Youth Nationals are over and I’m feeling a hint of discouragement but also looking forward to improving our lot in life.
In the last 3 years, we’ve had a lightweight women’s eight, heavyweight men’s eight, and lightweight men’s eight in the Grand Finals. Last year was our highest placement, a 4th in the lightweight men’s eight. Only one graduated from that boat leaving 7 returnees this year. My thought a year ago was “Wow, a full year to work on improving. Life is good. We should certainly be in the medals in 2009.”
That year transpired and our light eight was second in petites. What happened?
Since we started Westerville Crew, it’s been my job as head coach to define the stroke, set the level of work ethic expected of the kids, acquire more (and better) equipment, negotiate with the City of Columbus for a rowing site, build our awareness in the area, and, importantly, to create a more competitive team. We started out slowly beset with all the startup problems- finding coaches, finding kids, inadequate equipment, not enough launches, never enough money, lack of work ethic, kicked out of one rowing site, etc, etc.
Despite that, we improved every year. We did have several items in the inventory to help. First, we had 8 miles of unfettered reservoir– no wake-boarders, big bass boats, water-skiers, or other high powered craft. Secondly, we had an unusually successful template to follow: The Cincinnati Junior Rowing Club became our model (and our nemesis). We gathered all of the intelligence we could on CJRC. In every regatta, they beat us by boat lengths….until finally our men’s heavyweight eight beat them in a fall head race. It was a moment of intense emotion for our team. We finally succeeded in beating a team which had not been beat by another Midwest heavyweight boat in a dozen years.
Other coaches asked me how we did it. I wasn’t sure…..there were just so many factors. Over the dozen years, we increased our meters rowed tremendously, or as I often told parents, if we were better coaches, we could probably row less. The varsity men light and heavy eights were rowing the full length of Hoover Reservoir 5 days per week, or 24,000 meters a day. On Friday, we would shorten it to a mere 8-10K, to make 6-days per week workouts.
We increased our erg count to 45 ergs. We rented a site for winter erging. We bought better equipment so that every workout did not start with, “Matt, my xxxx is broken.”. We upped our launches to 9 and bought new outboard motors. We added summer rowing and learn-to-rows. We talked at community group meetings and visited high school cafeterias (when allowed) to recruit. We worked hard at increasing public awareness.
It all seemed to be paying off. This was to be the year that we broke into the medals in an eights event at Youths. This was the year.
But, alas, we did not have it in us to cap the 3-day event with a medal around their necks. We certainly thought we were fast enough, but recognized that NAC and Marin would be serious competitors. We knew Everett would be tough. We rowed against Canisius at Governor’s Cup and beat them handily (albeit on an unfair course due to wind) but still had lots of respect for their team– their erg scores beat ours by quite a margin at winter erg competitions. Our times in practice were very fast, doing 1350m repeats at a faster pace then St. Joe’s posted times for the 1500. We went through a nice taper with our speeds improving even more. We felt ready.
So what happened? I don’t know, but I’ve asked myself lots of questions.
Did we over-train? Perhaps, but a frequent question I ask of my two varsity boats is, “How do you feel? Achy? Trouble sleeping? Problem with appetite? Problem paying attention at school? Feeling too tired?” I gauge the workouts to their answers. I am accustomed to the guys always having some low level achiness but without the other symptoms of over-training. Achiness in the legs is a chronic symptom at the varsity level of Westerville Crew. I am going to research this more. Overtraining is like socking away hard earned money in a 401(k) only to see its value drop with the stock market. Damn hard to earn and real easy to lose.
Were we over-confident? I don’t think so. We have tremendous respect for the West Coast teams. Beating Canisius early in the season was a confidence builder, but we were also reminded that the wind caused so much unfairness that their B boat also beat their A boat. It was a hollow win.
Did we improve over a year? We did, at least I believe we did. We seldom have killer erg scores, but we do work hard on stroke work– we do lots of film review and are fanatical about good form. It’s our weapon against our competitors because our erg scores seldom match crews we often beat. The kids definitely improved their strokework, but they improved their erg scores as well.
What to do? We arrived home from Nationals on Sunday evening and started Learn To Row on Monday evening. We have nearly 40 kids participating. We are heartened by the fact that we are attracting kids from a greater geographical area than ever before, including kids from Licking Valley, New Albany, Olentangy, Big Walnut, Worthington, Westerville, Gahanna, Granville, and other school systems. Secretly I harbor the feeling that awareness for the sport was increased by Blake Haxton, the Upper Arlington rower who lost both legs to necrotizing faciitis. Blake is a front-row-gunner, a first-rate kid who has shown unsual courage and strength. That inspires parents to get their kids involved in the same activity that was said to give Blake the strength to endure this deadly disease.
Our mantra has always been no cuts, no tryouts, row every kid in every regatta. I’m reluctant to part with those underpinnings of our club. While we do have some rowers who cherish more the social aspect of Westerville Crew than its work ethic, I am still reluctant to cut kids. After coaching a group of JV men last night, I am reminded that there are some rowers who have little (ok, no) chance of making it into the varsity men’s first eight. We will relegate those kids who have insufficient stamina, timing, or work ethic to small boats. I hate to see the timing of an eight, for example, harmed daily by a single rower who just seems incapable of catching on time.
We will go back to our basic workout pattern of 1 and 2 years ago. We changed it somewhat this year by doing more sprint work. The reason was simply that the wind conditions were worse this spring than any previous year. We had a full week of workouts in which we could row the entire week on the main body of water. We used our alternate site- a protected 1000m cove in which we only do sprints. The sprint workouts hurt us, I believe, sapping us of the strength we typically have for a hellish sprint to finish up our 2k races. This spring we saw diminished final-sprint capability.
Also this year, we started our “workout” earlier. Last year and earlier, for the first 12k, we would do drills and slow rowing. At the turn before the final 12k, we would start what we term, “The workout” (the hard pieces). We started the hard pieces earlier this year but took longer active rest breaks. We will go back to the old format. It seemed more successful.
We are playing with the notion of attracting athletes to Westerville Crew, perhaps through some reward system for recruits who meet a certain height or aerobic status. We have never really recruited athletes but instead, we “create them”. Even our recruits who attend Stanford and Cal Berkeley started out as overweight kids. I cannot remember that last time we had an already identified, really competitive athlete join Westerville Crew. No, instead we often get the kids who failed at another sport or, even more frequently, never did another sport. They were attracted to rowing because there is no legacy of starting at age 4, attending summer camps over the years, being identified early by a middle school gym teacher, etc, etc. In the end, you can only improve aerobic status so much; there is a genetic ceiling that will be reached if you work long and hard enough. I’d like to get kids with a higher genetic ceiling.
We will institute some new software and new practices this winter during our erging. First, we will require a heart rate monitor with a coded transmitter of every varsity member. After a thorough Internet search this week, I found an affordable model with the requisite coded transmitter– something we need with 45 ergs in a smallish area– to prevent crossing signals. The software is yet to be written but my brother and I will do that this summer. Every workout will be either split or heartrate based, each with a goal and actual performance. The coxes will be more involved by recording at least some results each night on every rower. The system will grade and graph each rower. They will be ranked and assigned an erg based on that ranking each night. That way, the kids more interested in the social aspect of crew will become segregated from this kids who are their to improve. Every kid will see their progress. My interest in finding those who have met their genetic potential, or better, those who have not.
One item that will not change is that we row from a secluded site, 1000 feet down a dirt road, with boat racks erected in a sandy area 600 feet from the water. It’s a beautiful site…but one without a boathouse. I still cannot muster the desire the build a boathouse. I don’t think it would make us faster.