Robin Prendes, Anthony Fahden, Edward King and Tyler Nase compete in the men's four at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 on Aug. 9, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
The sport of rowing has been around a long time — 121 years to be exact. It debuted on the Olympic program in Paris in 1900, and has been included in every edition since.
But despite it being one of the oldest sports to be contested at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, there are still a few things you might not know about it. We asked Team USA Rowing to share five things about their sport that might surprise you.
1. Rowing Is The Only Sport You Go As Fast As You Can… Backwards
When you watch competitive rowing, something you might not realize is that all the competitors are facing backwards in the boat. A tradition that started in England and eventually made its way across the pond is now considered the norm — for most people.
“I think going backwards throws people for a loop,” Kevin Cardno admitted after taking first in the men’s double sculls at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team Trials. As the only sport where you compete backwards, Team USA’s Lucas Bellows revealed, “you eventually get used to it.”
What’s harder to get used to are the nautical terms for the left and right side of the boat — also known as port and starboard — are reversed when going backwards. Cardno said he knows rowers who have gotten “a tattoo with port and starboard on the wrong side of their body and sailors will come up to them and say, ‘hey, it’s on the wrong side.’ And then the rower has to explain, ‘no, it’s on the correct side, but we’re just actually backwards.’”
2. Bad Weather Doesn’t Scare Them, But Animals Do
When you compete in a sport that takes place outdoors, you are used to braving the elements. But being brave when faced with a wild animal is another thing.
While training in Florida ahead of the 2020 Team Trials, single sculls champion John Graves got up close with one of the Sunshine State’s most famous reptiles. “Training down here in Florida and just having alligators around,” he said, “it makes you go a little faster. Seeing the eyes next to you when you’re out there in a single — it’s pretty shocking.”
Sometimes the athletes find out their fiercest competition is in the water, instead of on top of it. “This summer I was training in Charlottesville, Virginia early one morning and there was no one else out,” remembered team trials lightweight double sculls winner Zachary Heese. “All of a sudden I hear a grunt and a splash. I turn around and there is a black bear swimming maybe 10 feet in front of my boat. So I frantically tried to slow my boat to let the bear pass, because I didn’t know who would win in a fight: me or a swimming bear. But I wasn’t about to find out.”
Luckily, not all animal encounters are equally shocking. Senior national team rower, Kevin Meador came across something slightly less scary while down south: Florida’s official state marine animal. “When I was rowing for Northeastern in college we took a training trip down to Florida and we hit a manatee! It broke the skeg off the boat,” he recalled.
3. The Hardest Thing About The Sport Will Surprise You
There are a lot of things about rowing that are challenging: the amount of equipment needed to participate in it, the grueling workouts, the hours spent on the water… But the hardest thing? Getting back in the boat after it flips!
The third fastest women’s single sculler in the U.S., Kristina Wagner shared the first lesson she gives at the “Learn to Row” program she teaches over the summer. “Getting back in after you flip — that is the most difficult thing to learn,” she said.
Graves elaborated, “Where I used to scull in Vermont — before you can scull — you have to go out and flip and get back in the boat.”
And it’s not only difficult for beginners, Graves said. “You’d be surprised, even a lot of experienced rowers don’t know how to get back in.” While it’s something he feels comfortable with now, there have been times when he’s flipped right before a race. “It’s not uncommon,” he said. “You have to get back in and just race.”
So, what’s the trick? “The hardest thing is getting your oars back together,” he said. “After that you’re pretty much good.”
But lightweight double sculls champion, Jasper Liu had different advice: “Just don’t flip in the first place and then it’s not that big of an issue,” he joked.
4. No, They Shouldn’t Have Bigger Arms
Cardno said the question he gets asked most when he tells people what sport he competes in is, “Shouldn’t you have bigger arms?”
The belief is that rowers need their arms to amplify their boat speed, when in fact more than 50 percent of their power comes from their legs alone. Their arms and core make up the rest.
After taking second in the women’s lightweight doubles at trials, Christine Cavallo shared the motto she recited with her teammate before their race: “Use your legs. You’d think we’d know that after a decade in the sport,” she laughed.
Similar to how some don’t realize rowers compete backwards, not everyone notices the sliding seat the athletes sit on when competing. Fans of the sport only see the force exerted to pull the oars, sometimes missing the footplates on the floor, which is bolted to the rower’s shoes. Their legs are where most of their stroke’s explosive power comes from.
5. The Sport Attracts A Lot Of Former Swimmers
It’s not uncommon for elite athletes to move from one sport to another. With rowing and swimming both low impact, it’s easy to see why many former swimmers transition to the boat.
Cavallo explained. “I played soccer, ran track, did cross-country, gymnastics, and I literally got injured doing everything else. So after I couldn’t do contact sports anymore, I was told you can either row or swim,” she said. “If you’re physically athletic, you’re going to have the adaptability that translates to a rowing discipline with the tenacity to keep improving.”
One former competitive swimmer who has improved all the way up to the reigning men’s single scull world champion is Germany’s Oliver Zeidler, Graves said. After narrowly failing to qualify for the Olympic swim team in 2016, Zeidler moved over to rowing. “Now he’s one of the fastest singles scullers in the world. So there is definitely a big crossover between swimming and specifically, rowing.”