Gather a bunch of rowers deprived of their usual competitive outlet. Mix in the enforced indoor training of a New England winter. Add a dash of ingenuity and a healthy helping of high spirits. Mix well with a training machine equipped with new technological capabilities and the results could well be the start of a new competitive sporting event that attracts over 2,000 competitors every year. If the timing is right, it could even start a whole new sport with enthusiasts the world over. That’s exactly what happened when a group of bored athletes decided to spark up their winter training with a little bit of fun competition.
The Birth of Indoor Rowing
In the beginning, there was the Charles. That’s the Charles River of Love That Muddy Water fame. It’s the home of the annual Head of the Charles Regatta, the two-day river race event that attracts over 7,000 athletes each year to compete against each other in 24 races. It’s also the home turf – if one can refer to a waterway that way – of the Harvard crew. And it’s where, in 1981, the sport of Competitive Indoor Rowing was born.
It began with the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Winter Olympics and grew out of the boredom of a group of athletes looking for a way to beat the winter doldrums. Concept 2, a maker of rowing machines, had just introduced their new ‘ergometer’, a rowing machine with a revolutionary new design. The athletes, members of the 1976-1980 U.S. Olympics and World Teams, used the ergometer to practice and work out. Their naturally competitive natures took hold and they organized the first ever Charles River Association of Sculling Has-Beens Indoor Regatta. (The name was later changed, says legend, to avoid making swing rowers feel left out. These days CRASH-B stands for Charles River All-Star Has-Beens.)
The first regatta pitted about 20 rowers against each other – not on the water, but on the indoor rowing machines that were their training ponies. It took place in Harvard’s Newell Boathouse, and it was a far cry from the event that has grown in 25 years to include over 2,000 competitors in 32 age and weight divisions and 35 races.
Along the way, it has spawned a new type of competition that has swept the world. Every year, between November and February, there are indoor rowing races in 31 different countries, in every state of the United States – and with the advent of the latest model of the standard ‘vehicle’ of the indoor rowing circuit, international indoor rowing meets held completely over the Internet.
Concept 2 – The Indoor Rowing Machine of Choice
There are no boats in indoor rowing. Instead, racers row on Concept 2 ergometers set up in lanes while their progress is tracked by the on board odometer in each machine. The Concept 2 Model D – the official ‘vehicle’ of the indoor rowing circuit – is even equipped with an onboard unit that uploads speed, pace and results to a computer, which is how the races are officiated.
Each rower fixes his attention on the small screen on his machine that tracks his pace and his position. Seated on a chair behind the racer, his or her personal coxswain calls out his distance, shouts encouragement and helps keep the focus on the race – and the noise and excitement level high. A large screen lets the audience watch the action as tiny, stylized boats sprint across a field of blue toward the finish line so that they can add their cheers and shouts to the hum and drone of 20 or more ergometers racing in place to be the first to reach 2000 meters.
Rowing has long been regarded as one of the best exercises for maintaining full body fitness. As early as 1856, YMCA equipment included machines that simulated the motions of rowing a boat through water. Those rowing machines were little more than stationary ‘boats’ with oars that used pistons, springs or some other method to simulate the resistance of pulling against water. That basic design remained relatively unchanged until 1981, when Concept 2 introduced their ergometer. The ergometer’s revolutionary design used a flywheel to generate wind resistance keyed to how hard the rower was pulling at the oars.
According to rowers, working out on the Concept 2 is about as close as you can get to being on the water without being on the water. In addition, Concept 2 uses a standard calibration, which means that a rower’s results will be the same from machine to machine. This, more than anything else, is what makes competitive indoor rowing possible.
Indoor Rowing Attracts A World of Competitors
Originally designed by rowers for rowers, the Concept 2 rapidly became THE training tool for off-season crew athletes whose rivers were frozen over. At the same time, its design and durability made it the machine most likely to end up on the gym floor in health clubs and gymnasiums around the world. While the first few CRASH-B events featured mostly off-season scullers, it wasn’t long before they were joined by competitive indoor rowers who had never been on the water.
These days, competitive indoor rowing features divisions for just about everyone from 14 year old high school freshmen to 92-year-old great-great-grandmothers. Indoor rowing offers fitness and fun for nearly everyone. Many races include a paraplegic division, and in April, 2005, S. Korea held the first ever Blind-Only Indoor Regatta. Indoor rowing seems to appeal to almost everyone who tries it, with its combination of smooth grace, hard training and fierce competition.
Indoor Rowing Events Worldwide and Right Next Door
Each entrant into an indoor rowing event must report his or her time on an erg for matching purposes. The race entrants are seeded according to their reported time in much the same way that tennis players are seeded to compete against others that match their skills. On race day, each racer will compete in heats against other rowers whose times closely match his own. The races are standardized – 2000 meters – and each race usually takes from five to seven minutes to complete. Each indoor rowing event will have up to 35 races over the course of the day, allowing hundreds of athletes to compete with each other.
In 2005, there were 50 indoor regattas in the United States that attracted over 10,500 rowers. Worldwide, there are 115 indoor rowing regattas in 31 countries. The grand-daddy of all races is the original CRASH-B Sprints World Indoor Rowing Championships, which attracted 1,934 competitors in 2005.
The Indoor Rowing season begins in November with the BIRC – The British Indoor Rowing held in Birmingham, England. The BIRC boasted over 3,000 entrants in 2005, making it the world’s biggest indoor rowing race, and Britain’s largest mass participation sporting event. Among the races that are held between November and the World Sprints in Boston are 20 official satellite races. The top four finishers in each satellite race qualify for entry in the CRASH-B, along with a free trip to Boston to participate.
But for all its international flavor, competitive indoor rowing is a neighborly activity. Across the country and throughout the world, local health clubs and rowing clubs and university crews hold Indoor Row-a-thons for charity, or sponsor classes for youth and seniors to encourage fitness and socialization. It’s all part of the sport – and fits well with the philosophy of Concept 2’s owners, who encourage the philanthropy by supporting nearly any event of which they’re aware.
Indoor Rowing Records Meet Personal Best
Ask any competitor and they’ll tell you that there’s nothing that compares with indoor rowing as a sport. The closest parallel is marathon running, with the pain and the triumph, the endurance and the satisfaction of setting your own personal best time and finishing the race is at least as important as hanging a shiny medal around your neck. In indoor rowing, you don’t have to win to be a winner. The thrill is in the doing.