When I got an e-mail from Christina Sadowski, assistant rowing coach for the Genesee Waterways Center rowing team, about coming down and testing the waters at an indoor rowing class, I jumped at the chance.
While driving down Route 96 during the summer, I'd seen the Pittsford Crew team practicing on the Erie Canal a number of times, and I'd always wanted to try it — even if only to see how buff my arms could get. (Maybe that's Michelle Obama's secret.)
But rowing indoors? It immediately conjured thoughts of a huge boat tipping over in the middle of an Olympic-sized swimming pool. That's completely not the case. When I arrived at the Pittsford Indoor Rowing Center (where classes are held in the winter), I was surprised to find four pools each measuring 48 feet long and 9 feet wide and, running next to them (outside of the pool), wooden platforms with metal tracks and sliding seats similar to those on a rowing machine you'd use at a gym.
The oars are the only things that go in the water, which can be controlled to mimic a natural current. The class started out with everyone warming up on the kind of rowing machines you would find at a gym.
We concentrated on correct form — moving one part of the body at a time and using the back and legs to get the most power. "Learning the rowing stroke is only six steps," Sadowski says. "In the most basic sense, the stroke can be understood in an hour, but the actual skill of rowing takes years and decades to perfect."
After working on the machines, we moved over to the poolside rowing area. I sat behind a more experienced rower near the bow (front) of the "boat" so I could follow her lead, but that also meant the six people behind me would have to follow me.
It's set up like a physical game of telephone — you watch the rower directly in front of you to match their speed and form. If anyone is off-pace, it will completely disrupt the flow and speed of the boat.
"It's the ultimate team sport," Sadowski says. "It is not like a basketball game where a player stands out for the number of baskets in a game. Rowers are completely dependent on one another."
But there really was no pressure to make perfect strokes from the start — like me, everyone else in the class was a beginner. My biggest issue was that I didn't want to look straight ahead at the rower in front of me. I kept watching the oar to make sure I was putting it in the water correctly and in synch with the rest of the rowers.
But, Sadowski says: "The reason why rowers are instructed to not look at their oars is due to the fact that moving the head impacts the balance of the boat, changes the rower's body posture and does not allow for the rower to be truly synced up with the followed rower."
Although I couldn't quite break the habit of watching my oar, I was pretty confident in the skills I learned in just one night. I was even eager to row faster, but I understood that form was more important than power.
Rowing is a sport that just about anyone can master with practice (even if you're vertically challenged like me). In the summer, the GWC even offers a program in which beginners can get out on the Erie Canal after just two lessons. I'll definitely be attending.
Hope I end up with toned arms and can avoid tipping the boat.