Exercise in torture

Rowing: Boston exerts an inexorable pull each winter on those inclined toward testing the limits of self-inflicted pain.


March 07, 2001|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

BOSTON - In the time it takes to hard-boil a couple of eggs for breakfast, Christina Anderson will reduce her body to a heaving, quivering heap.

So will Shaun Hayes and William Malicki. That's what you sign up for when you're a rower.

But in winter, rowers have a passion with no outlet.

So when the air turns cold and water turns solid, thousands of athletes around the world turn to a machine that dispenses agony in precise doses.

The ergometer is a cutting-edge pain producer. Ergo: Sit in the plastic seat, cinch your sneakers to the foot rests and row. Meter: The monitor will tell you when you've suffered enough.

For the past 20 years, the CRASH-B World Indoor Rowing Championships in Boston have been the place to show athletic endurance and pain tolerance.

How much pain?

"When I stopped and leaned back, it felt like someone was stabbing me in the stomach," says Anderson, a 16-year-old Rodgers Forge resident, describing the competition.

Is it like putting your hand on the table and having someone hit it with a hammer?

"No, it's not like that," says Hayes, captain of the Naval Academy rowing team. "It's like putting your hand on a table, someone hands you a hammer and tells you to hit your hand and you do."

Oh. And you do this because ... ?

"It's a challenge," says a panting Malicki, a retired federal employee who lives in Crownsville.

The monitor on the ergometer tells all. The little screen constantly reminds the athletes just how hard they're working. Some athletes concentrate on their "split" - the time it takes to row 500 meters at the pace they're pulling. Others zero in on their elapsed time.

"It's a way to give every ounce you've got and then find out what it's worth down to one-tenth of a second," says Bill Patton, who helps run the CRASH-B. "No one's ever died trying."

Medals are nice, but everyone wants to break his personal best. To beat yourself is what matters.

None of this pain would be possible without Concept2, the Vermont company that took the dorky-looking rowing machine of the Jack LaLanne era and made it Billy Blanks-hip.

The device was created by two brothers, rowers at Stanford University who began their postgraduate work making fiberglass oars.

Dick and Peter Dreissigacker cured oars in their kitchen oven (they built a wooden extension box), then tested their strength by using them as levers to lift cars.

Their improved oar was a stroke of genius. Rowers and their coaches began demanding their product, and it now dominates the sport; 75 percent of all oars at the Sydney Olympics were made by the Dreissigackers' company.

But the brothers wanted another product to help protect their tiny company during economic downturns. They settled on an ergometer.

"The first rowing machines were made out of bicycle parts," says Peter Dreissigacker. "My bicycle parts."

The Concept2 Model A came out in November 1980. Two months later, rowing rats in Boston decided to have an indoor regatta, which they cheekily named the "World Indoor Rowing Championships."

Sixty rowers and their friends came to the Harvard University boathouse for the event, sponsored by the Charles River Association of Sculling Has-Beens, or CRASH-Bs. Organizers put mirrors at either end of the hall to make the crowd look bigger.

The championships don't need mirrors anymore. Redubbed the Charles River All-Star Has-Beens Sprints to reflect the fact that not every competitor sculls, the race maxs out on entries.

Success has bred satellite regattas - 20 around the country and ones overseas - that feed into the CRASH-B. Maryland's version, the Great Baltimore Burn, was held Feb. 10.

Hiding the pain

In his old canvas high-top sneakers and lucky Cornell sweatshirt, Steve Rounds looked like your next-door neighbor about to mow his lawn.

Forget about it. The retired Eastman-Kodak executive from Princeton Junction, N.J., is the fastest man in the world in his age group, 70-79.

Rounds has three gold medals from the CRASH-Bs. He qualified for the world championships at the Philadelphia satellite race, but came to the Friends School gym in Baltimore to try and improve his time.

"I tell people, `When you're racing, smile.' People can't see you're in pain and you can suck in more air," he said, demonstrating with a Cheshire cat grin.

His time over 2,000 meters of 7 minutes, 6.4 seconds was four seconds off his world record- light years in rowing terms.

Across the gym, members of the University of Maryland Baltimore County crew club had another lead to follow: their coach, Jim MacAllister, who won his 40-49 age group with a time of 6:28.

A gold medal had no mellowing effect, however.

"If you don't barf a lung, you're dogging it," he told his team.

His warm and fuzzy style was echoed by Liz Humphries, a monster rower in her own right, who shared words of wisdom with Jackie Zimmerman.

"I don't care how you finish this," she screamed. "Just finish it!"

"I think I want to die," Zimmerman replied as she was helped wobbly-legged from the erg. Her time: 8:14.4.

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