the pieces short and exciting. It’s what rowing is going to have to do to adapt.”

That’s especially true of junior rowers, who have been deprived of the ability to race and post results.

“These kids have been forced to adapt,” Chase said. “What can they send to a college coach to get recruited? An erg score and a picture of them in a single. We can sit around and cry about it, but rowers persevere. They’re still showing up at the boathouse and saying, ‘Coach, put me in a single.’ More college coaches have learned that if you’re fast in a single, odds are you’ll be fast in an eight.”

Yaz Farooq, head coach of the University of Washington women’s rowing team, says the Huskies’ fall season was far from normal but trended in the right direction.

 “People came back in various states, and there was no judgment about it. We realized that everyone had faced unique challenges and we were going to pick up where we were at that moment and move forward. 

“We did our annual September 6K erg test, and the results were pretty much all over the place. My thinking was, ‘We’re just going to build upon this.’ Then in November, we had the highest percentage of PRs we’ve ever had. It was an unbelievable day of performance. And we did not do more erging than usual in preparation.

“The biggest difference was that all of our training on the water was in the single. We had permission to go into larger boats by household, but I just decided we were going to commit to the single, and that’s what we did.”

The Washington women began the season with a wide range of experience in the single, but by the end “it was like birds in a flock changing direction simultaneously,” Farooq said. She attributes the increase in PRs to the Huskies’ time in the singles and their insistence on maintaining community, despite the logistical challenges.

“We approach the ergs as a collaborative endeavor. Everyone is there to support one another, to help their teammates go as fast as they possibly can. Throughout the fall, I noticed that people were making amazing progress on the erg, exponential growth. 

 “When we were erging in the stadium, we had this wonderful sense of community. On the last day of practice, when people were preparing for final exams, our athletes asked us to open the stadium. They could have erged at home. But they asked if they could be let into the stadium to erg, just so they could be with one another.”

Eric Catalano, executive director of Saratoga Rowing Association and head coach of the girls varsity, said erg scores may be going down for people who want to submit erg scores but not necessarily in general.

“Very self-motivated people are the ones who have the ambition to compare themselves to others across the country, but that’s not the norm.”

Gordon Getsinger, head coach of the girls varsity at the Saugatuck Rowing Club in Westport, Ct., says erg scores have held steady.

“Kids are able to maintain times pretty close to their PRs, but overall a lot fewer kids are PRing right now. There’s a very small minority who are able to thrive, whether they have people around them or not.

“Being a part of something is really important to these high school kids. They know that they’re going to be on a winter-training Zoom from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. every day. It creates a space where they’re a part of something bigger than themselves, and they know that as long as you work hard, you’re going to feel good afterward.”

Steve Whelpley, a former U.S. senior national-team rower and head coach of the Green Racing Project in Craftsbury, Vt, is an elite rower who’s also familiar with junior and collegiate rowing.

“Everyone is finding refuge in working out right now, but only those who have a good setup and vision are achieving PRs–those whose goals are clear and who have found a way to keep stress levels low.

 “The Covid training situation is not ideal for a lot of people, physically or emotionally. And so yes, some will improve, but those are people who were ripe for improvement regardless. It’s kind of sink or swim. Or maybe float or swim. Either people are treading water and maintaining through community, which is hugely positive, or the really persistent are crushing the erg because it’s the only thing you can crush right now.”Harvard Business Review is right: The second wave requires resilience. But more than that, it reminds us rowers of the power of community–six feet apart, 10 feet apart, by Zoom or otherwise. “If you want to go fast, go alone,” the African proverb says. “If you want to go far, go together.” Yes, we all want to go fast right now, and if you can, you should. But maybe treading water for a moment–together–is an achievement just as great. 

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