Junior Lightweight Rowing: Solutions Will Not Come Easy — Rowing Stories, Features & Interviews

Junior Lightweight Rowing: Solutions Will Not Come Easy

I love rowing, but it. is. fucked. up

Most people don’t know much about the sport of rowing. It’s an unorthodox, rare, expensive, and admittedly pretty dull sport to spectate. Not many high schools or universities have competitive rowing teams, but students in those who do often share the same sentiment – The rowers are a cultish group of intense athletes, mysterious, insular, and oddly content not being in the spotlight.

Competing in the Silver Skiff regatta in Torino, Italy

I started rowing spring of freshman year of high school after two consecutive injuries in football and basketball. I didn’t have a spring sport at the time and my father had competed as a heavyweight oarsmen at Cornell, so I figured that the crew team might be worth a shot. I had very limited knowledge when I joined, not just about the sport itself but also about the limits of my own body and the true meaning of dedication, perseverance, and teamwork. I had no idea how the sport would transform my life completely.

Over my four years rowing at Malvern Prep, I discovered my best friends and enormous pride. My teammates and I collectively won city, national, and international races. When our time together came to a close at graduation, I was heading off to Dartmouth, two of my teammates to Penn, one to Cal Berkeley, and another to Georgetown. We were shadows of the undisciplined kids we used to be, not only physically fit, but also mentally sharp and feeling utterly invincible.

Competing at the Henley Royal Regatta on Thames in England (Fawley Challenge Cup)

But as we would all learn, competing on any Division 1 sports team is no cake walk. Adjusting to the academic rigor of an Ivy League school is a major undertaking in itself. When you couple that with heightened levels of competition and intensity in your sport as well as the tempting social vices of the Greek system, it’s a very delicate balancing act. I was fortunate in the fact that my team stuck together and all rushed the same fraternity together, which dampened those temptations to go wild so we could stay focused when we needed to.

I was used to training usually twice a day, six days of the week, but what I now had to worry about was doing all that and maintaining my body weight. I was now a lightweight rower, meaning I had to weigh in at 160 pounds or less the day before racing in order to be allowed to compete. If I didn’t make weight, my entire team wouldn’t be allowed to race. As one of the larger guys on my team, this pressure was an all consuming part of my life.

Being big in rowing is a good thing – heavyweights are typically over 6’ 3’’ and 200 pounds at least – and as a lightweight the challenge is to be as big as possible but still be able to make it pass the dreaded weigh in.

With my teammates and best friends after a race at Dartmouth

Many of my teammates were a bit luckier, they had these same pressures of making weight, but being a bit smaller naturally it wasn’t such a point of concern in their lives as it was mine. My natural body weight in the summer when I wasn’t in season was usually around 185 pounds. At just under 6 feet tall, the majority of that weight was due to having a large muscular frame, not from fat. I always had to be aware that my my body couldn’t slim down as easily.

My anxiety would begin every season as we met at the pool to have our body fat percentage measured. By submerging ourselves underwater and measuring the difference in weight from land, you can get a pretty good idea of how much body fat you have. I usually would start the season at around 180 pounds with a body fat around 10 percent. We would all get personalized weight loss plans that calculated out fat loss and weight loss per week in order to get to our target weight. For me I would have to run a calorie deficit of about 500 calories a day on top of a cardio and weightlifting workout in order to make this goal. A strict plant and protein based diet and a concoction of weight loss supplements also helped.

I was so self conscious of my weight and how I looked. Looking back on old pictures of my gaunt emaciated team photos, I can’t help but feel like the whole thing was nothing short of insanity. Why did I put myself through that physical and emotional abuse on a routine basis? Now I know that part of the reason was my desire to suppress my gay identity and maintain a hetero and hypermasculine identity, but at the time I was in true denial and, I think, undeniably mentally ill. Thankfully, my body was the one that put an end to it all…

It all came to a head spring of my sophomore year. It was our last head to head race of the regular season before the big championship race. We would be traveling to Ithaca to race Cornell on their home course – away races were always the toughest because you had to travel on top of cutting weight.

I woke up at 6am that Friday morning, exactly 12 hours before we would weigh in. I got on the scale knowing the horror to come. The number flashed: “172.1lbs” “Fuck, this is going to suck” I thought to myself. I had cut a lot of weight before on a regular basis, but never had I ever been in a position where I needed to lose 12 pounds in 12 hours to compete. I honestly did not know if I was going to make it, but for some sick reason I was thrilled at the challenge.

With only a half day to lose all the weight, you aren’t going to be able to trim fat from your body – at this point it’s all about squeezing all the excess water from your body, like juicing an orange. You can lose up to 10 percent of your body weight in water before you are considered dangerously dehydrated, so I wasn’t too concerned. Any kind of “aided” weight loss of this nature is prohibited by the sport, but coaches know what is going on and turn a blind eye. They know what is going on, but it’s up to you to get it done and stay quiet about it. Some kids ran with trash bags on, some used diuretics, but the most popular option was the sauna.

I trudged up the hill to the gym and met a few of the other “fat” teammates in our locker room. It was important to have buddies with you when using the sauna to cut weight because of the danger of passing out from extreme dehydration. We would do intervals of about 10-12 minutes in and a few minutes out of the sauna. We wore our heart rate monitors to track the time but also to make sure we never went above 170 bpm. Typically, every 10 minutes or so you could sweat out about a pound of water, but over time you would see diminishing losses.

Before getting on the bus, over the course of an hour and a half I was able to lose six pounds. Halfway there. I then sat on an intentionally hot bus melting for five hours as we traveled across Vermont to Ithaca. Losing the water weight alone isn’t the hard part, what was really difficult was not being able to drink any water or eat anything during the process – when you’re that close to the weigh in, anything you put in your body is added weight.

Before weigh in

After arriving and rigging up our boats the team went out for a “sweat row”. It was an unseasonably warm 80 degrees in Ithaca – perfect. We bundled up with our winter workout gear and went out for a short practice. It wasn’t uncommon for me to literally feel like I was going to pass out during these practices, and typically there would be heated exchanges as people were going mad from thirst and hunger.

We docked our boat. Now almost 5pm, I had no saliva left in my mouth and could barely speak. With one hour to go before weigh in this was the final opportunity to lose any additional weight before the moment of truth. I got on the scale in the locker room and the scaled flashed ‘161.9’. I was fuming – “how could I only lose four pounds over the last seven hours?”

I got on the exercise bike and continued to sweat. At this point most of the lighter guys were enjoying small sips of water and light snacks because they knew they were safe. My coach, and even the opposing coaches would come and check in on us – they knew the hell we were in. “Hang in there” they’d say. We sort of became a spectacle, everyone was wondering who wasn’t going to make it and watching in anticipation.

My coach tapped my shoulder and pulled me out of my fog, “OK it’s time.” We proceeded into the locker room in our underwear lined up by boat to weigh in. The opposing team’s coach monitors your weigh in to avoid accusations of cheating. My whole team was clear, now it was my turn. I got on the scale, the numbers flashed “160.4”. The Cornell coach responds, “OK Austin, rules state you have 20 additional minutes or your boat is disqualified”.

I rolled my eyes. At this point I wasn’t that concerned that I wouldn’t lose the remaining half a pound in the extra time I was given. I was just done with it all. Everybody else in the boathouse was now drinking water and eating and recovering from the past 24 hours of intentional starvation but I had to keep going. I got back on the exercise bike and out of anger was able to lose the weight in only five minutes…

After having pedialyte and some protein powder I started to eat again. It was important to rehydrate first and not to eat too much, otherwise you would expand your stomach too fast and get sick. The next morning I woke up feeling refreshed and energized and ready to go.

Cornell was the fastest team that year so we had tempered expectations for how the race would go – and as many expected they doored us. In fact, they beat every single Dartmouth boat, lightweight, heavyweight, and women. It was an absolute clobbering. Little did I know the implications of that race on my rowing career as I was about to experience an entirely different kind of pain.

GO! …. First strokes of the race

I awoke at 6am the next morning back in Hanover not feeling well at all. I had some stomach cramping and assumed that I had some sort of stomach virus or digestion related problem. My friend came to wake me up at 9am for breakfast but I remained in bed. He returned after lunch, shocked to find me still in bed. “Get up you lazy bum he yelled at me”. Another, sarcastic friend yelled, ” you’re just constipated!” At this point the pain had skyrocketed, I was now experiencing shooting pains in my lower stomach and could not leave the fetal position without extreme discofort. My friend, being a handy pre-med soon figured something was really wrong.

On the way to the hospital I vividly remember screaming in pain after my friend gingerly hit a speed up, I felt like my insides had been stabbed. When I got the ER they quickly figured out that my appendix was very inflamed to the point that it might burst. I was rushed into emergency surgery to have it removed before it ruptured, which would have been very very bad. I awoke to my coaches there by my side.

Surgical fun!

A photo posted by AUSTIN MOORE (@austin.j.moore) on May 6, 2013 at 7:34pm PDT

The whole thing happened so quickly, I was back in class the next morning. The surgery itself was a pretty regular procedure, but it still required a six week recovery. To be quite honest I wasn’t that upset when the doctors informed my coaches I would be out for the championship race. At that point I had simply had it. The costs of this sport on my body were becoming indefensible, and for what in return? So I wouldn’t have to confront my real self?

While I didn’t quit rowing until the following season, I realized at that moment the damage the sport that I loved so dearly had done to me mentally and physically.

Last 500 meters of a race at Dartmouth

Several years later, working a desk job in New York City, I am still affected by it all. Despite not being in a competitive environment anymore, I am incapable of having a normal relationship with food or exercise. I feel guilt every time I eat something that I really want to have because I feel like at some point I will have to lose those calories again. I enjoy food in the moment and later it makes me feel horrible about myself. When I exercise I always feel like I have to be training super hard, because that’s what I did for seven years of my life. I am still nervous to go to the gym because I associate it with the physical pain I experienced those many years I had competing. When I do go, I am discouraged by how much less fit I am now than I used to be – not to mention how messed up my back is.

I would never dissuade anyone from rowing, either recreationally or competitively. It is a truly amazing sport and I would do it all again in a heartbeat. But in pursuing your passions in life, whatever it is, I think it’s important to be able to detach yourself from the current situation and be honest with yourself. There is no reason why anyone should have to have something they love come to have a negative long term impact on their life. If I had been able to, I think I might still be rowing today and also be healthier at the same time.

Just hours after USRowing’s Board of Directors voted to approve a proposal to increase the weight limit for lightweight junior boys from 150 to 160, scholastic and club coaches and administrators across the country became alarmed.

John Musial, a USRowing and FISA referee who also sits on the board of the Scholastic Rowing Association of America, one of the largest scholastic rowing organizations in the country, hadn’t yet boarded his flight back to Philadelphia from Tampa, where USRowing held its annual convention and where the vote had taken place, before his phone was lighting up with messages.

«I caught wind that there was a major problem with all of this Sunday morning in the Tampa airport waiting to fly home from the convention,» said Musial. «I sat down to go through my email, and I already had emails in my box from people who had heard about the weight change.

«By the time I got back to Pennsylvania, there was already discussion about which way the Scholastics were going to go with all of this. By Monday morning, it was apparent to me that all of the scholastic organizations were going to stay at 150. They were not going to move forward with USRowing’s change.»

The reaction resulted in USRowing Chief Executive Officer Patrick McNerney asking for public comment via a posting on the USRowing website, and USRowing’s board scheduling an emergency meeting, where a follow-up vote rescinded the change.

However, a separate, but related motion on the board’s original agenda — a vote to form a study task force to determine if junior lightweight rowing should be allowed to continue, and if so, could it be made safe — stood as proposed.

That motion was passed, and the task force committee membership was finalized last week, according to McNerney.

The series of events set in motion a national conversation on the value and future existence of lightweight junior rowing in the US, and has placed a heightened focus on the work of the task force. The scope of the debate has made it clear that the questions surrounding junior lightweight rowing will not be resolved easily, irrespective of how the USRowing Board ultimately votes.

A major issue facing the task force is that any decision made by USRowing can only be enforced as a rule at the association-owned regattas, including the Youth National Championships.

In other words, if USRowing decides to eliminate weight specific events, scholastic organizations can opt to continue to offer them at their own events, including the SRAA national championships, events run by the Philadelphia Scholastic Rowing Association (PSRA), the Virginia Scholastic Rowing Association (VASRA), the annual Stotesbury Cup Regatta in Philadelphia, and others.

Said Musial: «If USRowing decides to eliminate lightweight on the junior level, that’s fine. But they better have a comprehensive, well thought out replacement, and have vetted it through the community. And when I say the community, I mean everybody — big programs, little programs, sweep, programs, sculling programs, club programs, scholastic programs — because it affects everybody differently.»

«It’s a complicated issue,» said McNerney.

Lightweight fours racing in Sarasota

Lightweight fours racing in Sarasota

For this spring sprint season, the rules that preexist the recent debate will remain in place, and no board action will take place until the season is ended and the 19-member study group has had time to study all the competing views and options, he said.

«The task force is established,» McNerney said. «They received all of the documentation, which I received back in December, all the email commentary from our members, the original notes from the judge referee rules committee that met in September and October, as well as some proposals that were submitted by some of the scholastic organizations.

«There is a lot of good information that has come through from the various scholastic organizations,» he said. «All of that has been made available to the task force.

«The task force is large, and I kept it that way because of the diversity of opinion among the scholastic community, so that we have broad representation.»

History of the Junior Lightweight Rowing, and the Safety Debate

Lightweights waiting to weigh in

Lightweights waiting to weigh in

While scholastic rowing dates to the 1920s, lightweight rowing was not introduced until some 50 years later, according to the associations that had available records.

The largest scholastic event in North America, the Stotesbury Cup Regatta, which has been hosted in Philadelphia by the Schuylkill Navy since 1927, first introduced lightweight rowing to the regatta in 1972. The previously all male regatta added girls events in 1978, and girls lightweights events shortly afterward.

The origin of the SRAA championship is traced back to 1935. As rowing expanded as a scholastic sport across the country, more events were added to the program, including lightweight and women’s events in the 1970s and 1980s.

The USRowing Youth National Championships were first held in 1995, with lightweight events added in 1998.

In all three regattas, there are a significant number of lightweight entries. The 2017 Stotesbury Cup had 137 lightweight entries, the SRAA 109, and the Youth National Championships 130.

While lightweight rowing has been around long enough for some to think of it as a tradition, the debate about where the weight limits should be set, along with the safety and value of lightweight rowing, is not new.

The set limits for lightweights are currently 130 pounds for girls and 150 pounds for boys, but those limits have fluctuated up and down.

The 2017 proposal to increase the boys weight limit to 160 was made by Bainbridge Island Rowing head coach Bruce Beall, who argued that the current 150-pound limit created an in-between group of young male athletes that limited the number of athletes that would could row lightweight, and impacted the number of entries in regattas that have lightweight events.

«I talked to most of the coaches in the (Northwest) region and it seemed they felt that 150 was too light and had created a class of boys too big to make lightweight and not big enough to be heavyweight,» Beall said. According to Beall, those issues were exacerbated by the boys’ growth rates, and that natural freshman lightweights could not safely make weight as seniors.

«We had guys who grew out of the weight limit,» he said. «They were lightweights as juniors, but couldn’t make weight as seniors in a healthy way.»

Opponents of the proposal argued that the risks involved in young athletes cutting weight were not worth the gains, and that age-based categories would better serve to ensure fair opportunity in the sport for any sized athlete to participate.

Participation vs. Competitiveness

Further complicating the issue is the fact that scholastic teams draw from smaller athlete pools than regional club teams, and some believe eliminating lightweight rowing would render smaller scholastic teams unable to be competitive.

2017 Youth National Men's Lightweight Eight Final

2017 Youth National Men’s Lightweight Eight Final

One such scholastic program is Belen Jesuit Prep of Miami FL. Yunian Cabrera Torres has been coaching a successful lightweight program at Belen Jesuit Prep for several years. The Belen lightweight eight won the event at both the 2017 SRAA championships and the USRowing 2017 Youth National Championships.

Torres said that without lightweight rowing, Belen Jesuit would not have a competitive program.

«Removing lightweight programs from the youth national championship will be a disaster to my program because the majority of my kids, 95 percent of my kids, are Latins who are no taller than six-feet and weigh between 145 pounds to 158 pounds.»

Saratoga Rowing Association head coach Chris Chase is among those who believe that lightweight rowing should be eliminated in favor of age-based events, and that moving the boys’ weight standard is really a veiled argument for coaches wanting to win rather than offering opportunities to participate in the sport.

«As I understand it, the original purpose was to have it be more inclusive and to have smaller body people enjoy rowing and love rowing,» Chase said. «Do we want to win? Absolutely. Am I willing sacrifice the health of my kids to make a superstar lightweight program? No. We shouldn’t be talking about competition.

«If we are talking about opportunity, let’s talk creating opportunities. If we are talking about competitiveness, then that is a different story.»

Increased Attention

Exactly when lightweight safety became a critical issue is not as easily pinpointed. But for VASRA, the death of a Boston College lightweight collegiate male rower at the Dad Vail Regatta in 2005 resulted in their adopting the current weight management protocols.

Scholastic organizations, even those that had already implemented increased scrutiny of lightweight athletes, stepped up their efforts and attempts to prevent young athletes from dangerously dehydrating themselves to make weight prior to competition.

At the USRowing Youth National Championships, monitors were stationed inside restrooms at Harsha Lake in Cincinnati to discourage athletes from purging to make weight.

At USRowing events, athletes are required to weigh in two hours before an event. If they fail, they have an additional hour to make weight. But the athletes have to be within one pound of the established weight. More than that and they are immediately disqualified.

In Virginia, in direct response to the death in Philadelphia, the Virginia Scholastic Rowing Association (VASRA) adopted strict weight management guidelines, based on those already being used in scholastic wrestling.

Under the Virginia guidelines, athletes undergo a pre-season medical certification that includes both a urine analysis and skin fold measurements to determine if an athlete is physically capable of being a lightweight rower.

The testing determines each athlete’s «baseline weight» and sets personalized lowest weight limits that an athlete cannot go under.

The initial tests are taken one week before a school’s first allowable practice, and again three weeks later. Coaches and administrators are required to maintain athlete records and to submit them to VASRA to be used during event weigh-ins.

The VASRA guidelines are seen by many in the rowing community as the best example of lightweight safety. The association is confident in the system and will continue to offer lightweight rowing.

«Right now, we support lightweight rowing,» said VASRA president Dorothy Lazor. «We have a number of teams that consistently enter lightweight events.»

Lazor said the system does take additional time and resources and is funded by membership teams. Of the 43 organizations that row as part of the association, 39 crews from 26 programs were entered in the lightweight divisions at the association’s championships.

“Can you guarantee anything in life — that somebody is not going to try and abuse the system or make some bad choices? I don’t think you can. But I think the program that we have in place severely limits opportunities to make bad choices.”
— Dorothy Lazor, VASRA

Lazor said that she understands there are heightened concerns and added that the association is open to discussing alternatives as proposed by USRowing, but said she firmly believes that closing rowing to lightweights without an acceptable alternative is bad for the sport.

«I think lightweights can be a very valuable class, if people would adhere to it properly,» she said. «It offers people the possibility of competition that might not be as competitive in another category.»

To the question of whether any set of standards or guidelines guarantee against an individual going out of their way to lose weight — even within the existing system — she said:

«Can you guarantee anything in life that somebody is not going to try and abuse the system or make some bad choices? I don’t think you can. But I think the program that we have in place severely limits opportunities to make bad choices.»

While the Virginia guidelines appear to be the most specific in use, many other scholastic associations and club teams also require athletes to undergo pre-season certifications to try and protect against abuse.

Others rely on restricted event weigh-in regulations, such as the two-hour and one-pound restrictions at USRowing events.

What do the medical professionals think?

The stated concepts and goals for the existence of lightweight rowing is to increase access to the sport for athletes of all body types, but there is no question among coaches and health professionals that some athletes will engage in unhealthy and dangerous methods of cutting weight.

An American Academy of Pediatrics Clinical report titled Promotion of Healthy Weight-Control Practices in Young Athletes details the findings of clinical studies that identify the dangers associated with dramatic weight loss.

The clinical report details both unhealthy and healthy methods for monitoring lightweight athletes. The guideline does not make a clear statement one way or the other, but it is specific in documenting that some athletes will, and do, endanger themselves.

«In their attempts to change body weight and composition, some athletes resort to unhealthy weight-control practices. These unhealthy weight-control approaches may adversely affect health and, in some cases, can negatively affect performance. Pediatricians should have an awareness of safe and unsafe weight-control practices so they can counsel young athletes and family members appropriately,» the guideline states.

Among the findings included in the document were these:

«Unhealthy weight loss behaviors occur along a continuum. At one end of the spectrum are individuals with a mild energy imbalance: caloric intake is not sufficient to cover the body’s energy requirements. «At the other end of the spectrum are athletes engaging in dangerous weight loss practices that carry a high risk of associated morbidity and mortality; this extreme includes children and adolescents with frank eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.

«In addition to fasting or restricting calories, risky weight loss practices include vomiting after eating, performing excessive exercise, and the use of diuretic, laxative, or stimulant medications. Persistent weight loss via unhealthy behaviors may result in delayed physical maturation, growth impairment, and the development of eating disorders.»

The guidelines make it clear that the AAP recognizes the dangers associated to unchecked and unhealthy weight loss among young athletes.

But that does not mean that doctors who work in sports medicine believe that lightweight rowing should be eliminated.

Dr. Rebecca Demorest is one pediatrician who feels that lightweight rowing, under proper supervision, is not only a safe way to increase opportunities in rowing, but is a way to combat adolescent obesity.

Demorest rowed in high school and college and has served as a team physician for USRowing Under 23 national teams. She is also a past member of the AAP Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness and works with junior athletes at Oakland Strokes, which won the women’s lightweight eight event at the 2017 Youth National Championships.

Oakland Strokes women's lightweight eight rowing to victory

Oakland Strokes women’s lightweight eight rowing to victory

«I think (junior lightweight rowing) is a touchy discussion because there are pros and cons,» Demorest said. «Having been a rower myself, I think the pro is that it opens up the sport to a whole different class of kids who might not otherwise be able to row. It’s meant for smaller, shorter, people who aren’t as big as traditional heavyweight rowers,» she said.

«But the problems come when you have someone who could be heavyweight who wants to drop to lightweight. How do you manage that group of kids? I think that’s what really makes it challenging, because there’s some kids who clearly will be lightweight, and there are some kids who are clearly always going to be heavyweight. And I feel like the window gets pushed more and more each year for who can truly be lightweight.

«I’ve had these discussions with my potentially lightweight rowers about who really can be a lightweight and who really should not think about being a lightweight. I think that’s where the murky water comes in, from my perspective as a physician.»

According to Demorest, the key is first to determine which athletes can actually be lightweights, that can sustain the weight safely and to understand that teenagers — especially boys, who tend to have longer growth periods — are still growing and their ability to remain in a lightweight category could change.

She said Oakland Strokes does pre-season evaluations and that she has one-on-one discussions with individual athletes about their ability to row lightweight.

«You can’t just decide I want to lose 25 pounds to be a lightweight rower,» she said. «You have to take someone who potentially, genetically, should be a lightweight rower, and discuss how do you safely do this? This isn’t you just drop weight.

«I think it’s an individual discussion with each patient,» Demorest said. «Just like with anything you see kids for, you have to take everything into account. There’s not a cookbook medicine approach when you’re dealing with people like this.

«My goal is for kids to be active. I’m a pediatrician, I practice sports medicine, I want people to be active. There’s an obesity epidemic in this country; I want people to find something they love.» Dr. Kristine Karlson is another former rower that believes lightweight categories have a place in youth sports. Karlson rowed on the 1992 Olympic team, is a sports and family physician, and currently serves as team physician at Dartmouth College. She has also worked at FISA events and travels with US national teams.

She will be participating on the USRowing junior lightweight task force.

«I think for the vast majority of people, it can be safe,» she said. «But I think there are probably still people who will do things incorrectly. You can’t stop every single bad weight making behavior,» she said.

«You’re always going to have your outliers, I’m afraid, who try to game the system. But if we do away with lightweight rowing entirely, we are closing rowing to a large amount of the population. On a participation level, there’s going to be kids shut out. Kids who might learn an awful lot with rowing, if they were able to compete as a lightweight.

«I think it can be workable,» Karlson said. «But it’s going to require wrestling-type precertification, more attention to weight-making behaviors and more attention to weigh-ins, and sending someone to the heavyweight team in the middle of the season. It’s going to require a lot of attention from the coaches, and to say, you’re struggling, I want you to be a heavyweight. And that’s not going to go over very well.»

The Bottom Line

Even before the junior lightweight study committee begins to dig deep into the questions they are facing; before a proposal can be made to keep or eliminate lightweight categories in junior rowing and replace them with age-based events; it would appear that lightweight rowing is unlikely to be eliminated unless the entire rowing community, every club and scholastic program can agree to an acceptable solution.

A daunting, and almost unachievable, task; that, anyway, is a dominant opinion among both those who believe it is time to eliminate junior lightweight rowing and those that say they will continue to support it.

«I can speak for the SRAA,» said Musial. «We will continue to support lightweight rowing as it is constituted right now, but we are very interested to see what the outcome of this (task force study) is going to be.

«But speaking personally, for the safety of the athletes, both physically and mentally, I believe it is probably best if we just do away with it all together.»

Musial, who is also a high school coach and is planning to have a lightweight girls team, said the problem facing scholastic rowing overall is a lack of a national organization that could make a decision that would be enforceable to all of the different scholastic associations across the country.

«I don’t think it’s ever going to leave,» said Chase. «Not from the high school level. I don’t think it’s ever going to leave, to be honest. My opinion is, should it be gone, yes. That is my opinion. My realistic opinion is even if USRowing eliminated it at the Youth National level, the regions would still have lightweight rowing.»

“I don’t think it’s ever going to leave, to be honest. My opinion is, should it be gone, yes. That is my opinion. My realistic opinion is even if USRowing eliminated it at the Youth National level, the regions would still have lightweight rowing.”
— Chris Chase, Saratoga

Still, there are clubs and scholastic crews that are going to eliminate lightweight crews on their own because they have decided the risk is not worth the benefit.

«I’m personally very mixed on it,» said Boston based Community Rowing Inc. head boys’ coach Will Congram. CRI recently decided to eliminate lightweight crews from their program, even though they were using a pre-season screening protocol through the winter training.

«I don’t want to say absolutely no to lightweight rowing because that sounds like an attack on a lot of really conscientious and thoughtful and caring coaches out there whose athletes are eligible to race in lightweight categories,» Congram said.

«So, it’s not about the coaches and it’s not about how teams manage it, in my mind. But coaches can’t control how athletes behave outside practice, and given that, it’s simply that the existence of this category creates a potential avenue for problems.

«It’s my feeling that no matter what, you can be the best most conscious coach and you can twist yourself in knots employing all of these different means of monitoring athletes — but you just don’t know how athletes are going to respond, and how their parents are going to respond, on their own, to the existence of this category.»

There is already too much pressure for women to conform to the present
societal standard of being either waif-like or completely muscular (or
the increasingly popular fusion of both). Women should not feel the need
or the pressure to «suck weight» in any aspect of their lives.
It is especially depressing when it occurs while they are participating
in sport which, by nature, is supposed to make women feel stronger, not
weak or «fat» or out of control.

So where are
the coaches? Where are the officials? Where are the nutritionists and
doctors? Why hasn’t anyone stepped in? The fact is, not only did many
of the coaches in my study see what was going on, but they were also condoning
these actions. For example, one of the rowers (who clearly should not
have been rowing lightweight since she was significantly over 130 late
in the season), wrote this in her journal: «I try to lose weight.
I run all the time, I’m always exhausted, but I can’t control my eating.
I’ll be really good for a while, but I can’t hold out and I binge. But
no more-[the head coach] said I have to weigh in or we don’t race. So,
of course they’re condoning the fact that I have 9 pounds to lose. Hey,
it’s my fault, right?»

Only partially.
The above rower is not to blame. Pressure to perform for the good of the
team, to impress the coaches, to avoid looking weak in front of teammates.
All of these pressures are far too real for women (as well as men) on
a daily basis in institutional sports programs throughout the world. There
is another example in this case study in which the rower felt that she
could no longer handle the unending battle to lose weight. She states,
«I told [the coach] what I’ve been going through in a plea for her
to tell me not to row lightweight. But of course she said it’s my decision.
How can she expect me to say I won’t do it? I have too many pressures.
I’m not that strong…..[She] came up, said even though she knows it’s
the wrong decision, she needs me to row lightweight. Right.»

Think about
how difficult it must be to convince oneself otherwise after a confrontation
such as the one above. It can be argued that a certain amount of pressure
applied to team members by a coach is the only way to push the team to
succeed. However, there has to be a line drawn between instilling a healthy,
competitive «itch» into team members, and creating an environment
so intensely unhealthy that the vision only includes one aspect: winning.

Far too many
times, this has been shown to be the case at many institutions. Where’s
the proof? Well, it seems to me that for each and every woman who steps
on a scale after sweating to the point of dehydration, or depriving themselves
of excessive amounts of food and water, there has to be at least one coach
behind them. And not only are these coaches fully aware of what is going
on, but they also support the practice. The only people I encountered
that were taking any stands toward alleviating this problem were fellow
lightweight rowers. And I’m happy to say that I finally did witness them
make a difference.

Halfway through
my research there were surprise weigh-ins (the suggestion of one of the
«natural» lightweights on the team that was the focus of my
research) and the woman who was struggling was told she would no longer
row lightweight. She had mixed emotions, since she had been rowing lightweight
for seven years and it was what she lived and breathed during that time,
but in the end she was relieved.

And who wouldn’t

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