UNLIKE the teammates who power a quad or an eight-boat and rely on one another for rhythm and timing, a single sculler has no other rower to look to. He or she is a solitary person in a narrow shell of a boat no more than 12 inches across at its widest point.
Michelle Guerette, a two-time World Championships bronze medalist in the single, often feels alone in another way: she has no one to follow in her quest for an Olympic gold medal. No American woman has ever won a gold medal in the single scull event at the World Championships or the Olympics, and no American single sculler, male or female, has won an Olympic medal of any kind since 1988.
Despite the lack of medals at the elite level, on the recreational and collegiate level the sport is growing at a rate of about 10 percent a year, said Karen Solem Derringer, the publisher of The Rowers’ Almanac. Ms. Derringer estimated that there are 250,000 master, collegiate, junior and recreational rowers in the United States, up from 177,500 in 2004, when the publication completed its first survey. About 60 percent of rowers are scullers, she said.
Ms. Guerette, 27, joined the varsity women’s rowing team at Harvard as a freshman after impressing Liz O’Leary, the head coach of women’s heavyweight crew, with her strength on a rowing machine. She had never rowed before, but she was well suited for the sport, being tall (5-foot-11) with exceptionally long limbs.
“She looks like a bird with very long wings when she’s holding the oars,” said her coach, Charley Butt, who also coaches the men’s varsity lightweight rowing squad at Harvard. Come August, she hopes to represent the United States in the 2,000-meter single women’s scull at the Olympic Summer Games in Beijing.
During Ms. Guerette’s ascent in the ranks of elite rowing, she has learned a few lessons that could also benefit recreational and collegiate rowers. One is that you should never stop working on technique. “There are principles in rowing that are universally correct,” Ms. Guerette said.
While a rowing stroke looks fluid, it is made up of four sequential elements: the catch, the drive, the finish and the recovery.
The catch is the point at which the legs are compressed and the blade enters the water. The motion needs to be smooth and relaxed, not necessarily quick, Mr. Butt explained. The boat is accelerated forward on the drive, when the rower pushes against the oar handles by applying pressure with the leg and back muscles.
The finish involves maintaining that pressure while drawing in the arms, then releasing the blade smoothly and cleanly from the water. With the blade out of the water, the sculler then compresses the body and prepares to take another stroke. This is called the recovery.
At the catch, a sculler has to “really think about leaving everything else still except the legs,” Ms. Guerette said. The idea is to straighten your legs smoothly without throwing your weight around or thrusting with your upper body.
For rowers who want to improve their catch, it helps to think of the start of the stroke as Ms. Guerette does. “It’s like standing on this little patch of water that’s caught in front of your blade,” she said. “You are planting the blade in one place, and pushing everything past that place.”
The Daily Drills
Of her two or three daily sculling sessions, one is almost always focused on drills to hone technique. “There’s not one secret drill that will make you fast,” she said. She practices a wide variety.
If your catch needs work, both Ms. Guerette and Mr. Butt suggested practicing putting your blades in and out of the water while sitting in the catch position at full compression (legs bent, chest nearly touching thighs, arms extended). Ms. Guerette recommended doing this drill in shallow water, since there’s a chance you could fall into the drink. Catch 10 to 20 times without taking a stroke, then do it 10 more times taking a shortened stroke.
Another potential go-for-a-swim drill that Ms. Guerette does often is rowing with her feet out of the boat’s shoes, which are bolted onto footboards. This three- to five-minute drill helps you learn to push with your feet and accelerate the handles throughout the stroke. With your feet unanchored, if you don’t apply continuous pressure, you could fall toward the back of the boat.
“Having your feet out forces you to feel the boat under you,” Ms. Guerette said.
While training in New Zealand after winning the bronze in the 2005 World Championships, Ms. Guerette picked up an old-fashioned drill that involves attaching a bungee cord to one gunwale, running it underwater and securing it to the other gunwale. The bungee creates drag, slowing the boat. Mr. Butt explained the purpose: “You can feel everything better — how the stroke is unfolding. If you’re hurried, it just doesn’t feel right.”
For the bungee drill, Ms. Guerette suggested doing 20 strokes at firm pressure at a rate of 18 strokes a minute. Row hard for one minute, then paddle easy for two to three minutes, and repeat this sequence two to five times.
Once you take the bungee off, Ms. Guerette said, “you feel very springy and light,” helping you accelerate the boat.
Roll the Videotape
To improve technique, Ms. Guerette suggests you recruit a friend to videotape you. While on the water, first row at a steady state at a low stroke rate — 16 to 18 strokes a minute. After this segment has been documented, have the friend capture you rowing at an increased stroke rate.
While watching the steady-state segment of the video, look for where you might be lagging, stalling or rushing your stroke, Ms. Guerette said. As you watch yourself rowing at a higher cadence, see what parts of your technique stay with you.
Check to see if you are rushing your recovery as you head up to the catch. Look at whether your legs and hips seem to be pushing the handles (a good thing), or if are they pushing away from the handles. Focus on your puddles — the aggressive swirling caused by your oar blade leaving the water — and notice how much distance is between each set of puddles. The farther apart they are, the farther the boat is going to go with each stroke.
Ms. Guerette also recommended watching World Championship races on YouTube. “Videotape is a very simple but powerful tool,” she said.
Off the Water
In addition to all the hours on the water and thrice-weekly weight sessions, Ms. Guerette spends 20 minutes a day on her abdominal and back muscles. She includes core-strengthening moves from Pilates and yoga, as well as more-traditional exercises. “It’s a mix, basically to keep everything strong and keep from getting injured,” Ms. Guerette said.
One exercise she finds very useful for strengthening the lower abdominals, crucial for maintaining good balance, are situps done on a pliable stability ball. Position the ball just under the small of your back, and take care that “your neck and shoulders are relaxed and that you’re really just contracting your lower abdominals.”
Stability ball exercises are also good for sore or injured backs, a common rowing ailment, though exercise physiologists advise proceeding with caution after an injury. “A strong core keeps the body stable in the boat,” Mr. Butt said. Also, he said, if your back feels vulnerable, “then reach more with your hips” when you go up to the catch.
Ms. Guerette typically has one day off per week and an afternoon or two. About once a week, she likes to clear her head with an hourlong steady run. One of her favorite routes starts near her apartment in Cambridge, crosses the Massachusetts Avenue Bridge, then continues down Beacon Street in Boston into the heart of downtown. “Athletes don’t go out on Friday nights, but this way I can feel part of the action,” she said with a laugh. “You push yourself very hard so it’s fun to play.”
Mix It Up
“There’s this saying that ‘Miles make champions,’ ” Michelle Guerette said. So she spends up to five hours a day on the water, doing a variety of workouts. Mix these pieces into your own sculling training:
BUILDING BLOCKS A base training session “addresses fitness, feeling and rhythm,” Charley Butt said. As with a runner, he said, what matters is “how a rower gets in the miles.” He advised rowing for 25 minutes at 75 percent of full pressure at a stroke rate of 16 to 20. Then, he said, paddle for 5 to 10 minutes and repeat. Maintaining a low stroke rate allows you to concentrate on technique.
HOLD THAT BREATH An anaerobic threshold workout helps Ms. Guerette become more aerobically efficient for her 2,000-meter races. She’ll be doing them about once a week until the Olympic Games draw near. This workout consists of three 15-minute pieces with at least 5 to 10 minutes of rest in between. For each segment, start at a stroke rate of 20. During the 15 minutes, gradually build the pressure and stroke rate. You should be rowing 30 strokes a minute at full pressure for the last minute.
ALMOST LIKE RACE DAY A race-pace workout is a “sharpening exercise,” Mr. Butt said. You want to pull full pressure at the stroke rate you intend to hit during a race — typically 30 to 34 strokes a minute in a 2,000-meter sculling event. But for the workout, go only half the race distance. For example, when training for a 2,000-meter race, do 1,000 meters four times, paddling between each piece for as long as you exerted yourself. “Race-intensity pieces hurt the most,” said Ms. Guerette, but since she and her national teammates don’t do race-pace workouts very often, she looks forward to them.
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