“Row like Mahé…”

“Row like Mahé…”

Mahe Drysdale 1 Mahe Drysdale 2

In the fall of 2005, I was rowing for Union Boat Club on the Charles River in Boston, MA. Mahé Drysdale had just begun his journey in the M1x, and rowers around the globe were starting to pay attention to what New Zealand was doing on the world stage. Drysdale had just taken the gold medal in the M1x at the World Rowing Championships in Gifu, Japan. Georgina and Caroline Evers-Swindell had just won the W2x as well.

New Zealand W2x – Georgina and Caroline Evers-Swindell

2005 was a special year for me. I had finally learned how to scull well and was moving the single much better. I was able to win a few head races, and my coach was trying to help me see if I had potential in the single. On one particular day in fall, he had a legendary guest coach with him. I will always have high respect for both of these coaches. Both of them are still rowing icons in the United States, and they know how to make boats go fast. The fact that these men were sitting together in the launch just to watch me row was an honor and a privilege.

I was doing my best to scull perfectly. I wanted to focus on the best technique that I knew and show that I could move the boat gracefully and with power. As we rounded Magazine Beach on the way back out to the Charles River Basin, the legendary guest coach spoke these words to me:

“You need to row more like Mahé Drysdale…”

As he continued to drop the name and explain, I nodded my head. Mahé had just dominated in the single; he had defeated the 2004 Olympic Champion, Olaf Tufte, and a future World Champion, the young Ondřej Synek. Of course everyone wanted to be him, row like him, and unlock the secrets of how New Zealand was producing elite athletes! As I rowed back to Union Boat Club, I continued to reflect upon the coach’s words.

Over 10 years later, I still vividly remember this day. I am not a competitive rower anymore, and now, I coach and train rowers and scullers that look to me for guidance. I am still trying to understand why any athlete would want to “row like” someone else. Believe me, I understand the concept that this legendary guest coach was trying to convey. Mahé Drysdale rows the single beautifully – a fine balance of power and grace. He won the Head of the Charles, again, a few weeks ago and many of us still wish we could row like he does. We wish that we could row like Ondřej Synek, Andrew Campbell, Kim Krow, Gevvie Stone, Eric Murray, Hamish Bond, and a multitude of other Olympic athletes whom we idolize, follow on twitter, read their blogs, and watch their dominate performances year after year.

Do rowing coaches ever consider that it might not be possible for our athletes to row like any of them? Mahé Drysdale is 6 ft. 6 inches (1.98 m). I am 6 ft. 3.5 inches (1.92 m). Mahé can still break 6 minutes on the rowing ergometer, and he definitely was able to do this in 2005. My best 2k in 2003 was 6:06.  After that, I could barely manage sub 6:10. Good training programs can lead to good performances, but to move the single like Mahé Drysdale, I needed to focus on getting just a little bit stronger (maybe even taller). Do we want our athletes to row like someone else, or are we really trying to teach them how to row well? “Row like Mahé” implies that my technique was not up to par with Mahé and that technical skill was the reason his boat moved faster than mine. Cleaning up my technique, I would go from going 7:20 to 7:35 in the single for 2k, and would drop 1:00 minute and go 6:33.35 (record set by Mahé in 2009).

As a young sculler, that is all I could infer from that statement.

I moved from Union Boat Club to Penn AC Rowing Association and the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, PA, in 2006. Over the next two years, I had my technique revamped. At 30 years old, I was finally learning to train in the single. Although it was difficult competing against the young bucks of Penn AC, I continued to plug away and stay relevant. In 2008, I competed at the NSR 1regatta. During the time trial, Row2k caught this image of me.

2008 NSR 1 - Time Trial - Patrick Rufo - Photo from Row2k
2008 NSR 1 – Time Trial – Patrick Rufo – Photo from Row2k

Not bad, I thought. I was definitely committed to going fast (as indicated by my headband). I printed this photo out to put it in my “Vision board” which was helping mentally prepare for the US Olympic Trials. At that point, I knew I wasn’t rowing like Mahé, so I searched for another elite rower to emulate on the water. My Penn AC coach mentioned this guy during practice.

Olaf Tufte
2004 and 2008 Olympic Champion – Olaf Tufte

Olaf Tufte won the Olympics in the M1x 2004, and eventually upset Drysdale in 2008. Drysdale was ill going into the final that year. A phenomenal race:

Based on the photos, I felt that if I was emulating Tufte then I was doing something right.

Eventually, I did go to the US Olympic Trials to compete in the M2x and was eliminated in the reps with a pretty slow time of 6:42.5. The winners of the US Olympic Trials, who were faster than we were by 20 seconds, finished 13th in Beijing.

“Row like Tufte”?

I rowed like Tufte. He was Olympic Champion and I finished 10th at trials. Why did I fail? If you look at the two pictures side by side, they look similar. Obviously, Tufte is a lot stronger than I am, and he will move the boat better. How could I row faster with this technique?

Similar rowing “styles” – Guess which one ISN’T the Olympian…

In the above photos, you can see that both Tufte and I have rounded shoulders, good compression (shins vertical), and arms extended. On the recovery, we look the same. On the drive, the application of power would be different. It really does make a difference if your erg is sub 6 minutes (7 min for women). My shoulders girdle, lats, and torso could not even support the force I needed to produce to make the single go sub 7:10, which may have gotten me into a final at the NSR (nowhere near a medal on the World or Olympic Rowing stage).

Most recently, a great video of Vyacheslav Ivanov was circulated on Facebook and Instagram.

A lot of likes for the way he was rowing, and comments on how he moved the boat. Rowing is a skill. It takes years of practice, drills, and training to move the single the way he did. The problem I feel is that someone would watch this video and try to go out and do the same thing. It is the equivalent of someone who cannot jump going out and trying to dunk a basketball like Lebron James. They can run up to the basket and leave their feet, but they aren’t going to dunk the ball without the talent and power of Lebron James.

Ivanov rowed with a lot of power. With his strong upper back, arms, and torso he was able to drive the spoon blades and keep them level through the water at race rate. He won the gold medal at the Olympics in 1956, 1960, and 1964. However, I would be interested to see how Ivanov would respond with to rowing with new equipment – hatchet blades, Vortex Edges, and carbon fiber. The load he would produce would be much different, and his body would respond differently as well.

However, we will all watch this video over and over and go out and try to “row like Ivanov”.

Moral of the Story

Still leaning to port; still need to get those arms locked out, and still doing the “finger wiggle.” What is the deal with the tongue (a Rufo trait of working hard)?

My rowing technique has changed. My philosophy on rowing technique has changed as well. I am constantly asked by my Masters athletes,“How do you want us to row?” They look for me to choose a sculler and a rowing style that everyone knows, and try to get me to coach them that way. I always start with the same answer.

“I want you to row like YOU.”

I don’t want my athletes to row like anyone. I want them to learn how to move the boat using their body. Athletes need to be assessed on their strengths and weaknesses — the results of their training program will reflect where they need to focus. If they want to win a particular event, then I will explain to them how much training they need to do. If I record video of their technique, I will try to show them what they are doing well and what they need to improve. I will show them how their posture and movement may affect how they put the oar in the water and apply pressure. If they are in a team boat, I will teach them how to move the boat together. If they REALLY want to row like their favorite rower then we’ll sit down to discuss why they want to row that way, and if it is actually possible.

Rowing isn’t complicated. Put the oar in the water, and drive the legs. Stay connected through the entire stroke. Go faster and outlast everyone else.

Every athlete and team need to find the rowing style and technique that works for them. If the coach wants the athletes to row a certain way, then they need to know how to train their body to be effective in that style.

As I look back at 2005, I am very appreciative of all the advice and knowledge that my coaches shared with me. However, that simple statement has taught me more than they will ever know.

Who do you want to row like?

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