BY PHIL STEKL | PHOTO COURTESY
What do you suppose would happen if, in your quest for the perfect stroke, you could mine the collective wisdom of George Pocock, Mahe Drysdale, William Woodgate, Grace Prendergast, Thor Nilsen, Helen Glover, Stephen Fairbairn and, to add a pinch of spice, Vince Lombardi and Huck Finn? Go ahead, have a chuckle at the farfetched, but don’t doubt for a moment that that fantasy dinner party would yield what many of us brazenly covet: more speed in our racing shells.
Let’s face it: We rowers are as spoiled as a dowager’s cats. When we hanker for smoke on the water and the tussle of ego and obstacle, we can pluck from our shelves the likes of Brad Alan Lewis’s Attack on Lake Casitas or Daniel J. Boyne’s Red Rose Crew. If we yearn instead for matters technical, we can embrace the tenets served up by Volker Nolte’s Rowing Faster and, if it’s the evolution of know-how that grabs us, we’re free to place the Nolte classic side by side with yet another, Fairbairn’s Chats on Rowing, to compare and contrast to our rower’s heart’s delight. And when we pine not for ipseity or structure but the beseech of the intangible, let’s be grateful eternally for the poetic reflections of George Pocock or J. Duncan Spaeth.
Given such an acclaimed assortment, the question arises: Is there a contemporary book in our midst that takes a stab at sewing it all together, that distinguishes itself as a topic-rich, perspective-expanding resource addressing everything from winning technique and race-day advice to the invocation of the sublime by venerable voices of centuries past?
I’m certain of it. One of them is sitting in my lap. Penned in an easy-to-follow, down-to-earth style, with ample graphics and threads of disarming humor, humility, and colorful dialect that at times evoke a rustic Huck Finn musing down the Mississippi, John Cumper’s 400-page Tight Puddles leads its readers step by step to a faster, more rewarding on-water experience.
The folksy approach notwithstanding, there’s nothing parochial about the book’s guidance, which is aimed at both scullers and sweep rowers of all levels. Drawn from decades-long, hands-on experience as a competitive rower, Australian schoolboy, and Olympic-team coach, as well as from innumerable respected experts and icons, Cumper’s advice addresses almost everything imaginable relevant to those of us hunting for another inch of run in our shells: time-tested on-water drills that make a difference, analyses of the winning form of recent Olympic gold medalists, essence of a winning mindset, the approach of coaches aiming for results and respect, effective race-day prep, ergometer technique, big mistakes to avoid in sticky situations, and so on.
In one of my favorite passages, three-time Australian Olympic gold medalist James Tomkins shares his formula for making boats run well and fast. I’ve been around the block a few times in this sport, but Tomkins’ plain-speaking advice triggered an ah-ha moment that I couldn’t wait to harness on the water. Guess what? It’s working!
Yet the true special sauce in Cumper’s delivery is arguably the historical perspective woven throughout that reminds you of how rich our sport is in sages and saga. The book is filled with quotations and lessons from rowing icons of the last century, such as Steve Fairbairn, Gilbert Bourne, and William Woodgate, and even relevant words of wisdom from Thomas Jefferson and football legend Vince Lombardi. After reading this book, I’ve become a believer: Perspective can indeed make you faster.
Read Cumper’s account of the first King’s Cup Regatta after the 1918 WWI armistice and dare to claim otherwise. Learn how the Australian Imperial Force eight-man crew overcame malnourishment, battle wounds, and unspeakable psychological scarring to win the trophy, and then reflect on your own beefs about not being prepared adequately for your big race.
Tight Puddles is not without controversial claim. For instance, Cumper dismisses the benefits of on-land strength training, even for elites. Nor is he sold on the merits of ever-higher stroke ratings at elite-level championships, despite advancements in equipment and athlete conditioning that might account for it. It’s also fair to say that Cumper’s perspective, while broad indeed, places more emphasis on the influence of expert voices of the distant past—namely, those of the prior century. Is that a knock? Not necessarily. Those voices remain relevant and, if the living won’t cite them, who will? But would a greater representation of the wisdom of the likes of Thor Nilsen and Volker Nolte, to cite a notable couple, have made the book a more relevant offering? You decide.
Regardless of the optimal mix of advice to guide us to faster rowing, the proof in the pudding is whether it works. Whether consumed as a coach or athlete, the guidance Cumper offers us in Tight Puddles, founded as it is on a lifetime dedicated to the sport, is eclectic, entertaining, and, in my opinion, effective. Something within these pages will speak to you, inspire you, and give you the tools so many of us crave—tools that, when wielded properly, will make us all faster. PHIL STekl
Tight Puddles is downloadable on Kindle, and hard-copy editions are available at amazon.com