Home On The Water

By Elisabeth Kramer

The hub of US Men’s Rowing is a small compound on the shores of Otay Lake in Chula Vista, California. Twice a day rowers and coxswains make the brief 10-minute walk, five-minute bike ride, or two-minute car trip from the gated entrance of the US Olympic Training Center down to the lake. There they’ll spend anywhere upward of five hours a day honing the skills that make an Olympian. 

A stone’s throw from Otay, four interconnected garages house the gear. When the segmented doors roll up, the far left and right areas reveal a row of young men, staring at themselves in the mirror with a diagram of the human muscular system grinning from behind. On a poster at the back of the room, a 20-something Arnold Schwarzenegger flaunts the chiseled rockpile of a physique from his Mr. Universe/Mr. Olympia days. Muscles even longer and leaner than his characterize the athletes here in the Chula Vista compound.

Rowers sweat for hours in the two end garages, whirring away on exercise machines that hum like bees. These ergometers, invariably called ergs, offer a chance to practice rowing when not on the water. Performance scores and personal records are bantered about like a rower’s other vital stats: height, weight, wins. They also provide a common standard for coaches worldwide to rate and rank the competitors.  

In between the two garages full of exercise equipment, boats are racked six deep and six high. Before each practice, the rowers pull out their chosen vessel and prepare it for the lake. The shells range from 25 to 35 feet long and hold from one rower up to a full crew of eight. Some are rigged for each rower to use two oars, others for one oar per rower (referred to as sculls and sweeps, respectively). 

It’s a brief walk downhill from the garages to the dock where the athletes systematically launch the day’s craft. Lower Otay Lake has 25 miles of shoreline and averages a depth of 137.5 feet. Hills circle the water; it’s there the men often go running, sometimes happening upon the clothes and other castoffs of immigrants hurrying across the US-Mexico border, a mere 15 minutes away. Out on the water during a routine practice, buoys bob and dance in their racing lanes. Light reflects archly off the waves; looking from one end of the long lake to the other, it’s hard in the glare to see every boat as they skim along the surface.

Afterward, before a man can hit the showers (both men’s and women’s locker rooms flank the garages), the crew must wash down and store each boat. For this sport there is no pit crew; indeed, rare be the rower who will let another touch his scull or sweep. As the hoses roll up and the work is completed, the men discuss their time out on the water today. What was it coach said, following behind in his motorized boat (referred to as the launch)? How was the water in your lane? You hungry?

One by one the men depart, some walking, others riding, all heading to the spacious dining hall inside the gates of the Olympic Training Center. The buzz of the ergs subsides and the garage doors roll down. The coaches are the last to leave, locking up the boats and the doors to their small offices, a row of cubicle-sized, white-walled spaces more often used for storage than work. As any of the crew will tell you, anything that really matters happens out on the water.