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Getting a Handle On It

BY VOLKER NOLTE
PHOTO BY ED MORAN

In the exciting final of the lightweight men’s double at the Tokyo Olympics, the Irish double not only won in a very bold and fast race—nearly equaling their world-best time from the semifinal—but also showed some unique techniques.

During the stroke, Paul O’Donovan gripped his inboards about four to five centimeters from the end of the handle. While he maintained this unusual position for the whole race, his bowman, Fintan McCarthy, began the race with a ‘“normal” grip, holding the handle at the very end of the inboard. 

At some point in the second half of the race, however, McCarthy, too, switched to the short inboard grip, moving his hands away from the end of the handle toward the pin conspicuously. The Irish double finished the race with a fierce sprint while rowing in this unorthodox way.

One would assume that these outstanding athletes resorted to this remarkable rigging arrangement to adapt to the strong tailwinds. Two weeks later, though, at the Henley Royal Regatta, O’Donovan used the same strategy in different conditions. His hand-positioning technique was noticed and discussed by the race commentators. Since the racing was not as fierce as in the Olympic final, McCarthy saw no need to change his hands.

Moving the hand about four to five centimeters from the end of the handle is indeed a significant rigging change, especially since some coaches, when altering the inboard length, do so in millimeters, believing such minuscule adjustments have a substantial impact on performance. 

Why would a rower resort to such drastic rigging changes? And are there any advantages? 

In an interview, O’Donovan said his hands slip down the handle naturally to a position where he feels comfortable and that he more or less forces this technique on his partner—despite the opposition of their coach.

Recent photos of the pair show that O’Donovan has moved his hands away from the end of the handle gradually year by year. In an image from the 2016 Olympic Games, where he won a silver medal with his brother Gary, his hands are still very close to the end of the handle. McCarthy, who tends to row with a “normal” grip, matches his rowing partner in highly competitive situations.

The advantage for O’Donovan? He feels more comfortable and is able to reach longer and maintain length when the stroke rate increases and fatigue sets in. Of course, the load on the handle rises, but O’Donovan says the crew prefers a light rig that keeps the handle force acceptable to him, even with the change in grip. With the smaller length of his inboard, O’Donovan has to pull with five percent more force, but the power output stays roughly the same because handle velocity is lower. It’s similar to shifting into a higher gear on your bike while maintaining the same overall speed. Of course, rowing with a shorter inboard is a disadvantage at the start, which may be why the Irish double was trailing for the first part of the Olympic race.

Many rowers place their hands some distance from the end of the handle, although usually less than two centimeters. Some rowers change their hand position within a small back-and-forth range of about one centimeter. In such instances, the lower hand during overlap tends to shift toward the pin.

The length of the inboard, whether it’s achieved by changing the rig or moving the hand, is a matter of preference and strength. Some may like having a lighter load with a faster-moving hand; others may prefer to overcome more force at a slower speed.

In the end, the important factor is power output. If the rower cannot reach sufficient handle velocity to produce high power—whether because the movement is too fast with a load that is too light or because the rower cannot overcome a load that is too high—it will be impossible to achieve maximum boat velocity. Again, the comparison with cycling in a gear that is too high or too low is apt. In both cases, the bike rider will have to adjust to attain the best cruising speed.

What do I advocate? The hand in a fixed position at the end of the handle—with the index finger maintaining a solid grip so the rower has the longest inboard lever, and the thumb at the top of the handle for proper bladework. The inboard length needs to be optimized for each individual rower. If both hands tend to slide away from the end, the overlap may be too large, and a shorter inboard length should be tried to hold hand position. During this test, outboard and span should be kept the same. If the hands slide slightly back and forth, especially when the rower is skilled, no correction is necessary. Only if the hands slide down considerably should one consider adjusting hand position. In no case would I teach O’Donovan’s technique.

Given the strong-mindedness of the Irish sculler and his obvious success, you would, as his coach, be well advised to refrain from trying to change him. It would be as fruitless and counterproductive as trying to change the running style of a gold medal-winning Olympic sprinter or marathoner. Besides, perhaps O’Donovan is on to something. Maybe if we taught scullers at a certain skill level to move their hands up and down the handle to find the best, most comfortable position for wind and race conditions, they could simulate the shifting of gears on a bicycle and use their power output most efficiently.

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