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'12 Facts ... you might not know about rowing

By Peggy Shinn | June 10, 2012, 11 p.m. (ET)

Esther Lofgren, Zsuzsanna Francia, Jamie Redman, Amanda Polk, Meghan Musnicki, Taylor Ritzel, Caroline Lind, Caryn Davies, Mary Whipple
Esther Lofgren, Zsuzsanna Francia, Jamie Redman, Amanda Polk, Meghan Musnicki, Taylor Ritzel, Caroline Lind, Caryn Davies and Mary Whipple row on May 25, 2012


Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics, was a rower, and rowing is the only Olympic team sport to be included in every modern summer Games. Except in 1896, bad weather forced cancellation of the events that were scheduled to be held at the Greek port of Pireaus. … In the U.S., the first rowing race was between Harvard and Yale in 1852. This race also made rowing the first intercollegiate sport contested in the United States. … Founded in 1872, the National Association for Amateur Oarsmen was the first national governing body for a sport in the U.S. In 1982, the name changed to the United States Rowing Association.


Boats (called shells) are divided into two classes: sweep and sculling. Athletes with two oars — one in each hand — are called scullers. There are three sculling events: the single, the double, and the quad. Shorthand for these events are “1x,” “2x”, and “4x.” … Athletes with only one oar are sweep rowers. Sweep events are the pair, four, and eight. Pairs and fours can come with a coxswain (2+ and 4+) and without (2- and 4-). But the eight (8+) always carries a coxswain. The eight is the fastest boat on the water. A world-level men’s eight is capable of moving almost 14 miles per hour.


The coxswain (pronounced “cox-in”) doesn’t sit in the stern and yell, “Stroke!,” as if the shell were a galley rowed by slaves. In fact, he/she never barks that command. The cox steers the boat with a rudder and serves as the in-the-boat coach, carrying out the coach’s plan. To carry out the race (or training) plan, the cox calls power pieces (e.g., 20 hard strokes) and stroke rate, which the rower facing the coxswain (the stroke) must instigate. And the cox also serves as chief motivator, calling out encouraging information (e.g., “I’ve got Australia’s stroke” or “Give me Germany’s bow ball!”). As Mary Whipple, coxswain of the U.S. women’s 8 at the past two Olympics, says, “I identify the problems (in the boat), and I offer a solution. But more importantly, I tell them ready, on this drive, do it now.” … Coxswains are also petite. But not too petite. The FISA (International Rowing Federation) requires that coxswains in men’s crews weigh a minimum of 55 kilograms (121.25 lbs) in racing uniform. For women, the weight minimum is 50 kilograms (110.23 lbs) in racing uniform. If a cox is underweight, he/she must carry sandbags to bring them above the minimum.


At the London 2012 Olympic Games, the men will race in eight events, the women six (14 total events). In sculls, the men and women compete in the single, double, and quad. In the sweep events, the men compete in the coxless pair and four, as well as the eight. Women only compete in the pair (coxless) and eight. Lightweights (see below) also have two Olympic events: double sculls for men and women, and coxless four for the men only. … At the World Rowing Championships, rowers compete in 22 events — 13 for men and 9 for women. … Women’s rowing events debuted at the Olympics in 1976.


In 2012, 48 rowers will make the U.S. Olympic team. It is the second-largest delegation on the U.S. team. The U.S. Olympic rowing team will be named on June 22, 2012.


The average female rower is close to 6-feet tall, while the average man 6-foot-6. And they do not have weight restrictions unless they are rowing in the lightweight categories. Lightweight men cannot weigh more than 160 pounds and the average weight of the entire boat cannot exceed 155 pounds. Lightweight women cannot weigh more than 130 pounds and the average weight of the entire boat cannot exceed 125 pounds.


All Olympic events are contested over a 2,000-meter course with six lanes. In the 1976, 1980, and 1984 Olympics, women raced 1,000 meters.


On Friday, May 25, 2012, at World Cup II in Lucerne, Switzerland, the U.S. women’s eight set a new world record. With a tailwind in their heat, the crew covered the 2,000-meter course in 5:54.17, bettering the previous record by over a second. The women’s eight then won the final two days later. The previous record was 5:55.50 set by the U.S. women’s eight at the 2006 World Rowing Championships. Rowing in Lucerne were coxswain Mary Whipple, Caryn Davies, Caroline Lind, Taylor Ritzel, Meghan Musnicki, Amanda Polk, Jamie Redman, Susan Francia, and Esther Lofgren. Davies, Francia, Lind, and Whipple were also in the eight that set the record in 2006.


The U.S. women’s eight has won gold at the World Championships since 2006 — five consecutive years (skipping 2008, when they won gold in Beijing). The win at the 2008 Olympics was the first gold for the U.S. women’s eight since the 1984 Olympics. Before traveling to Beijing, the women watched a video of the 1984 race, and with 750 meters to go in the 2008 Olympic women’s eight final, coxswain Mary Whipple called “a power 10 for the women of 1984” to inspire the boat. … From 1920 through 1956, the U.S. men’s eight won the gold medal at every Olympic Games. The U.S. men won again at the 1964 Olympics, then waited 40 years before winning again at the 2004 Olympic Games.


Though rowing looks like an upper-body sport, it’s actually the rower’s legs that provide power to the oar. At the catch — when the oar goes into the water — the rower’s legs provide the drive. The arms and back then finish the stroke.


If a rower loses control of his or her oar and does not remove it from the water at the end of the stroke, the oar will act as a brake. This is referred to as catching a crab. In severe cases, the shell’s forward momentum will quickly pull the oar handle over the rower’s head, leaving the oar parallel to the boat.


Races at the world-class level consist of no more than six boats. Competitions begin with heats. Depending on the number of entries, a prescribed number of boats from each heat will advance to either a semifinal or directly to the finals. The remaining boats go to a repechage, or second-chance race. A predetermined number of boats will advance from the repechage to either the semifinals or finals. This double-elimination system means each boat gets at least two chances to advance to the finals.

SOURCES: US Rowing (usrowing.org), Friends of Rowing History (www.rowinghistory.net), and the Ninth Seat (9thseat.com).

Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.

Related Athletes

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Mary Whipple

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Caryn Davies

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Caroline Lind

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Taylor Ritzel

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Meghan Musnicki

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Susan Francia

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Esther Lofgren