With the 2016 Rio Olympics in full swing, spectators have the option of picking from 28 different sports to watch on a daily basis. Many of these sports -- table tennis, shooting and judo, for example -- are rarely televised or talked about in mainstream media. Some of us have to wait four years to see our favorite sport in the spotlight. Despite rowing being around since the 1800s, and despite it being one of the most popular collegiate sports in much of the country, rowing is rarely televised and seldom makes the news. Like cycling, the athletes must be tracked over the course of a long (in this case, 2,000 meter) race, making it all that much more exciting to watch on TV versus in person, with multiple cameras allowing us to see each boat from different angles, as well as giving the advantage of a bird's eye view angle. But why watch this sport?
Rowing may be one of the more under-appreciated Olympic sports, but there is something about it that fans of every other sport can appreciate. Most people who went to a private college or university in the US know at least one crazy, early-rising, spandex-wearing, blister-donning person who participated in this sport. Unfortunately, it is an expensive and inaccessible sport to most of the population. The rowing shells, or "boats" as most people call them, can cost thousands of dollars. Storing these vessels, which range from a single-person 27-feet-long scull to an over 60-feet-long eight can be, well, challenging.
Ask any rower to talk about rowing, and you will find yourself caught up in a long discussion about how this beautiful sport is one of the most physically demanding yet elegant demonstrations of power and teamwork that happens in any sport in the world. (I know, bold statement!) Sure, we may be biased, but here is my attempt to share the excitement of this sport with the rest of the world.
In case you need a reason to watch rowing, here are three of them, because these three reasons are all you need.
1. It is the ultimate team sport. Imagine you are in a boat that is just under 2.5-feet-wide, with 8 other people lined up directly in front of or behind you, and one person (a coxswain -- more on them later in the list) tucked into the hull that you must trust wholeheartedly to coordinate and direct the power, pace, and energy of the entire crew. Imagine the energy of 8 people rowing in perfect rhythm that, if even slightly off, could disrupt the entire flow of your movement. Imagine 8 people trying to adjust their hand levels and shift their bodyweight by centimeters to attain the right balance. Imagine stroke lengths along a sliding seat being adjusted and controlled to the inch so that each person -- no matter how long their legs and arms -- is arriving at the beginning and the end of the sliding seat at the same exact time. Imagine trying to adjust the speed of your stroke by tenths of a second to make sure the boat moves as smoothly and quickly as possible. Unless you've been in a boat and felt what happens when you drop your hands ever so slightly or try and gasp for air when the boat is at full speed, the subtlety and fragility of what is required to have am efficient and clean row is hard to comprehend. There are few sports where balance, synchronicity, and coordination is so critical to achieving speed. Rowing -- especially in the larger boats with eight rowers -- is the most beautiful dance of combined power and finesse from multiple people that truly makes it the ultimate team sport. And when everything syncs up just right, the energy is seriously magical. No other sport truly allows nine people (eight rowers and a coxswain) to become one like this one.
2. The coxswain. Many people refer to the coxswain as "the littler person who sits in the boat and yells at people." This does not do them any justice. In the larger boats with four or eight rowers, the coxswain ("cox" or "coxie" for short) is the eyes, brain, and heart of the crew. As the eyes, this person is the only one facing the direction the boat is moving, which means they steer the course, avoiding obstacles by telling the rowers when to apply more power on the port or starboard sides of the boat. As the brain, they determine what adjustments need to be made by each rower in the boat -- they may notice a minor tilt of the hull to one side, a slight check in the movement of the boat indicate one rower is off in their timing, or the need for a "power 10" -- 10 strokes that demand everything the rowers have to make a move and pass another boat or power through the finish line. And then there is the heart. Any physically demanding sport cannot be won without a lot of heart. Rowing is no exception. Imagine you are racing and someone else is in that race with you, telling you exactly what you need to do, reminding you when to dig deep, shouting why you're there, pouring all their energy into you to help you find the power within that will bring out everything you've got. Imagine you start to doubt what your body is capable of, and then a voice drowns out your doubts, convincing you you're stronger than you think you are. Imagine realizing they are right. Once you've had a coxswain, you'll wonder how you can get through a race without one.
3. It's beautiful. Yes, the sport is beautiful for so many reasons, but I'm talking about the setting. Rowing -- because it is traditionally an early morning water sport -- is, inherently, beautiful. Have you ever seen a flat lake at sunrise? Have you heard the silence of water dripping off an oar blade when the world is asleep? Have you seen fog rising off the water on a cold, early morning? There is a calm and a fury that combine with the breathtaking backdrop of a lake or river that makes rowing one of the most stunning sports of all time. It is as zen as it is grueling, and the fact that it must occur on open water makes it that much more mesmerizing and poetic.
Whether you're watching rowing for the scenery, for the amazing physical demands on the human body, or for the unique dance of several boats gliding side by side across water to reach a finish line first, it's all just so special, isn't it?