STORY AND PHOTO BY ED MORAN
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The annual Rowing News “Best Of” print edition is on the way to rowing households throughout North America and available in the Rowing News app now. Take a look below at a preview of the issue.
Traditionally, our December issue is devoted to the best moments of the year in rowing. From the early erg races to the fall head extravaganzas and all the sprint events in between, we have filled these pages with recaps and celebrations of the year’s highlight moments and performances.
It would seem ludicrous to try to do that this year, when everything that could go wrong seemingly did.
After only two of the big scheduled events—the C.R.A.S.H.-B Sprints and NSR I—and a couple of months of early full-on training for what was supposed to be an Olympic year, a previously unknown coronavirus began sweeping the globe, and the disease it produced, Covid-19, wreaked havoc and pain.
The response was to shut down, close doors and windows, and cancel all planned social events in an effort to slow the spread of the virus and mitigate its devastation. Every aspect of normal life ceased to be normal, and for sports that meant the end of most seasons and all organized training.
By mid-spring, every regatta and every school, club and national-team season was canceled. Everything, including the Olympics, was put on hold. Athletes did not escape the flood of infections, and just before the breakup of the U.S. women’s training center, 12 rowers fell ill.
Given that there were no events, publishing a Best Of 2020 edition of Rowing News seemed, well, impossible.
Or is it?
If we take a deeper look at the events of 2020 and examine the response of the global rowing community, nuggets of bright moments shine under the surface and the constant drip of bad news.
When clubs and boathouses and training centers closed, coaches, athletes and administrators began finding ways to communicate and plan. A virtual meeting on Zoom between two or three club executives in Pittsburgh, Boston and Oakland became a weekly meeting that quickly grew to include some 20 executives.
Ideas were shared about how to keep club members connected and athletes training either by themselves or in virtual groups. Plans were developed for when the spread of the virus would slow enough to allow renewed access to on-water training. Singles became the boat of choice and allowed for groups to train together and still social- distance.
As live events were eliminated, virtual racing became the rage. Instead of doing nothing, clubs and associations across the country submitted erg scores or raced while being livestreamed from home. The competitive spirit was undiminished. From spring through the fall, racing went online, and went on.
In small clusters across the country, on-water rowing returned. In Boston, groups of singles launched from public docks or in places where a single shell could be wet-launched from shore by determined athletes.
People were unselfish in ways that bolstered the spirit of our community. In clubs like CRI, masters members who owned single shells made their boats available to others, and access to the river increased.
Similar gestures occurred across the country. Boats were donated to juniors at the Connecticut Boat Club so kids could get on the water. In clubs and programs, junior coaches devised ways to put small groups on the water in pods and coached in time slots that allowed for maximum usage.
Rowers row because it is what they love to do and have always done, and they found ways to do just that.
From a tiny, nine-rack shack in the woods of Stratham, N.H., a group of lifelong rowers who belonged to a club created in 1984 by a group of rowers that comprised of three former collegiate rowers and Ernestine Bayer, the “mother of women’s rowing” who started the Philadelphia Girls Rowing Club, launched daily to scull the tidal waters of the Squamscott River.
Across the country, when restrictions eased enough to get outdoors, rowers kept returning and doing what was necessary to stay connected with the sport.
By early fall, rivers and lakes for months vacant of shells were filled daily by smiling rowers. As the fall progressed and Covid restrictions lifted in some areas, even crews rowing in team boats reemerged.
Yes, 2020 was a terrible year, and the consequences of a lost season are sure to be lasting. Olympic hopefuls and coaches were forced to decide whether they had another year of training in them. Some decided to stick to their plans; others retired from the sport.
The loss of regatta and collegiate sports revenues caused the elimination of programs big and small. Crews at Dartmouth, the University of Connecticut, and Stanford University were among the storied programs cut.
Rather than stand by and watch, collegiate coaching associations banded together to seek solutions. For the first time in the Intercollegiate Rowing Association’s history, a coaches’ association was formed to give men’s programs a voice.
The IRA regatta found a title sponsor in Hydrow, a new rowing-machine company that is thriving in part because of the pandemic and the need to find safe ways to train. The resulting relationship ensured that the IRA championship regatta will be funded for the next three years.
Yes, boat manufacturers that rely on the collegiate market were challenged, but the determination of rowers to be on the water, to do what they have always done, saw sales of single shells skyrocket and keep most of them healthy.
Other 2020 challenges, such as social unrest and national protests about racism, resulted in rowing looking once again at the need to diversify the sport.
Again, there were plenty of “best of” moments. The stalled release of A Most Beautiful Thing, a movie about inner-city kids revisiting the experience of forming an all-black rowing team in Chicago, was released on live-streaming platforms and became a shining example of how rowing can change lives.
It helped bring attention to diversity-driven programs like Row New York and Philadelphia City Rowing, and similar efforts and successes in making rowing accessible to young people historically deprived of such opportunities.
In New York City, Row New York began building a new boathouse in northern Manhattan that not only will bring rowing to young athletes unfamiliar with the sport but also will become a community and academic-support center that will help them realize the dream of attending college.
In a move sure to drive diversification from within the national governing body of the sport, USRowing tapped Amanda Kraus, the founder of that same New York program, to fill the leadership void it has had since the start of the year. In her first public comments, Kraus said that a culture change within the organization was among her top priorities.
So, yes, there was no season in 2020. There are no sensational performances and big race moments to spotlight. But there were many “best of” moments. If one thing held true in this horrible year, it is that there will always be “best of” moments that come from the people who make up the rowing community–the committed, determined folks who row because it is what they love to do.
No one said it better this year then the late Ed Winchester. In his last letter as editor of this magazine, Winchester, a world-champion athlete, Canadian Olympian, and eternal optimist, who died suddenly while erging in April, wrote:
Training is an optimistic act. Implicit in every erg workout and weight session is the idea that you can always get better—that who you are today doesn’t have to be who you are tomorrow. This is what drew me and so many others to our sport, and what keeps me coming back year after year.
This year, of course, is different. The loss of the rowing season is trivial in the grand scheme of what the world is facing. But it was a loss nonetheless, and it raised fundamental questions for the athletes and coaches whose seasons—and in some cases, careers—were cut short.
The sudden end to on-water activities was also jarring for those of us who cover the sport. For the first time ever, we were forced to contemplate what rowing would look like without racing.
After a month of social distancing and stay-at-home orders, we are starting to find out. Yes, there was some initial disappointment over what could have been this season, but very quickly we summoned our collective optimism and got back to work.
And work we did. Across the globe, virtual teams logged very real miles. Tokyo-bound athletes streamed backyard workouts. And on every permutation of the erg—static, dynamic, ski—indoor records continued to fall.
All of which means very little next to human tragedy that continues to unfold in communities around the world—ours included. Health worries persist, as do the strain and uncertainty that businesses and organizations across our sport continue to face.
More uncertainty surely lies ahead. But if I’m certain of one thing, it’s that we’ll keep moving forward, one optimistic stroke at a time.
In the category “expression of what makes our sport special,” that surely is “best of.”
Be sure to read the December issue and the complete “Making the Best of 2020.”