Rowing Alongside Illness

As everybody knows, rowing isn’t easy. Not only is it mentally gruelling, but it tests athletes to the limits of their physical endurance. The physical state of an athlete is almost entirely derived from the work they put in throughout years of training, and the process of becoming a good rower is long and weary. The human body is designed for endurance; marathon running is one of the oldest known sports. Sports like rowing push this to the limit, with sustained maximal exertion requiring vast amounts of energy to accomplish. Therefore, many coaches take their athletes completely off training at the slightest illness, as it can severely hinder recovery. But what about the athletes for whom there is no recovery?


I’ve been a Type 1 Diabetic for only 3 and a half years now, being diagnosed right after SHORR in my J15 year - finishing 19th in J15 2nd 8+ wasn’t exactly a career highlight. I lost 12kg in 3 weeks, almost taking me below my cox’s weight before my family realised something was wrong. One hospital admission and 24 hours later, I’m on insulin for the rest of my life. I treat my diabetes with insulin as my body does not produce or control my blood sugar levels, meaning that if I exert myself too much, my body simply runs out of energy and I have a multitude of effects that can eventually result in a coma. It’s not fun at the other end either, where if I don’t have enough insulin my cells cannot access the sugar in my blood, making them starves and my blood thicker, leading to fatigue, tiredness and loss of concentration. These are just my symptoms, and there are sufferers of other conditions all around, who have different challenges in their treatments.


There have been a few occasions where the impact of having a chronic condition has made it to race day and not only hindered training. The heads of the river races are always trouble due to the long waits at the start, which mean I have to prepare for the worst and take food, drink and a waterproof bag for my blood testing kit with me on the boat. In a sport of marginal gains, it is the opposite of ideal. NSR is another tricky scenario, with the tactic of “leave nothing in the time trial” leaving me with nothing left, making my priority between races to refuel and get my bloods back under control for the rest of the days racing - such exertion has such a toll that my coach refused to let me compete in Sunday’s events as well for fear of my health.


Knowledge comes from making mistakes, and I have made plenty of mistakes. So I’m going to share my advice for coping with an illness while rowing and training, but this can also apply to injury.


This is the most important advice I can give. There is no point in being the hero and finishing an ergo, no matter what, if it ruins your training for the next two sessions. It sounds trivial, but it’s incredibly common with injuries for this to happen.


No matter what level your coach rowed at or how brilliant he/she is, they aren’t psychic. They can only plan sessions and training given what they know. Another piece of advice similar to being injured, changing the session to a less effective one is infinitely better than attempting a session and dropping out because your coach didn’t know you couldn’t do it. I spent a good 3 months experimenting as I couldn’t effectively complete a 2x6k without having troubles with my blood, but running ideas past my coach made him happy and made me able to train.


Something I do is think about training a week at a time. This is so I don’t get flustered with thinking about next week’s ergo if I didn’t perform well on this weeks. Take each session as it comes and sufficiently plan for it, rather than try to plan every session for a month and what you have to do - your plan won’t work.


Rowing, for the most part, is a crew sport. Rowing in my school’s first 8, every single person in that boat needs to know all about my limitations, what to do in an emergency, and what I’m capable of. This makes me comfortable rowing with them, and also maintains the crew atmosphere - they can trust me in the rough part of a race only if they have confidence that I can do it, and that’s down to me to tell them.


You don’t get any extra prizes for accomplishing something with no help from others. I’ve been to 2 specialist health clinics, read up about athletes in books and magazines, scoured forums and websites on the internet, and even seen Sir Steve Redgrave’s Doctor in the quest for knowledge and help, which all equates to free speed for the boat.


What you have, isn’t going to go away, it can only be treated. And it pays a dividend to just accept this and embrace it in the sport. The real reason I continued rowing was that it allowed an escape for my mind to stop thinking about my diabetes, and I haven’t let it stop me in any way no matter how hard it gets. At NSR, I stuck a small “B” on my pump for Bedford, a little detail, but something that helped me not get too worried about the event - I ended up getting more concerned that it wouldn’t get noticed than having a health problem, which helped my headspace a lot. Rowing is just as mental as it is physical, so you have to look after both aspects to perform well.

Rowing is tough enough as it is, and having to deal with illness puts you on the back foot continuously, especially on the competitive scene. But always remember that there have been Olympians, Blues and World Champions who have conquered chronic illness on top of injury, so it’s always possible.

George Christian
Bedford School 1st VIII 2016-2018

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