The strongest steel is forged by the fires of hell
Not all of us are blessed with natural height, strength and technique. But if we work at it, we can overcome some of our supposed failings and can punch above our weight.
Even the best have failed at some point; your resilience, motivation and drive are what differentiates you from others (who fail). In fact, those who reach the top have often bumped along the very bottom.
At junior levels, everybody grows and develops at disparate rates. Often the initial big boys “shrink” over time as the smaller boys grow through them.
Bulky boys can develop into swole athletes. Not all tall boys are able to handle the endurance and strength required of an oarsman despite having the reach and leverage. Smaller boys often grow into big boys. Be patient and address your issues and let nature enhance your ability, not just rely on the cards nature has dealt you.
If you have a keen interest in rowing, by demonstrating the right attitude your coaches will be more than willing to help you develop. Your growth spurt can happen at any time during this process, so just keep your eyes focused on your end goals. Not everyone can develop into a Calvin Tarczy, however, each boat only has one 5 seat - there are seven other seats in the boat those of us not so naturally gifted can attain. George Dickinson, despite being lightweight, was still a key contributor to the all-conquering St. Pauls boat this year.
However, many with the aspirations or makings of a good oarsmen find themselves in unfortunate situations and end up giving up the sport. That might be down to difficulties mastering technique, poor body development or motivation. For every elite oarsman there must be more than 10 who wrote themselves off by J16 as being too small but who subsequently blossomed; often it is precisely those who stuck it out who developed into the realms of the elite. Will Geffen stated that he was tubby but worked at it and ended up gaining a Junior GB vest and rowing in the Boat Race.
Sir Matthew Pinsent claims he was lucky to make the B boat at J15 as, in his words, he was clunky and clumsy, but made the 1st VIII and I believe represented GB maybe a few times...
Many may have the natural makings in terms of size and strength, but have poor technique. This is where your self belief and resilience comes in, but you also need the benefit of an understanding coach who will help you nurture talent and technique. By showing willingness to learn, listening more and giving it your all, coaches are more likely to warm to compliant and coachable athletes and therefore give you the help you need to get back up to speed, and continue to nourish you, rather than those who think they know it all already, such that often you are able to transcend the previous superstars in the boat.
Not all of us have the facility to row at school and first come across rowing at University or at club level. This should not hold you back: Pete Reed, Alex Gregory, Moe Sbihi all picked up rowing in their late teens.
Accidents and illness are ever present and likely to strike, but again, it is how you address these setbacks that count. Samuel Stourton unfortunately had a brain tumour last year, but came back by rowing in the 4th VIII, and with amazing pluck rowed in the PE final and won gold at Coupe. Katy Wilkinson-Feller has successfully overcome 2 years of setbacks. Jack Beaumont became a human dart board but is now back in his GB stash winning golds.
Have the belief and you’re halfway there. Don’t write yourself off if you only have a 7:30 2k, that fat ergo will come. Set yourself achievable goals and increase them incrementally. Look at your technique, break it down into the simple steps that rowing is, and master each process: good rowing is just simple things done well...
Ignore what others say, especially your peers, don’t let others decide your fate: if they write you off don’t give up, otherwise you are only proving them right. Put your fate into your own hands and mind.
Coaches are often the crux, with great coaches like Donald Legget, Bobby Thatcher and Dave Currie testament, but not all of us are blessed with these paragons. Often we have a poor coach, or you cannot get on with them, or the coach does not believe in you: prove them wrong. Next season you are likely to get a different coach so do all you can to move yourself closer to achieving your own goals. Usually when the coach sees your drive and commitment they reappraise their attitude towards you, but always remember that you can give the coach no choice if you make the boat faster!
Technique can be learnt quickly and, with the aid of a good coach, easily. Perfection on the other hand, takes a lifetime (which is the joy of rowing - chasing the blow!).
You cannot force growth, but you can enhance what you have. Sam Meijer is not gifted in height, but has more than made up for it in muscular development. Tall skinny kids can add muscle, chunky boys can shred…
Motivation is key: you have to love rowing, the joy of being outdoors, on the water, in beautiful and serene surroundings with great mates. But how do you get the younger athletes to recognize these goals? Pot hunting is fun but not the ultimate goal; rowing is something that can be enjoyed, along with the friendships, throughout your life. This is where coaches enter the fray. Good coaches are essential, they inculcate the joy of rowing, the techniques of rowing, the necessary tools, discipline and motivation to enable you to reach your potential so long as you show them willingness to follow.
But what if all these stars do not align? Your body is awkward, your style is awry, you go swimming more often when sculling, your timing is appalling… and your coach is not all that he should be. If you have a vision of winning at Henley, it all comes down to you. You have to take a deep breath, swallow your pride, focus on closer and attainable goals and motivate yourself to put in the work to rectify all that you can. Step back and obtain coaching as if a beginner (to correct your style/technique, perhaps swap sides, or go back to sculling and rebuild). Show your coaches your commitment, work harder than everybody else, get down to the boatshed earlier, help out wherever you can and let them know that you really want to succeed and are prepared to do whatever is necessary (a willingness to listen is key). Coaches blossom when they come across athletes who listen and are more than willing to follow their advice and learn to improve; by showing your willingness, good coaches usually bend over backwards to help.
Today we have readily available social media wherein the top athletes share not just their achievements, but also their embarrassing pasts. Follow them and learn. Rowing Chat and The Row Show on Soundcloud have top athletes discussing many interesting and diverse rowing topics. YouTube has much online, but often there is conflicting advice, so choose your filters based on experience. General advice is available, especially from Pete Reed, so you can avoid making silly mistakes and be better prepared. Vlogs from Cameron Buchan, Henry Swarbrick, Matt Tarrant, Pat Hanratty can help foster your sense of involvement with the wider rowing world. AMO’s AllMarkHub is hoping to collate much valuable knowledge and advice for us all.
When faced with a serious setback, with the right will, you can still come back, often stronger. I am sure all the top oarsman have tales of woe, hardship, setback, illness or injury in their history. As the Japanese describe the forging of the katana sword “Strength through adversity. The strongest steel is forged by the fires of hell. It is pounded and struck repeatedly before it’s plunged back into the molten fire. The fire gives it power and flexibility, and the blows give it strength. Those two things make the metal pliable and able to withstand every battle it’s called upon to fight.”
Not all of us are naturally gifted with Pete Reed’s lung capacity, Constantine Louloudis’ indomitability, Adam Neill’s leverage, Moe Sbihi’s strength, Alex Gregory’s humour, Triggs-Hodge’s silkiness or Henry Swarbrick’s lid.
But we all have it within ourselves to achieve our potential and possibly compete on the same stage as these luminaries: Eights require multifarious skills and abilities to make the boat go fast. All of us can find a role to play to make the boat go faster. Despite the historical perception of the threetard, can you name ANY successful boat with an empty 3 seat; how many superstars have you seen winning by single-handedly dragging a 4+ down the course? The key to a great boat is a number of athletes combining to achieve a sum greater than their parts. So whatever your position, whatever your size, with the right attitude and shared common goals, we can all contribute to and achieve these ends. Rowing, like rugby, has a place for everyone, and everyone is essential. Just keep at it, you are not the first or only one to experience setbacks, in fact, it is these hurdles which ultimately make you, not just as an athlete but as a person. Your future, like your oar, is in your hands!
Rory - J16