Recap: Masters rowing, first sprint race season

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June 8, 2015 by 8junebugs

“Just wait for sprint season,” my teammates told me. “Sprints are better than 5Ks.” I think they said this because I was new, because I loved 5Ks just fine.

Sprints, for the record, are the worst fucking thing I have ever made my body do. Also the best. When it’s over, I feel like a badass, but the kind of pain I feel between 500m and 750m is bigger and more intense than even, say, hours 15-30 of labor.

I AM NOT EVEN EXAGGERATING. Jesus. I knew to expect pain. I did not anticipate how absolutely shredding it would be.


With Abby at Gold Rush Regatta 2015, Women’s Novice 8+. photo: Dawn Nakashima

My unstated goal for this season was to race in stroke seat. I knew there was a chance because of who rolled out of their novice period and when. Most of the women who set us up to medal in the fall races then “aged out” and moved into the regular masters boats. Most of the women who started with me were practicing with the novice squad (different schedule); I row with them infrequently, but the novice coach always put me in stroke.

It was unstated because no one wants to be the asshole who wants to be stroke. It’s more that I wanted to get good enough and consistent enough — and strong enough — to be trusted there. I’ll row in any seat, but internally, seeing my name at the top of the lineup would tell me how the coach(es) thought I was doing.

The first time was a surprise, though.

510 Sprints

I’d wondered who would stroke the novice 8 in our first scrimmage — a friend on that squad who’d been in stroke a lot lately couldn’t make the race. As far as I knew, I was in 3 seat for the intermediate women’s D8 boat. Our head coach never mentioned that the novice coach had me at stroke for her lineup; I found out when the woman in 7 came up to talk to me about it at the race. So I had my first sprint race(s), my first race in stroke, my first time in more than one event at a regatta, and my first time with the novices’ start sequence (different than the other two I’d been working on)…all on the same day.

We have more coaches than we’re used to. They’re communicating better now. 😉

That novice 8 came in second. In raw time, we beat the intermediate boat I was in later, and that’s with a whole lineup completely new to sprint racing, a crab caught by 7 in the last sprint, and seven women following one woman who almost never gets to row with them.

I’m pretty damn proud of that boat. (video)

After the race, I thought, “I do like stroke seat. People said I did well. I think it’d be awesome to know in advance, though.”

I was a little bit wrong about that last bit.

Gold Rush

I had one of my lineups two weeks before the race, which is almost unheard of for our crew. (Masters rowing, man — we’ve all got lives/kids/partners/jobs. Consistent availability is tough.) I knew two weeks before the race that I’d be in stroke for the one of the novice 4+s — the one with most of the remaining novice-status women on my squad. We got several practices in together before the race, which was a freaking gift. We synced up well, and within a week of the race, we knew we’d have one of my favorite coxes for the race, the one who coxed my first race ever.

She’s now my lucky cox for life, because that 4 won gold.


We didn’t just win gold, though. We beat Marin. We beat Marin in the final sprint by 2.2 seconds. We beat Marin in a raggedy-ass Pocock sternloader that might be half as old as I am. The cox demanded everything we had, we gave it to her, and we won.

“Jesus Christ,” I thought, “this is what I’ve read about.” We beat them by leaving it all out on the water.

(For what it’s worth, Marin = the Yankees. They win at Head of the Charles. Consistently. They’re lovely, lovely people, but they have considerably more resources than our scrappy little crew with our rented boat bay, as well as a high concentration of former Olympians.)

And then I had 30 minutes before the novice 8 launched.

Our head coach had asked a few days before if I could race in the 8 to replace someone who got sick. What I discovered during head race season is that I really want to be the kind of rower who always says yes to that. Whatever’s good for the boat, right? There’s something addictive about racing that I haven’t experienced since my first dance teacher asked some of us to learn extra routines and do an extra recital. More hours? More soreness? Harder routines? YES, PLEASE.

I don’t know why. Maybe people who’ve spent more time competing athletically can explain this better — this is all pretty new to me. But you want to go until you can’t go anymore, and it turns out you have more to give than you ever expected. I came out of that 1K with a 2K cough, and I couldn’t wait to launch again.

I was 6 seat in the lineup. Fifteen minutes before we launched, the novice coach asked if I would take stroke instead. I’ll never say no to that. Even so, when I’m anywhere else in the stern, I’m just as happy. Stroke takes a different kind of concentration; put me in 6, and all I have to do is sync up and bend the hell out of the oar.

That boat took 2nd. We took it in the final sprint, and the only boat that beat us (creamed us, really) was Marin. Alas, “GOLD” Rush only offers gold medals — our 2nd-place finish produced no hardware.

I was focused on winning in both races, but sitting in stroke for that 8 also made some things crystal clear for me about the seat and whether I really want to stay in it.

For better or worse, the training has been different for each squad; our coaches have different backgrounds and philosophies, and right now, I think I’m the only one who’s been coached by every single one of them, including the program director, who now only coaches the men’s team. Being in stroke seat has meant paying better attention to who’s in the boat, and where, and what they need from me. With the intermediates, it usually means just sit up and go, mind the ratio, and ask for focus 10s when we need them. With the novices, I’m more deliberate about what I’m doing because I know they’re watching me for more than pace.

I actually love adjusting a bit depending on the boat. Stroke seat feeds my hunger for analysis at a level of the sport where it’s really not required.

Before Gold Rush, though, it also kept me up too late. Adrenaline is a powerful drug, and I knew our 4+ had a chance to win. And I knew there was a chance that I’d get moved to stroke in the 8 — the stroke in that lineup was also stroking the other novice 4+, and that…is a lot to ask of someone who just started rowing in January. “What’s up, new novice? I know this is all still new to you, but how about you stroke two races back to back?” When we switched seats at the last minute, she was totally cool with it.

USRowing SW Regional Championships

I was feeling reasonably confident. Then the lineups came out and I had three races back to back, which is…challenging. I was in 6 for a regular women’s D8 first, then stroke for the novice 4+ with a different (fantastic!) cox and only one other repeat from my Gold Rush lineup, then stroke for the novice 8.

In theory, that’s no more difficult than a Saturday practice with Coach Let’s See Where The Rate Goes. In practice…no matter how much you try to practice the way you perform, a race is a different animal.

I go hard at practice. I go harder on the course. Plain and simple.


Our D8 (missing our 7 seat, above) took silver with a tailwind and a wicked good time, even with shit conditions in the first 250 and a lifetime of maneuvers to get alignment before the start.


Our Nov 4+ (above, minus our cox) took bronze in the last sprint, by the skin of our teeth. There was a size and power differential in our lineup that we couldn’t seem to overcome. I was also a bit out of it at the end and made a dumb mistake at the dock that I’ve never made before. Uggghhh.

I also got a nasty sunburn. The schedule got moved around enough that when I forgot to transfer the sunscreen from our duffel to my cinch bag, I thought I’d have time to run back and get it between races. I was wrong.

Our Nov 8 came in…Not Last. I didn’t know what happened until later, when someone told me roughly how many crabs got caught in the last 500m.

I’d asked our cox to focus us on dropping the split instead of going up 2 in 2 — one of our (occasional) coaches, who also does all of our two-week novice trials, had the novice squad working on that, and they were nailing it. (I got to join their practice on Memorial Day, when the schedule allowed both Graham and I to get to the boathouse on the same day.) When we did it on the course, we dropped that split to a 1:50.

That’s a medal-worthy speed for that race. But then conditions and technique clashed, and maybe fitness, too — we definitely had the power in that boat to medal, but we couldn’t sustain the speed. And then we crabbed ourselves right out of contention.

The women in that boat rowed their asses off, though. A lot of them asked me what to expect when they start practicing with the intermediate squad; hands down, their main concern has been whether they would get the chance to improve technique.

They will. That’s what this summer holds. Drills and meters, meters and drills…especially if they want to race in the fall.

One novice told me she just doesn’t have the “fast-twitch” muscles you need to win, especially for sprints. I grinned at her, remembering that I’d felt the same way, and knowing that she would soon have her first practice with the coach who taught me otherwise.

“You will,” I said.

Onward to Wine Country Rowing Classic in October!


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