Rhythm and Waltzing

My goals this winter are similar to those of many other rowers—gain strength and get faster.  But a key to strength and speed (sometimes overlooked) is a better sense of rhythm in the boat.

Every row is a constant search for rhythm—movement that makes everything feel smooth, efficient, and powerful. Rhythm is the confluence of the movements of the rowers and the boat. It’s where you return when things go wrong. When a rower misses a stroke, moves up the slide too fast, or loses focus, they can return to their rhythm. That return is like coming home. It means they can relax, they can think, they can mend mistakes. And the boat moves faster as a result.

As a novice, this rhythm may seem elusive most days. But the good news, dear Novice Rower, is that you can begin your search for it even in the winter—yes, even on an erg.

The lesson of rhythm and how crucial it is to sound, fast, powerful rowing came to me early in my rowing career. 

It was season two of my rowing career, and I was racing in an 8+ with my team from Western Reserve Rowing Association. It was one of our first regattas of the season in Grand Rapids, Michigan. One of my first races ever.

From the start of the race, this boat felt miserable. We weren’t weak women—we had quite a bit of strength and power and grit. But it wasn’t serving us so well that day, as we struggled and plowed through the water at the back of the racing pack. Every stroke seemed to be a ton of work, but the effort didn’t take us anywhere. We were zooming up to the catch, crashing into the front stops, dropping the oar with a slash, then flattening our legs to smash back into the finish. (Sound painful? Oh, it was!) This madness happened over and over again, more than 30 times each minute. The misery was compounded by all eight of us trying something…anything…to make the row feel better. Every stroke, we’d each try something different to make things better. But our changes only made the bad row feel worse in a new way.

Then, when all seemed lost, our coxswain entered the scene. He was in his 30s, dark, skinny, and small with delicate features. In addition to being a rocking coxswain, he was a ballroom dancer. He understood rhythm and the incredible power and grace it could instill. He knew that there was a principle to it, and when the rules were followed and heeded by all the dancers, magical things could happen. This magic changed everything the dancers felt individually and collectively. And the audience then felt it too.

So halfway through this race, when it seemed over, when tears of anger, exhaustion, and frustration were streaming down my face—our coxswain called a waltz.

He’d done this a few times in practice. A three-step cadence. 1-2-3…1-2-3. One and two sent us up the slide gracefully, slowly, in time with the boat’s glide through the water. Three was the connection and the punch with the legs. As we followed his calls, the effort wasn’t any less intense than it was before, but it now had the magic and beauty that happens when harmony prevails and individual effort becomes teamwork.

Within three strokes, the boat relaxed. Now our strokes were in sync, our bodies moved together, and the boat picked up speed. While we weren’t suddenly Olympic caliber rowers, the feel of our boat had shifted and morphed from a forced, labored jostling down the Grand River to a float and glide toward the finish line. The work was still necessary, but now the work bore fruit. It was easier to row harder, simpler to put on that sprint.

We crossed the finish line in third place out of seven boats, within a stone’s throw of first.

Our coach couldn’t believe what he’d seen—a boat completely falling apart in last place, and then, suddenly, a boat that was, well, different. When I got out of the boat, he grabbed me by the shoulders and asked, “What the @#$! happened out there?!” At the time, I had no answer other than to say, “We started to waltz.”

I know now what our coxswain unleashed when he had us dancing down the Grand River. He helped us find our groove, our rhythm, and our power. You can find it too, dear Novice Rower—even in the middle of winter.


photo credit: Photosightfaces The Waltz via photopin (license)