Life On Water: Part 1

Life On Water: Part 1

Last month I had the amazing opportunity to represent the United States at the 2018 World Rowing Championships in Bulgaria. There are so many cool and interesting topics to write about- the training, the race itself, the world of elite level rowing, the mental and physical challenges- so please bear with me!

For those reading that aren’t rowers, I’ll try to explain all the rowing terminology as we go. There are two types of rowing: sweep rowing where each athlete has one super long (15 ft) oar and there has to be an even number of athletes rowing. And there is sculling, where each athlete has two slightly less long oars each. With sculling there can be an odd number of athletes. There are also two weight classes in rowing: there are the men like me who are lightweight, under 160lbs (72.5kg) and others who are open weight, anyone over 160lbs.

For both men and women at the World Championships there are 10 boat classes. Think of these as events, ranging from 8 athletes rowing down to a single athlete rowing. Out of those 10 events, 4 of them are classified as lightweight. Out of those 4 lightweight events, only the lightweight double is an Olympic event. All that is to say, I was representing the USA in the men’s lightweight double with my teammate, Peter Schmidt.

Hugh (Left), Peter (Right)

Peter and I qualified for the championships at the beginning of August. We had been rowing together for about 2 weeks at that point, and we were both over the moon to be racing the only lightweight Olympic boat class at the 2018 World Championships! Because of Peter’s job and the support, we decided to train in Washington D.C. out of the Potomac Boat Club. The Potomac is a pretty sweet spot to row, miles on miles of flat, open water, with other crews to train with.

One of the concerns we had about the 4 weeks between qualifying and competing, was not having any other crews to work against. Unlike other sports, rowing is highly affected by your environmental conditions- specifically the water’s current, so it’s easy to get a false sense of speed when a crew trains by itself in any conditions. Like with anything, it’s better to have some competition to keep you honest. We were lucky enough to have that in DC, despite the fact that the main rowing season was drawing to a close.

All international sprint racing is done on water without a current. Sprint racing for rowing is 2000 meters, or 1.25 miles. It probably goes without saying, but, moving water and still water feel very different. Our little team-  myself, Peter and our coach Judith, decided that it would be a good plan to get in at least a week of training on still water. For that we had to pack out our bags, load our boat on the car, and drive up to Princeton, New Jersey.

Loaded up and ready to go

Why Princeton? I hear everyone ask. Well, US Rowing has their headquarters there, and a national training center just outside of town on Mercer Lake. The training center was opened to all the crews competing at the World Championships. Flat water, lots of competition, and close to where we were flying out of, it was a win, win situation. While we were there, we trained with the women’s open weight quad (4 athletes, 2 oars each) and the men’s open weight pair (two athletes, with one or each). The days we did workouts together were fierce- the women didn’t want to lose to the men, the pair wanted to show they were faster than the lightweights, and we didn’t want to lose to anyone.

Our best practice was on the Thursday before we left, where we all lined up against each other and bashed heads for 14 one-minute pieces, going as fast as each boat could go. It notched our training up another level and demonstrated to us that we could be competitive with bigger, faster boats. We did have a slight set back, about 3 days before flying out to Bulgaria- Peter tweaked his back while in the weight room. It wasn’t anything serious, but it ended our water time in America a little earlier than we would have liked.

We flew out Sunday, September 2nd, on a classic overnight flight from Newark to Paris, and from Paris we flew to Bulgaria. We flew into Sofia, Bulgaria and from there it was a 2 hour bus ride to Plovdiv, the location of the Championships. All in all it was about 24 hours of travel for us to get from Princeton to Plovdiv. Unfortunately, another setback occured: our bags were delayed at the airport by several days . While we both had a change of clothes and our race kits in our carry-ons, it was still a huge stressor and not something we were mentally prepared for. But we handled that situation the best we could and tried to move on from it.

We had two full weeks in Plovdiv- one training week, and one race week. The hotel and race course were our home for those two weeks, aside from walking to the Old Town Plovdiv. Our coach asked us not to do too much else, both for safety reasons and to make sure that we were staying fresh for racing.

A little history of the city itself:  Plovidiv is one of the oldest cities in the world, it’s been inhabited as far back as the Neanderthals. Throughout the years, the city has been controlled by the ancient Greeks, and Romans; modern history has seen the city controlled by the Ottoman Empire, and the Soviet Union, before moving towards an elected parliament, President and Prime Minister in 1991. As we walked around the city in our first week, we could see the different influences on the city, Greek and Roman (a full Roman amphitheater and a coliseum) architecture, Mosques, and Soviet-era housing blocks. The race course itself kind of looks like a giant 2100 meter lap pool, set in front of a backdrop of mountains. Bike lanes surround the race course for coaches to watch both racing and practice, and at the end of the race course are the grandstands.

It’s interesting to note that once we got to Bulgaria something started to change within our little group. As the race got closer, stress levels increased and our tone began to shift. As a group we went from joking around to being more serious, then our language changed to more negative words, which lead to a negative attitude, and without even really realizing it, we had started a spiral down into a more demoralized place.

Competing in an incredibly competitive and elite event does weigh on the mind of both the athletes and the coach. However, I try to treat training days like race days. After all, we race the way we train, and if there isn’t focus and intensity in training, than how can we expect to race that way? I also try to do the reverse- treating race day like training days. I don’t like to make big changes to my attitude or routines going into a race, so this shift in energy definitely affected me. Looking back, it was a very eye opening experience, and a very different to the one I had at the 2015 World Championships a few years prior.

Despite these subtle challenges, we worked through our first week in Bulgaria and finally, day 1 of the regatta rolled around. We were in heat 3, racing against Slovenia, Norway (reigning European Champions), South Africa and Greece. To advance to the next round of racing and earn an extra day off, all we had to do was beat one crew. As we liked to say, “The stakes were medium rare.”

The race did not go well, for a myriad of factors, but in very large part I think it was because of me. I was sitting in the bow seat, the person closest to the front of the boat, and that person (when there isn’t a coxswain) is usually in charge of coordinating the athletes, implementing the race plan and when the race plan needs to be blown up, blowing it up and making sure the crew is racing. I did not do that so we didn’t start the race off particularly well, and we were frantic and disorganized. I feel I did not do a good job of reorganizing the boat situation and staying flexible as the race unfolded. We were rowing really hard, putting in as much work as we could, but at the end of the day, the way we were rowing was unsustainable and I was too inflexible to adjust to the unfolding situation.

We were in qualifying position about half way through the race. Norway and South Africa had both moved up on the field, while Greece, Slovenia and ourselves were all knotted more or less together. At the half way point of the race both Slovenia and Greece decided that they had had enough and started to push hard to get ahead. While every rowing coach will tell you not to look out of your boat, I took a quick peek and saw both crews start to move away from us, and instead of trying to counter attack, I doggedly stuck to our race plan. By the time we moved into our final kick to get to the finish line, all the other crews were too far ahead. We ended finishing 5th out of 5 other boats, and now had to recovery and prepare the Repachage or “rep,” which is essentially your second chance race.

Rowers at the international level weigh in two hours before the crew’s first race of the day, and the athletes in a team boat have to have an average weight of no more than 70kg (or 154.4lbs). For a lightweight double that means the total weight of the crew has to be below 140kgs or a little under 310lbs. As a regatta goes on, it becomes more and more of a challenge to recovery and rehydrate properly while still maintaining race weight. It’s been claimed that a 2000 meter race exacts the same physiological toll as playing 2 games of basketball, back to back, so recovery is critical to performing well the next day. Luckily, both Peter and I, physiologically didn’t have any problems with weight, we are both naturally skinny individuals and were able to hydrate and eat healthily to recovery for the next day. Our mental recovery was a little bit more of a struggle however. After talking with our coach, I recognized the errors that I made during our heat and discussed at length what to adjust to make the next race a better one, and closer to the standards and goals that we set for ourselves.

Out of the conversations, a few interesting points were made for me: First, be more reactive, as in see what’s happening and attack the heck out of it, which might have been the first time a coach has told me that as I tend to race pretty aggressively and reactively as a single rower, but wasn’t translating to the team boat. The other note: treat the race plan as an “outline” instead of a fixed agenda. Just like the outline of a paper, it’s good to know where you’re going, but it can change and evolve before creating a great final product. The last thing we talked about was the emotional effect of the individual rowers going into the race. Through previous conversations with coach, she had suggested that we try to be a little more relaxed going into the race. The analogy we talked about was a “race horse vs. a football player”. Our coach suggested we be more like race horses than football players. A race horse can’t get too jazzed up before it races because if it becomes anxious and jumpy, it could potentially have a heart attack during the race. Unlike a football player, who is all about being as jacked up as possible to be as explosive and devastating as he can be on the field. Both will perform with maximum required effort, but how each gets there mentally is important to their success. Based on the way we raced, it seemed like while we were both feeling anxious and unsure, we also weren’t in the right hyped state of mind to reach our full potential.

The competition still wasn’t over though… Want to hear what happened next? Tune in next week for Part 2 of Life on Water!

Hugh McAdam
2018 USA Lightweight double
2018 Headsweats Ambassador

2018 World Rowing Championships- Plovdiv, Bulgaria

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