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    The Pause That Refreshed

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    Dear Doctor Rowing,

    As we begin to think about head-racing season and the granddaddy of them all, the Head of the Charles, our coach told us that in order to do really well, you don’t even have to have a perfect race. To emphasize his point, he told us that in the world championships of 1990, the U.S. lightweight men’s double stopped during the race and then came back to win it. Gold medals!

    Did they actually stop or is this just a made-up story by our coach? Why would they stop? Nobody believes him, so I thought I’d ask you.


    Yes, Virginia, the U.S. lightweight men’s double really did stop and come back to win the world championship. Now if you’re imagining a little break to sip on water bottles and munch on pieces of banana Power Bars, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed by the real story. It’s much more dramatic than that.

    Bow Bob Dreher and stroke Steve Peterson were the lightweight double. Surprisingly, they have never talked about the oarlock incident much, so delighted were they with the result. These guys should be on the banquet circuit, burnishing their reputations with this unusual race.

    Like many American scullers in international regattas, they had modest hopes for the regatta in Tasmania, Australia. 

    “We’d been though the reps, and according to the times, we were looking at sixth place,” Dreher remembers. “That had been our goal, to make the finals. But as the regatta went on, we had been getting better and better. It felt like we were really hitting a peak, and we might do something in the finals.

    “That morning, I woke up and thought, ‘We can win.’ I felt great about our chances. The race was delayed for over an hour because it was so windy and rough. But when we finally started, we felt great. We were right in it when just before the first 500 mark, I started to feel something funny with my starboard oar. I looked out and saw that the gate of the oarlock was standing straight up.

    “Now I had locked it; there’s even some videotape of me on the dock doing it up. But the rough water must’ve knocked it loose. I rowed for about another three or four strokes, afraid to put much pressure on, trying to decide what to do. On the fourth stroke, the gate happened to come down. So, I stopped rowing, tucked the oars into my gut and reached out and screwed the lock shut again.

    “Steve came through with a stroke and hit my oars. I could see that he wasn’t sure what was happening. But I was ready, and I yelled, ‘Go.’ We started up again; the boat hadn’t ever come to an absolute dead stop and took off.

    “The videotape of the race doesn’t show what had happened. And they didn’t bother to show us, now about a length of open water behind the field.”

    Did they abandon their race plan at that point?

    “Well, it’s kind of a blur, but we just did everything we could in the middle of the race. We used the same sprint that we had planned on. We went from fourth place to first in the last 500, but where we really moved was in the last hundred meters. We rocketed to the finish. It felt so fast, so good.

    “At the finish line I was kind of pissed. I thought that maybe we had won a medal, and I was thinking, ‘We could have won.’ There was a photo finish; we had to wait 30 minutes to find out the results. When they finally announced it, I couldn’t believe it.”

    His partner, Steve Peterson, remembers the race much the same way Bob does.

    “We’d been hoping to make the finals and we were there. So, we had a nothing-to-lose attitude. I remember thinking that things were going great; I remember thinking, ‘We’re in it.’ And then Bob started swearing for two or three strokes. I thought, ‘What’s he so upset about? We’re doing great; we’re right where we want to be.’ I don’t know if you know that sick feeling of coming up to a catch and hitting your blades against the shafts of your partner’s oars, but that’s what happened next. Luckily, before I could get stressed about it, he had the oarlock shut. Probably because I didn’t know what the problem had been, I never got too worried.

    “I guess that I’d attribute our win to two things. First, that nothing-to-lose attitude. I really felt like anything I did would be fine. And second, it helped to have the headwind. I remember to this day the time 7:46.15. If the race hadn’t been so long—6:20 was the gold standard—I don’t think that we could’ve gotten back into it. What an adrenaline rush!” 

    There was some talk, half serious, in rowing circles that Dreher and Peterson had hit upon the perfect physiological race plan—just as the lactate was building up after the hard first 500, a quick break to let it work out of the muscles, then on into the race, lactate-free, setting yourself up for an incredible finishing 500. 

    “Well, we never tried that again,” Dreher said, “but I don’t think that’s the way you want to race.”

    What can you take away from this story that will help your head racing? I’d agree with your coach: If a 2K race at the worlds doesn’t always demand perfection, a 5K race in the fall definitely doesn’t. Don’t obsess over little things like rough water, crabs, poor steering, boats that won’t get out of your way, boats that crash into you, or any of the other things that make head racing so much fun. 

    Have a great fall season!  

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