Rowing is quite possibly the most pain filled sport in existence. The blame can be squarely laid at the feet of the man who invented the sliding seat.
There is a race held annually since 1852, between Harvard and Yale, where two eight-man crews go head-to-head over a four mile course in New London, Connecticut. Traditionally, rowing had been mainly an endeavor of the back and arms. In order to gain an advantage, this Eli in 1872 devised a pair of wooden slats, which when complemented by a set of greased leather trousers, allowed the rower to push off with his legs and add them to the drive sequence.
Because rowing uses all of the major muscle groups in the body, the athlete quickly enters a state known as lactate hell or the pain locker, in which acid builds up quickly in bloodstream and stays there for the entirety of a race.
Rowers have moved on from greased leather shorts to Spandex unisuits, the wooden slats being replaced by a rolling seat on ballbearings.
The other main problem is the pace of a rowing race. There is a sprint at the beginning of the 2000m course, as all the crews attempt to get ahead early. This provides an advantage both in psychology and in strategy. Since rowers face backwards, when you are ahead you can see your opponents, and easily counter any moves they make. Also, when propulsion depends on the shared insanity of eight rowers, getting passed early in the race tends to damp the fighting spirit significantly. This start sprint lasts about one minute, then the crews race at base speed for the middle of the course, perhaps throwing in a few power tens or fifteens. Then the crew will sprint anywhere from the final 250 to 600 meters, or as much as the last 100 seconds of the race. This doubled sprint ensures that the rower builds up a fearsome level of lactic acid, as much as 50% higher than any other athlete.
Rowing in the United States is governed by the USRA, and internationally by FISA.
The eight is the premier event of most regattas: the fastest race, the largest shell, the most pride on the line. Eight rowers, each with one 12 foot long oar, are in a shell which is about 60 feet long, 18 inches across, one-eighth of an inch thick, and weighing just 190 pounds. Facing backwards, their muscle power and determination are focused by the coxswain, who sits at the rear of the shell facing forwards, calling the shots through a small microphone and steering using a postcard sized rudder. The world record for the standard 2000m race distance is 5:23, set by the Dutch at the FISA World Championships in 1999 in a preliminary heat.
This comes in two varieties, the coxed and straight four. The coxed four has a coxswain, usually lying down in the bow for better weight distribution and aerodynamics, and the straight four does not, steering and race-plan execution being the responsibility of one of the rowers. In both cases, each rower has one oar, like in the eight, and drives himself down a 2000m course facing the starting line, backwards.
At the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Steven Redgrave won gold in the straight four with Matthew Pinsent, James Cracknell, and Tim Foster , completing a run of five gold medals in five Olympics, beginning in 1984 at the Los Angeles Olympic Games. He is the only athlete is an endurance event to accomplish this feat; a Hungarian fencer won six from 1932-1960.
Redgrave's Olympic gold medals are in the coxed four (Los Angeles, 1984), the straight pair (Seoul, 1988, Barcelona, 1992, Atlanta, 1996), and the straight four (Syndey, 2000). Also, he won a bronze in the coxed pair in 1988.
After winning the 1996 Games final, he was quoted as saying "If you ever see me near a boat again, shoot me." His announced retirement lasted only a few months, and he was soon in a new event, the four, with his pair partner Pinsent, and Tim Foster and James Cracknell.
He has been called by many "History's Greatest Olympian."
The world record is 5:45 for the straight four, and 5:56 for the coxed four, for 2000m.
Like the four, this comes in coxed and straight flavors. Two rowers, one on port and one on starboard, propel a small 40-pound carbon-fiber shell down the standard buoyed 2000m course. The coxed pair is affectionately referred to as "The Short Bus," "The Lead Sled," and "The Floating Leg Press."
The quadruple scull is the fastest sculled boat, with four rowers each with two sculls. Almost as fast as an eight, this shell has no coxswain and is typically steered by the stroke, or man in the first position towards the stern. The world record for 2000m is 5:37.
The double scull is a two-man version of the quad, with two sculls per rower and no coxswain. The last gold medal won by the United States in the Olympics was in the double sculls, by Brad Lewis and Paul Enquist in the 1984 Los Angeles Games. This is detailed in the autobiographical Assault on Lake Casitas by Brad Lewis.
The only place in the sport of rowing for a loner. Every other event in rowing can be referred to as crew, but only one rower powers the shell in this one man boat. Weighing a bit less than 20 pounds, and only 14 inches across at its widest point, a single scull is a 27 foot long needle which takes extreme skill and practice to balance. Pertti Karpinnen, the great Finnish sculler, won three straight Olympic golds in the single, in Montreal, Moscow, and Los Angeles.