Rowing is not only one of the most physically and mentally challenging sports (as evidenced by lactic acid buildup analysis), but lightweight rowing adds another dimension of masochism to the equation: making weight.

I think lightweights are a crucial element of rowing, in that it gives the opportunity for smaller people to compete on an international scale, and the sheer athleticism and guts that is required to row lightweight often surpasses the heavies. Lightweights must train harder and pay more attention to technique than heavyweights because they can't rely as much on brute pulling strength.

However, this sport encourages eating disorders in a manner that I believe surpasses all other weight and appearance dependant sports (like wrestling, gymnastics). For one thing, height is crucial to be a good rower, because you can get that much more reach and that much more leverage. A rower is, at a basic level, a simple machine-- a lever to push the boat. Naturally shorter and smaller people, despite athleticism, cannot succeed in rowing, lightweight or otherwise. This means that to row, men must be above 6 feet and women above 5 foot 7, and still make it under 155/135 respectively.

Weight also has a very palpable effect on boat speed-- When I'm in the boat with somebody who has crashed 10 pounds, I can feel the speed pick up. When I crash 10 pounds, nearly 10% of my body weight, everybody else can feel the boat pick up. Some of this is psychological. However, normal crash dieting doesn't work for rowing as it might work for other anaerobic activity, such as wrestling. For rowing, one must sustain a very high level of concentration and mental focus on the mechanics of the stroke and be able to feel the other rowers in order to maximize efficiency. This might be compromised by short term crash dieting.

Which leads many lightweight rowers, men and women, to develop long term eating disorders. There is also a strange symbiotic relationship between eating disorders and rowing-- one cannot say that one causes the other or vice versa-- they're intertwined. For example, the main goal of crew is mind over body. I can wake up at 4:30 every day. I can hurt for 10k this morning. I will row until I black out and then keep on fucking rowing. This is the attitude that makes a good rower. I don't have to eat today-- Eating compromises my success, and is weakness. This mental control over physical pain and discomfort, seen as 'building character' often manifests itself into unhealthy weight loss.

This is losing weight, starving yourself, throwing up, as an expression of discipline, not as an expression of low self-esteem. It's a thin line to walk between contradictions.

For a few years, I've been coxing lightweight men. Most high school and collegiate programs have eliminated the lightweight women entirely because of societal pressures to not judge women by their weight-- which I believe completely counterintuitive to its purpose by assuming axiomatically that all women have issues with weight, thus defeating the purpose. It also removes the opportunity for smaller women to row. Incedentally, the heavy women are not called heavyweights, but 'Open'.

What I've seen in these years has truly astounded me. I've known men living on carrots and multivitamins for weeks while doing full workouts every day, I've known them to completely cut out water two days before a race (drink after weigh-ins). Some of them were anorexic with the added pressure of performing physically in national level competitions. We (I had to make weight also) took illegal diuretics (illegal by the IOC). Every time you see somebody doing jumping jacks in a warm up suit in a sauna, or see somebody rent Braveheart, Gladiator, and Die Hard, put them on one after another in front of a treadmill, and just run...

This extra element of masochism inherent in the sport of rowing draws the members of a lightweight crew together-- Not only must they make weight themselves, we have to make sure everybody in the boat makes it to make the requirements for the average wieght of the crew. It's a sort of self-induced hazing, while extremely dangerous, leads to 'together' rowing.

Seen painted on a bridge at Tampa training center:

                        Princeton Lightweights 2000: Half the fat, twice the flavor
In defense of the discipline required to be a lightweight rower, I'd like to "stumbit" my experiences. I'm a lightweight rower, six feet and one inch tall. My natural weight is somewhere between 165 and 170 pounds, well above the freshman cap of 155 which I had to be last year. Making weight was tough for me. No doubt about it. My caloric intake was severely reduced, to an amount some would consider unhealthy. But I felt completely healthy, I kept up my grades in school, and I plan to row lightweight for this upcoming year as well.

Given my body type, I could be either a great lightweight or an average heavyweight. I could go on a hardcore lifting schedule, and beef up to 175 pounds if I liked. My erg scores are definitely good enough. But I choose not to. Why? Being tall and lanky, I have the perfect body type for a lightweight rower. I must hold myself under my natural body weight, but so do a lot of comparable athletes from the schools in my league. With a weight cap of 160 pounds (varsity level), you have to make every ounce count. I will not back down and change my weight class when there are guys even bigger than I am rowing alongside me. That's my decision.

Here's a basic idea of what it took for me to maintain my weight during the racing season. We would weigh in every Friday for our races. During the week until Friday, my caloric consumption decreased. I ate a usual 2,000 calorie diet on the weekends, and subtracted calories every day until Friday. That meant just a bagel and a PowerBar on Thursday, and nothing on Friday. And I usually had to do some extra running in order to squeak past that 155-pound barrier. My body didn't like me very much towards the end of the week. Towards the end of the season, my body had begun to resist its weight, and I had to cut my diet further. There are also more details regarding my diet that I won't go into. Despite this, though, my performance didn't suffer at all. As a matter of fact, I had to be smart with my calories, which led to a healthier diet. I expected my progress as a rower to stagnate as a result of having to cut weight, but I found just the opposite to be true. There was not an ounce of fat on my body. I was in the best shape of my life. Before I ate anything, I asked myself, "Is this going to make me a better rower?" If the answer was no, no matter how hungry I was, it got thrown away. This took a lot of discipline.

There exists a great tension between lightweight and heavyweight coaches about which rowers should row in which program. As a result, many coaches from both teams will pressure their athletes to stay with (or join) their program. This is very unfortunate, and thankfully my coaching staff has been very respectful to all rowers with that regard. If someone is uncomfortable rowing in a certain program, their performance will suffer and all parties are worse off. However, because of the nature of the sport, rowers recognize the fact that sacrifice is required of them. I have yet to meet a committed rower who is a member of a heavyweight program simply because he is too lazy to cut back his diet.

The establishment of a lightweight crew program has been a blessing to many people who would otherwise not know the joys of the sport, and something I would not give up for the world.

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