A lone boat jets down a channel off of the Port of Redwood City, disturbing the calm water of the bay. Motivated by the sharp, energetic calls of the boat’s coxswain, eight high schoolers, equipped with a singular racing shell and one oar each, propel their boat into the brisk 5 a.m. darkness. In the boat is Jackson Wood, a junior at Palo Alto High School, who is training with NorCal Crew for an upcoming race.
“Being on the water is like nothing else,” Wood said. “All the problems that you faced on land become irrelevant. The only focus is to row with as little disruption to the balance of the boat as possible.”
The sport of rowing, often referred to as “crew,” was the first intercollegiate sport contested in the United States. In 1852, Harvard and Yale raced down the Thames river located in New London, Connecticut, beginning the American tradition of intercollegiate athletic competitions. Rowing, a very intense sport, requires high degrees of cardiovascular fitness, strength and teamwork as rowers use carbon fiber oars to send their boat towards the finish line. Facing away from the direction that they are rowing, rowers utilize their whole body to drive themselves forwards.
While rowing is generally perceived as a graceful sport, the elegance of the racing shell gliding through the water proves to be a distraction from how painful the sport can be. Within the first few seconds of a race, a rower’s metabolism starts to function anaerobically. This results in an inability to produce ATP, the source of endurance energy, so the body begins to rely on glycogen and other energy sources stored in the muscle cells for metabolism. With the muscles essentially feeding on themselves, high levels of lactic acid build in the blood stream. The lungs end up working the hardest and the capillaries begin to dilate, as blood flow to lesser used muscle groups shuts off. Despite the pain associated with rowing, rowers at all levels find joy in the wins and the beauty of the sport.
Abby Warner, a Paly senior, discusses the contrast between elegance in rowing and the painful elements that come with racing.
“Rowing is a lot like ballet; both ballet and rowing appear to be elegant activities, but ballerinas and rowers are covered in blisters and scabs from intense training. In both sports the athletes have to appear more composed than they feel and stay very technical when tired,” Warner said.
Most races in the fall season span a longer distance, usually being around five to six kilometers, or three to four miles, and involve a “head race” style. Head races consist of individual boats being sent down the course one at a time, each boat with hopes of getting the fastest time. Spring races include shorter distance races, with the standard distance being two kilometers, or about 1.25 miles.
Known for being an original modern Olympic sport, rowing has been a part of the Olympics since 1900. In addition to the Olympics, the most famous rowing races, also known as “regattas,” are Head of the Charles in Boston, the “Boat Race” where Oxford and Cambridge duel race, the Intergalactic Rowing Association (IRA) championship regatta where the top American colleges race over two kilometers and the Henley on Thames rowed in England.
With the competitive rowing season under way, many rowers from around the world are gearing up for the Head of the Charles, which consists of 777 teams and 11,000 athletes, held on the penultimate weekend of October. Dubbed the biggest head race regatta in the world, the 1.5 million spectators lined up along the Charles River in tandem with the hundred year old collegiate boathouses create a unique setting. With Youth Nationals months away, many of Paly’s rower’s focuses are directed at doing well at this exciting head race. Last year was the 50th year of the Regatta, and an eight manned boat from the team Norcal crew included six Paly rowers and was able to place 15th out of 85 in the men’s youth eight event. In addition, a four person boat, including two Paly rowers, was able to place 6th out of 85 in the women’s youth 4 event. This year NorCal crew will be sending an eight person and four person boat on the men’s side, and a four person boat on the woman’s side. In the women’s four is Paly junior Kimmi Chin.
“Last year’s lineup got sixth place so we are trying to medal at fifth place or better,” Chin said. “Hopefully we can improve from last year. I’m just excited to see all these amazing crews from all over the country.”
While the typical physique for a competitive rower tends to be upwards of 6 feet 3 inches for guys and 5 feet ten inches for girls, several Paly rowers have found success in the lightweight category. For high school rowers, lightweight events aim to give smaller rowers an opportunity to shine, with the maximum weight for guys being 150 pounds, and the maximum weight for girls being 135 pounds. Last year, on the men’s side, NorCal Crew’s lightweight eight manned boat, made up of five Paly rowers, beat hundreds of crews across the country to go on and win the event at the 2015 Youth Rowing Nationals. Anna Kemmerer, a Paly senior who rowed as a lightweight last season for NorCal Crew, supports the lightweight event saying that it gives her a more uniform chance to win races.
“I like rowing because it gives me a more equal opportunity to win when racing because the girls are more my size,” Kemmerer said.
Rowing is a unique sport with an interesting past. Large regattas and varied events allow a wide variety of people to compete and enjoy the painful yet rewarding sport.
“It’s infinitely more physically and emotionally taxing than any other aspect of my life,” Wood said. “Waking up at four o’clock in the morning Mondays and Fridays is one thing, but to have one’s physical ability tested at such early hours is one of many experiences that makes rowing addicting. The bonds formed from going through extreme pain with a group of people are indescribable. These people have become my brothers, and I wouldn’t quit rowing for anything.”