In this article Olympic gold medallist James Cracknell explains everything you need to know before taking up rowing – from binge eating to surviving rainstorms of maggots (click on the photo below to enlarge it).
1. Henry Ford would have loved rowing
Ford’s infamous quote “You can have any colour as long as it’s black” perfectly applies to rowing with only the smallest adjustment. “You can race any distance as long as it’s 2,000m.” There’s no point in being a specialist at 50, 500 or 5,000m because World and Olympic medals are only handed out after hauling your boat over a 2,000m course.
(The exception that proves the rule is the Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge – that one takes place over four miles, or 6.8km).
2. It will permanently alter your sense of perspective
At 6ft 4in, I was the shortest man in the all the crews I raced with at the Olympics. In rowing terms, anyone under my height is unofficially Small, while you have to reach 6ft 6in or so to be considered Big.
The world of international rowing selects from a pretty weird gene pool.
3. You learn not to rub a woman’s tights
Spending five or six hours a day holding a wooden oar handle or a weights bar results in your massive paws being covered in calluses. Affectionately rub your partner’s tights and they can ladder in one stroke.
Sadly, those big rower’s hands are better used for jobs normally associated with a pumice stone. Go to the same newsagents more than once and you notice the shop keeper will drop change in rather than make contact with a fist full of dead, hard skin.
4. There’s no such thing as a free lunch
Or, to put it another way, “there is no pleasure without pain.” When I first mentioned that I fancied having a go at rowing as a kid, no one bothered to tell me the suffering it would involve.
I loved being on the water (once I’d mastered the art of not ending up in the water) and I found rowing gave me a feeling of freedom unlike anything I’d experienced before – but even that didn’t match the sheer pleasure of winning, which I soon encountered in competitions. Rowing is an endurance sport and winning comes from hard training, so you have to go through a lot of physical pain and misery to pick up the medals.
It’s worth it, though.
5. Lunch is not a once-a-day meal
When I was in full training I would eat between 5-6,000 calories a day in five meals to fuel my six hours of physical work. After a while, I stopped seeing food as a sensory experience and just treated it like petrol to put in my tank. Shovel it in; burn it off; and repeat.
The problems start when you retire. Your body is used to eating five meals a day, but it’s no longer training three times a day. The only ‘improvement’ you now see is in your fatness, not your fitness.
6. You learn to ‘enjoy’ the cold
“Strip down to race kit, two minutes until the start.” Over 30 years later and I can still remember the race official shouting that through his megaphone. He wasn’t lying, the first crew was about to set off – but as my Under 14 Eight was No. 186 we sat there in the freezing January weather for over 30 minutes before we started. By the time we pulled an oar in anger our warm up was a distant memory and half the crews’ lips had gone a strange colour of blue.
Gloves are a no no, and even as I ‘matured’ into a full blown international wearing anything other than flip flops (without socks) in winter was deemed ‘soft’ – regardless of conditions. At least it meant there were two benefits to hiding a pair of socks in your Lycra bottoms.
7. Rowing races always start early
Whether it’s training before school, lectures at university, or work, rowing is an early bird’s game. If you like a lie in it’s simply not the sport for you.
At the 2000 Sydney Olympics, our race was scheduled for 10:30am, so we spent the proceeding month going to bed at 9pm and getting up at 4am to make sure we’d be fully awake six and a half hours later. I remember nervously pushing some porridge round a bowl in the Olympic Village at 4am on the day of our Olympic final when I heard a drunk English voice shout “Good luck tomorrow!” across the foodhall. He’d clearly finished his competition and had been out enjoying the Sydney nightlife, so I opted not to tell him that our final was just a few hours away. It did make me question why I chose a sport that gets you up before some people have even gone to bed.
8. Fishermen don’t value their maggots
Fishermen and rowers don’t always get along famously: one sport enjoys the calm of the water, while the other churns it up. Row close to the banks and the fisherman sitting there looking at their float bobbing away will suddenly catch a boat rather than a fish.
You get used to the rainstorm of maggots, catapulted in your direction, after a while.
9. It’s not an advantage to be the best in the boat
I very quickly realised that, with rowing, your dreams are in someone else’s hands and their dreams are in yours. It is the ultimate team sport in that regard. You win together and lose together.
There is little point in being the best in the boat. Instead, the ideal situation is to be guaranteed of a seat, but one of the weaker crew members. That way, you’ll be swinging off other people’s coattails down the course.
At least, that was my tactic.
10. All your training boils down to a few short minutes
The Olympic final was the only race that mattered in the four-year Olympic cycle, so all of your preparation, all of those early morning calls and shivering hours of training over winter, lead up to just six minutes of action. Underperform on the day and the previous four years are rendered meaningless.
As a result, to say you feel a touch of trepidation at times during your training is an understatement. You often feel far from positive – but I learnt to utilise the powerful negative emotions in training as a way to propel me forwards.
Admittedly, it didn’t always make me much fun to live with.