WRITTEN BY RICHARD SEVEN
PHOTOGRAPHED BY STEVE RINGMAN
Strokes of Genius
Onna Poeter of Golden, Colo., goes the distance on the ergometer rowing machine at the Northwest Indoor Championships in Seattle this past January. She won this women's juniors heat.
WITH ALL THE chatter about the Sonics, Huskies and Mariners, I know most of you didn't notice this blurb:
"Masters rower Luanne Mills of Seattle's Pocock Rowing Center captured a world indoor title at the 'CRASH-B World Indoor Rowing Championships' at the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center in Boston. Over 1,800 indoor rowers representing national teams, colleges, high schools, and rowing and health clubs from 20 countries competed in the 2,000-meter indoor competition."
Mills, a 66-year-old teacher at Seattle's Olympic View Elementary School, won her second consecutive age-category title with a time barely seven seconds off her world-record age-category time. Mills and three other area competitors qualified for the championships at "Ergomania" at the Seattle Center in January.
Mills wasn't even all that athletic until she became involved in a Fred Hutchinson health and exercise study. It was there, at age 46, that she discovered indoor rowing, got involved in competitions and eventually qualified for the U.S. Indoor Rowing Team.
As amazing as her story is, it might be just as amazing to land-lubbers that Seattle's top rowers spend considerable time on the stationary devices to stay in shape and hone fundamentals.
Former Olympian Anna Mickelson, for instance, used the machine — found in most fitness clubs — as a way to become one of the world's top rowers.
"My first year rowing for the University of Washington, the rowing machine was my best friend," she says. A Bellevue native who won a silver medal in the 2004 Olympics, Mickelson was a talented high-school runner who found the "ergometer" an easy way to transition to a rowing career.
"I loved rowing on the machine because it was so stable and I didn't have to worry about whether or not my oar was in the water. I would set up a goal for how fast I wanted to go, then the display screen would tell me each stroke if I was on pace or not. Within six months at UW, I had the top 2K ergometer score for an American freshman. This was how I earned a shot at making the first boat."
This is known as "dry land" training and is not specific to rowing. Athletes in all sports prepare for their activity by tailoring workouts to the particular movements they need to master for competition. Getting a good score on the machine doesn't necessarily make you a fast rower, but it does measure your fitness, mental toughness and potential rowing power.
"I use the ergometer to check my cardiovascular progress leading up to competition, says Mickelson. "I strive to improve my scores and know that if I keep improving my fitness and technical abilities, I can be one of the best rowers in the U.S. The most important step for me when using the ergometer is to have a short- and long-term goal, just like I did when I first began."
While the machine is a preferred device for training and testing by Olympic-caliber rowers, it also is an easy, helpful and generally safe workout for weekend warriors.
"Rowing, along with cross-country skiing, is relatively injury-free because it is low-impact," says Dr. Thomas DePuydt, team physician for the Seattle Thunderbirds and Sounders and former team physician at the UW.
Rowing involves the entire body: legs, back, arms, shoulders and heart, says DePuydt, but as with any workout, you also must use your head.
Learn how to do it — right. We all think we know how to row, but a lot of us are simply winging it, short-changing the workout and risking injuries. "Take a lesson from a professional certified instructor or a coach," he says.
Mickelson says it is important to fully use your legs and find a rhythm. Watch yourself in a mirror and try for a linear, smooth motion. Moving too fast up the slide, rowing underhanded and feeling the burn in your arms is, she says, "wrong on so many levels." Keep your shoulders relaxed and your arms straight as long as possible. If you feel a tweak or spasm, stop.
Because it seems simple, many people start too fast and push themselves too hard. You have to prepare the muscular-skeletal system for the load it must absorb. So ease into the activity, especially if you are a beginner who doesn't have a base of skills or development.
Overuse injuries are a concern with any sport, and rowing, with its repetitive movements, is no exception. You'd think that the arms and legs would be the leading areas of injury, but that distinction belongs to the back.
Richard Seven is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Steve Ringman is a Seattle Times staff photographer.
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