What You Don't Know About: Rowing

Have you ever been cornered and asked, “So, what do you do?” Sometimes, it can be tough to explain. Everyone thinks they know what a pro athlete does. But do we really know? We asked U.S. Olympic rower Meghan Musnicki to explain her job without using any clichés.

There are a few words that are frequently associated with boat rides. Some people say they’re relaxing, some say they’re peaceful and some even say they’re romantic.

Unfortunately, the ones that I go on aren’t any of those things. In fact, they’re draining and painful. There’s nothing tranquil about them.

I’m a professional rower, and I’m here to tell you what you don’t know about rowing as a sport. I know, I know. You’re probably wondering why on earth you need to know anything about rowing. Well, this summer at the Rio Olympics, the U.S. women’s eight will attempt to do something that very few national teams in any sport have ever accomplished: win its 11th consecutive world title. It’s the dynasty in sports that nobody’s talking about.

The first thing that confuses people about rowing is how a rower is situated in a boat. Basic boat directions are as follows: Port is left, starboard is right, bow is front and stern is back. In a boat — otherwise known as a racing shell — those are all the same, but since rowers face to the rear everything is sort of flipped. If I row port, from my perspective, the oar goes off to the right. But if you’re looking forward in the boat from the stern, the oar goes off to the left. Make sense? Don’t worry. I’ll come back to it later on.

The second thing that people don’t get is how the boat actually moves. I’ll explain, and I promise to make it entertaining. In theory, it’s pretty simple, but actually executing it properly? Thats a lot tougher.

Normally, you can get a good idea of what sport an athlete plays by his or her physique. For example, you may be able to recognize soccer players by their muscular legs. The same goes for basketball players and their height.

Rowers? Not so much. Upon learning that I row, people usually say, “Oh! No wonder your arms look like that!” Well, thanks for the compliment, but the truth is that rowing is almost completely a lower body sport.

Wait, really? But don’t rowers use their arms to move the oar?

What actually makes a shell move can’t really be seen from on land. With an eight, for example, most of what you see from outside the boat are the rowers ‘pulling’ their oars through the water. But inside the shell there’s a lot more going on. Each rower is perched on a seat that slides forward and back on two tracks. Their feet are strapped into shoes that are attached to stationary foot plates. (Depending on the shell, there could be anywhere from one to eight seats — I am attempting to qualify for the eight that will be competing in Rio.)

To propel the boat forward, you slide all the way forward in your seat, ‘catch’ the blade in the water behind yourself and drive your bent legs into the foot plate pushing the boat away from you. Virtually all your muscles are engaged at this point as you attempt to ‘hang’ your body weight off the oar handle. Once you ‘drive’ your legs down and follow through with your body your arms come in towards your chest with little effort due to the momentum you’ve created with your legs and core. Finally, you bring the blade through the water until the handle of the oar is once again in front of you, which is referred to as the ‘finish.’ All of these movements combined make up one ‘stroke.’ At this point you have to get the blade out of the water so you can start it all again (in a race you’ll do this approximately 220 times, which takes just under 6 minutes). In one motion, you push down on the handle, extracting the blade from the water, and flip it so that it is parallel to the surface then push your arms away from you. You then rock forward on your seat, bend your knees, ‘slide’ up the tracks, quickly flip the blade back to perpendicular to the water, and once again, ‘catch’ the oar behind you.

Don’t get me wrong — arms are an important part of any rower’s stroke. But to really go fast, your legs, core, and back do most of the work. So, rather than telling a rower that their arms look good, let them know that their legs look great. I promise it’ll make their day.

Now that you know how a boat moves, let’s talk about an actual competition — also known as a regatta.

During the 2014 World Rowing Cup in France, my eight other boatmates and I were off of first place by open water. Open water signifies that no part of one boat overlaps with any part of another boat. In a 2,000 meter boat race, this is a significant amount. Things really didn’t look good.

That’s when our coxswain (basically the equivalent of a jockey or a quarterback, just in one pint sized person), Katelin, truly proved her worth. The coxswain is vital to a shell’s success: She has to steer the boat in a straight line during our race, help keep the rowers focused on the task at hand and let us know where we are in comparison to the other boats.

If we’re winning, there usually aren’t very many mid-race adjustments. But if we are losing, Katelin is tasked with the job of trying to get more speed out of us. This is no easy task. She has to convince us that we have to give more at a time when our minds and bodies are already telling us that there’s nothing left in the tank.

In most sports, momentum is this mysterious intangible. Back-to-back home runs? The crowd goes crazy. Turnovers that lead to threes? Game changers. In rowing, it’s not as easy to see the initial shift of momentum. Inside the boat it’s something you feel before people outside the boat can see. Once it happens, as a spectator, you can see one boat suddenly start to make up ground on another — a move that’s usually spurred on by the coxswain.

Katelin struck a chord when she called for us to do it for our teammates (I should also mention she used some choice words that aren’t fit for print). At that moment, I could feel the energy shift in the shell. Eight incredibly strong and powerful women each dug in a little bit more, and we started to move. The bow of our boat — which, if you remember, is actually behind us — caught the stern of the lead boat. Then we pulled even. Then, with less than 30 seconds left in the race the bow of our shell edged into first.

It is one of my favorite races to date. The feeling in the boat was incredible. All of us came together and got it done. Unfortunately, as you can probably tell it is also incredibly painful, rowers don’t make the most photogenic faces while we’re rowing. Don’t judge.

There’s one simple reason I row port: coordination. There’s no correlation to what your dominant hand is. There are some rowers who are as good on port as they are on starboard, but that’s rare. Given that I’ve been a port for so many years, my right side is stronger than my left. That’s because I twist to the right and most of my force that I generate comes from my right leg, which is closest to the blade. Sure, I could row starboard, but I’d be about as successful as Jordan Spieth hitting a golf ball left handed. It could happen, but it wouldn’t be pretty or work very well.

In rowing, making the Olympic team is a bit confusing, so bear with me. When you qualify for the Olympics, you’re not qualifying yourself. Rather, you’re qualifying the shell. It’s as if you’re qualifying the jersey of a team, but not the actual players. You might have done the work to get the team to the championship game, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you will be playing in it. Just imagine Tom Brady helping the Patriots win the AFC championship game, and then the Patriots sending out an entirely different team — with a new quarterback — for the Super Bowl.

It may sound crazy, but the group of girls (me included) who qualified the U.S. eight last summer for the 2016 Olympics may not be the ones who actually row in Rio this summer. At the same time, it makes sense that the U.S. would want the top rowers in the shell.

On June 20, U.S. Rowing will announce who will be going to Rio. The date is right around the corner. Even though I’ve been training with the boat for the past seven years (and trying to make Olympic team for over 10 months), I still have no clue whether I’ll be one of the eight strapping my feet into the boat at the Games. I can’t tell you how many puzzles I’ve done and how many batches of cookies I’ve baked to get my mind off of June 20. The whole process is like waiting for an acceptance letter from a college that only admits students once every four years.

Even though I’ve been on world championship teams and won gold with the London Olympic team, I’m still nervous. There are so many capable women that I train with each day, and I respect every one of them. For me to think that my spot on the team is a lock would not only be incredibly foolish, but would also be disrespectful to my teammates.

But no matter who will be in the boat, when you sit down in front of your TV to watch the Olympics, you’ll have the chance to see Team USA make history. As I mentioned, the women’s eight has a chance to capture its 11th consecutive world title (in Olympic years, the Games take the place of the world championships), which is reason enough to tune in. That’s crazy! To be honest though, behind the scenes, we’re not really thinking about continuing our streak. We can’t get caught up in the chance to win another title, we can only focus on putting in the work day after day so when we get to the start line we can seize the opportunity to put our best race out there.

Rowing is exhilarating stuff — I promise you. As you watch, your palms will start sweating and your heartbeat will quicken. And while you’re coping with the nerves, just remember that we’re doing our best to make America proud.

Oh, and remember one more thing — we’ll be doing it mostly with our legs.