Getting Started
"I  knew  they  would  whip  my  butt  into   gear."

By Tess Jewell-Larsen

Michael Blomquist had just arrived at his boarding school, Phillips Exeter Academy, in Exeter, New Hampshire. He was sick of playing baseball — the sport he’d played for most of his young life — and wanted to try something new. A few guys walked up to him and said, “Hey, you’re tall.” Blomquist wondered what that had to do with anything, but those same fellows would introduce him to the sport that carried him through years of training and international competition: rowing. He would go on to win the World Championships in 2005 as part of the US eight, and then in 2006 he finished fourth in a coxless four at the World Championships at Eton, Great Britain. The race can be viewed here.

Although Blomquist started rowing at Phillips Exeter, most high schools do not offer the sport, so college is where many rowers and coxswains are introduced to it. “I just kinda fell into it,” says Danny Johnson, an assistant coach of US Men’s Rowing at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California. A former baseball player, Johnson loved crew, although he wasn’t as tall as typical rowers. The average height of US Men’s Rowing athletes is 6-foot-5 or so, and they weigh about 200 pounds of solid muscle. (As Blomquist says,“We’re not the weakest people out there.” He’s right.)But although Johnson wasn’t exceptionally tall and therefore was at somewhat of a disadvantage as a rower, he decided he could still coach and do a good job of it.  

“I thought I’d give it a shot in college,” says Warren Anderson, who joined US Men’s Rowing in 2007. He had begun rowing in 2002 at Loyola Marymount University in California. “I’d been getting into physical fitness and looking for friends and ways to meet people,” he explains, “and the rowing coach at my school hit me up at orientation and said, ‘You’re the exact right body type for rowing; you should give it a try.’ I ended up loving it and stuck with it.”

Some of the rowers’ backgrounds may seem a bit surprising, at least at first. “I was actually a sailor beforehand,” says Stephen Young, a coxswain and Olympic hopeful training at Chula Vista. “I was the perfect size to be a coxswain. I was approached by a friend who said I would be good at it because I’m loud, I know a lot about the water, and I’m small.”

Coxswains do indeed tend to be small and light so as not to add much extra weight on the water. Think jockeys for boats. But they can’t be too light. For national and international races, coxswains must weigh in at 55 kilos (121.25 pounds) minimum. If they weigh less, they have to carry a weight, often a bag of sand, to make up the difference.

Wes Piermarini, who rowed doubles at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, decided he needed something to keep him squared away when he arrived at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. “I sort of spent three days floating around,” he says. “I realized that if I didn’t have some structure in my life I would fall through the cracks, so I marched myself down to the crew office and signed up. I knew they got up at five in the morning, and I knew they would whip my butt into gear.”

While some of the rowers tried out for crew to keep in shape — or just out of curiosity in a few cases — it quickly became much more than a physical fitness regimen. It became a lifestyle. At Chula Vista, the athletes train two times a day for three hours, six days a week. Many have been keeping up this grueling schedule for years. Piermarini started more than a decade ago; Blomquist has been rowing for more than 13 years. “To be competitive you have to be training year-around for years and years and years and years,” Johnson says. “And you can’t just show up after a few months of training and expect to win. You can be in the hunt after college, but it takes years before you’re ready.”