Water Sports

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Indoor Rowing Competitions Making Waves Worldwide

23 Jan, 2019

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

Leave it to New England – birthplace of much of the nation’s history – to write a chapter of its own in sports competitions. And while this one doesn’t date back to the Revolutionary War, it has had a profound impact anyway.

It was back in 1981 that a group of rowers calling themselves the CRASH-B Rowing Club in Boston (short for Charles River All Star Has-Beens) contacted a young fitness equipment company named Concept2. Concept2 had developed an indoor rowing machine that allowed rowers to train off-season and in inclement weather. CRASH-B was interested in hosting an indoor rowing competition. According to its website, the members of C.R.A.S.H.-B had formed a fun group of about 20 rowers in Harvard’s Newell Boathouse and wanted a regatta to break up the monotony of winter training.

Fast-forward a few decades and the event has become the CRASH-B World Indoor Rowing Championship with 2,000 plus entries, and this year, it’s set to take place at Boston University’s Track and Tennis Center. It’s far from the only competition, though. That same weekend, Palm Beach, Florida, hosts the second annual Palm Beach Indoor Rowing Championship. The Atlanta Erg Sprints and Germany’s Ergo-Cup Rhein-Neckar are also held that weekend. And the following weekend, the second annual World Indoor Rowing Championships, produced by the World Rowing Federation (FISA) come to Long Beach, California.

And the events continue worldwide – in fact, here is a calendar.

The inaugural FISA championships (held in Alexandria, Virginia) attracted over 2,500 participants from 33 countries competing for medals in open, junior, under-23, para and masters in both openweight and lightweight categories.

“Indoor rowing is now a legitimate international sporting discipline and a championship-rated format is necessary,” says Jean-Christophe Rolland, FISA President. “We are making plans for future events to take place in different parts of the world.”

Indoor rowing continues to grow as a rowing discipline in its own right. It has become more than a training tool for on-water rowers. Indoor rowing machines can now be found in fitness gyms, rehabilitation clinics, schools, universities and CrossFit facilities all around the world. And USRowing is busy integrating it into underserved school districts, thanks to its Erg Ed Indoor Rowing Education curriculum.

So how did a sport born in a boathouse and often simply associated with gym equipment become a driving force in the niche sport world? The same reason boutique programs like SoulCycle are popular: group fitness programs, particularly those that offer a high-intensity, full-body workout, appeal to weekend warriors and to those who may even invest in training equipment for home.

In the U.K., for example, the development of Go Row Indoor followed a trend producers had noticed in New York. NYC, for example, has indoor rowing studios like Cityrow and Row House NYC. Los Angeles has studios like iROW targeted at gym-goers and health and fitness enthusiasts. And the Go Row concept in Britain fit right into that, with a specific indoor rowing product that included three class models. The concept, which rolled out in 2018, was wildly popular.

And indoor rowing competitions have harnessed that enthusiasm by creating spectator engagement and making the events appealing to a wide variety of athletes. The Palm Beach event, for example, includes 500m, 1000m and 2000m races for time on Concept2 rowing machines digitally linked to allow multiple competitors to race against one another at one time. For four-person teams, a 6000m relay and a four-minute sprint will be offered. Races will be divided by gender, age and height for maximum fairness to all. Each rower’s progress will be projected in real-time onto a screen that spectators can follow, and prizes will be awarded for the top three times in each race. The event will combine public races and first responder races in head-to-head competition between police, firefighters, CrossFit members, elite rowers and athletes of all levels.

The fact that indoor rowing can be a hard and often grueling workout, according to the website, Breaking Muscle, leading to the question of why it has suddenly become so popular.

“Perhaps historically the least popular piece of equipment in the gym has now become the homecoming queen of the fitness club. This is great for those of us who like to get our rowing on, but the question remains, why is rowing all the rage? And what can that tell you about why you might try it?”

In the end, the site notes, it all comes down to ease. Not that rowing is easy but it’s easy to take up at a gym.

“Power cleans, hills sprints, and cage fighting are great workouts, but aren’t for the everybody. But rowing is. Rowing is low-impact and fluid, and it isn’t limited by age, gender, or even athleticism. Not many people in their seventies are doing CrossFit or playing football, but many still have the capacity to row.”

So the question becomes how best to capitalize on the momentum of this wave. Destinations and event owners interested can contact a rowing club in their area using USRowing’s search feature. (The USRowing website is also a great place to learn about rowing itself, particularly for those new to the sport). World Rowing also has an indoor rowing-specific section on its website with information not only on competition but on various types of equipment.

The facilities needed for such an event are a large, climate-controlled, open, column-free space with the connectivity necessary to keep all equipment linked so that competitors can race. The Palm Beach event is held in the Burns Road Recreation Center. The CRASH-B event, according to its history page, has evolved over the years and with its growth has come the need for bigger facilities. It outgrew its original digs at the Newell Boathouse, then the IAB (the Indoor Athletic Building, now the MAC, the Malkin Athletic Center), and the QRAC (Radcliff Quadrangle Athletic Center), before moving to MIT’s Rockwell Cage for several years. In 1995 the regatta moved to Harvard’s Indoor Track Facility, perhaps three times the size of the Rockwell Cage. In 1997 CRASH-B. moved to an even larger and ultra-modern facility, the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center at Roxbury Community College. From 2008 – 2018, the venue was Boston University’s Agganis Arena, a state-of-the-art facility just downstream of the original CRASH-B site. 2019 marks its debut in the Boston University Track and Tennis Center.

That event has also evolved, as has the equipment it uses. In the beginning, the race was five miles on the Concept2 Model A ergometer. From the introduction of the Model B ergometer in the mid-1980s through 1995, the big race in mid-February was 2,500 meters on the new digital display, because the times were comparable even with the equipment change.

To meet specific training demands of international coaches who stress 6K and 2K rankings in the winter, starting with the 1996 World Indoor Rowing Championships the distance changed to 2,000 meters. The race is currently rowed on the latest Concept2 Model D ergometers, which are used by athletes at universities, clubs, schools, and national teams around the world. A brief history of ergs can be found here and here.

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