DISCLAIMER: This article is not about the current state of athletes at the Olympics nor an accurate representation of the state of rowing in Canada. It is purely my opinion based on my observations and recommunicating the sentiments of other athletes at all levels of the sport of whom I’ve spoken with. There really is no going back after this one I guess.
This weekend was the first time in four years that I have raced domestically during the summer, and it highlighted a very deep concern. Being back in Ontario and becoming involved with the rowing scene here, one question constantly looms: what went wrong with the lightweights and what is being done? I don’t have any answers for what is being done, but looking around now I may have my own thoughts for what has gone so wrong.
My biggest issue has been the introduction of the RADAR program being forced upon the athletes. RADAR was designed as a means to help identify future rowing talent and rank current athletes. The major issue is that of the 7 components, 75% of the ranking score is derived from erg (rowing machine) tests and only one part of the scoring system comes from on-water performance. Plus, racing in a head wind for the on water component can severally impair your score because your time will be slower and therefore your overall rank lower.
So, athletes are not rewarded for being exceptional boat movers but for just being exceptionally strong. I’m a major advocate for good ergs correlating to boat speed, but this system strongly discourages athletes who don’t preform well on the erg immediately from continuing in the sport. Funding and talent identification is strictly targeted towards these numbers. For heavyweights, this is less of an issue because size can help carry you through on an erg; however, for lightweights it can take years upon years of cardio work to optimize your strength and size to pull strong ergs. RADAR should simply be an analytical tool for collecting data, not a means for selection and promotion through the sport. That is why we compete on the water for races on the water, not on the erg for races on the water.
The on-water ranking goes a step further to impede the lightweights in Canada. The Gold medal standards (GMS) do not reflect equally across boat classes. Here is how the chart was devised for the first time in 2006. All the heavyweight world record times from that year were sped up by one second to determine the heavyweight men’s GMS’. For the lightweights, a comparison between the two Olympic boat classes (the fours) showed that the lightweight four time was 99.2% of the heavyweight four time. The remaining times for lightweight boat classes were then interpolated to go 99.2% of their respective heavyweight classes. Over the years, they have been subjectively adjusted by a second here or there. Nonetheless, you get things like the lightweight pair GMS being 8 seconds faster than the current world record and no one questioning it (6:18 GMS compared to 6:26 WR).
Now when boats are ranked to be sent to the world championships and world cups or even domestically at clubs, lightweight boats, aside from the Olympic class ones, would typically be 2% lower on ranking and most likely looked at as slow. The obvious question: why not just do the same thing for all the boat classes that was done for the heavyweight times? The reason why this is such a massive problem is that this interpolation of times assumes power (wattage) is a linear measure when in fact it is exponential. Simplified, this means that as the speed increases, it takes increasingly higher wattages to make marginal increases in boat speed. For example, going from a 2:00 split to 1:55 takes 28 watts, but going from a 1:40 split to 1:35 takes 58 watts. It’s still 5 seconds, but the amount of power it takes is completely different. So, two heavyweights that can achieve a max power of over 1000 watts will have an easier time sustaining their projected 1:33.5 split than two lightweights who can only achieve 850 watts to reach their target of 1:34.5 on the GMS (world record split is 1:36.5 for lightweights). Again, lightweights are discouraged from continuing in the system because they are earlier on identifying themselves as weaker than their heavyweight counterparts.
The results of this program are incredibly evident; erg scores in Canada have substantially improved. Talent is being identified but more athletes are being cast aside. It is still concerning, though, that on the water, crews south of the border are increasingly winning races at Canadian Henley, our top domestic regatta. On a purely subjective basis, I can only say that the correlation is not moving uniformly. Developing athletes should regard their merits from their results at Canadian Henley, not the borage of off water erg tests that follow the week after, which, should be reserved for relaxing and unwinding. Good rowing is not being as strongly encouraged as raw power, and the numbers blind us. Since the introduction of the program, the athlete pool at the men’s center has massively decreased. There has not been an U23 men’s eight since 2009; in 2008, there were over 18 lightweights at the center (compared to the constantly in-flux 10 through the whole quadrennial now); and, the number of up and coming athletes that have left is upsetting. Had RADAR existed in 2008 I would have never been allowed to attend the training center that summer. Still, though, in 2008 after winning a National Championship, a Canadian university title, making my first national team, and captaining my university to its first provincial title in years, I was denied funding because of my erg scores. I didn’t receive any funding until 2010 and now it’s under scrutiny for not being at the center for the summer after being denied my attempt at Olympic qualification.
As a subjective athlete I have seen more of Own the Podium’s funding gone towards administration devised for development programs than directly to the athletes themselves, a process that I would agree with if it were demonstrating that it was working properly. As athletes, the camps we go on, the hotels we stay at, and the transportation over seas hasn’t changed too much. We do get food at the lake now, though, but then again we did take a mandatory cut in our TCASP funding for that. I’ve also lost count at the number of times I’ve heard we don’t have enough money to hire a head lightweight coach
Being on the Ontario circuit again, the scene has indeed seemed to be down sized. In my earlier years, guys bounced between the center and domestic racing all year. I got to see the standard the center produced and I knew what I had to aspire to. Now with this ‘be at a center year round or you’re not training’ ideology, we are restricted to Victoria while other national team hopefuls are unwilling to make the commitment to move. They are seemingly discouraged to drop their lives simply to row. Who would blame them? Four years at welfare level funding with no opportunity for sponsorships and forcefully bottle necked in one location is really not convincing athletes to give up a career for that life. So I have said good-bye to some great athletes and good friends who couldn’t justify doing that to their futures.
The final factor is that no one ever sees the national team in Canada. In almost every other nation, national team athletes race in several of their own country’s club races. They race for their home clubs and connect with the local rowing community. Rowers in Canada want to know more about us, but they don’t get any opportunities. Being at Argo’s has affirmed that thought again, and I can see it in one particular pair at the club.
There are two juniors here rowing a pair, Sam and Luke, and I have to say those two are ballsy athletes; they love beating Ryan and myself. Watching them take off and do whatever it takes to stick out in front of us is motivating. Those two just want to win and they base their standard off of ours and in turn we talk, and teach, and learn from each other. The same way I learned from guys like Morgan Jarvis when he left the center in 2005 and rowed with me at Queens, or Simon Gowdy who did the same after winning a bronze in the U23 lm4- in 2004. Will Crothers even used to show up and row with the Queen’s heavy men before leaving for Washington in the fall. We don’t leave the center now, even for a few months, so you don’t see us anymore.
How do we go forward? That is not my place to discuss, my solutions stem from my opinions. Just because I say these things does not mean I am right by any means. It’s similar to how I looked at the pair I rowed in before making the switch to the Hudson: you can know everything about rowing to go forward and build the perfect hull, but sitting in it just once, you would realize some very obvious mistakes. On the other hand, if you never sat on the inside, you’d probably always just assume it was perfect.