Back to the basics at Calm Waters Rowing
(Story previously published in Canstar weeklies)
I’ve been rowing longer than I should probably admit. What started as a curious and casual recreational pursuit many years ago has since become a mission to compete in the sport. Get as good as I can. Achieve my own potential. But it hasn’t been an easy road, not at all.
Let’s begin by saying I’m not a natural athlete. Whatsoever. In fact, I’m more genetically inclined to play bingo than sports. But I love sports! In school, I tried baseball, basketball, volleyball, water polo, racquetball, even cross-country. While I was “okay” at most activities, I excelled at none. Still, I kept trying, hopeful that one day, something would click.
In 2001, I was presented with the opportunity of a lifetime through History Television series Quest for the Bay. Selected as one of a crew of eight, our task was to row a York boat from Winnipeg to the Hudson Bay in the tradition of the fur trade – with gear, clothing and food the same as it would have been back in 1840.
It took 61 grueling days of backbreaking labour and blistered hands to achieve our goal of reaching York Factory. We crossed 10 lakes, followed four rivers, painstakingly hoisted the boat over five portages, and nervously shot through 50 sets of rapids. It was the most incredible experience, and the most terrifying existence. It was exhausting, and exhilarating. It was terrible, and thrilling. It was horrible, and wonderful. It was everything I hoped it would be, and so much more than I ever could have imagined.
After Quest for the Bay, I returned home with a whole new outlook on life, a deep respect for working hard, and a profound desire to keep challenging myself. I had also developed a nagging curiosity to find out what it would be like to row a boat that did not weigh 2000 pounds…
One year later, I turned up at the Winnipeg Rowing Club. I knew nothing about the sport of rowing, or anyone who did it. But I felt the need to try. So I took the leap, joined the recreational program, and was hooked. Just like that, I had a new quest – and have been immersed in it ever since.
But like I mentioned, rowing has not come easy to me. Since I started, I’ve contended with tendonitis in one shoulder, and then the other. I injured my knee in another sport, and couldn’t row for many months. I endured work-related and life-related setbacks. I picked up bad technical habits that became hard to change. I struggled with confidence, and doubted myself. I compared myself to others, and stressed about performance. I wondered if I’d ever be able to row well. And each year, I got another year older – making physical training a little more challenging with each passing season.
Despite all this, I absolutely love the sport, and have never lost my desire to keep trying. I keep hoping that one day, it will all come together. Someday, it will all click. So this year, I’ve made it my goal to focus on improving technique. I decided to attend a rowing training camp where I could spend serious time working on boat skills, and some of the mental aspects of the sport. My new mission: increase competency, and build confidence.
Calm Waters Rowing seemed like the right place for me to go. It’s a rowing camp for masters. Let me clarify that the category of ‘masters’ is based on age, not skill level. So you don’t have to be good to be considered a ‘master’ – you just have to be old. Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately) I have no problem qualifying for that.
Located near Lancaster, Virginia, Calm Waters is run by husband/wife team John Dunn and Charlotte Hollings. Collectively, they’ve spent more than 70 years immersed in the sport, and their rowing resumes are impressive to say the least. They’ve won international medals with their respective US national teams – John winning silver at the 1975 World Rowing Championships in Lightweight Men’s Eight, and Charlotte capturing Gold in Lightweight Women’s Four at the Worlds in 1994. Both of them also coached high performance programs, and that’s how their paths eventually crossed. They met coaching at Cornell University, and married soon after.
It was while coaching together at a sculling camp in Florida that life took an unexpected turn. The rowing couple discovered so much joy and satisfaction out of coaching masters that they set out to open their own sculling camp. They bought an inn and a lake in Virginia, started Calm Waters Rowing in 2001, and never looked back.
Calm Waters is in operation from March to November, and stays includes coaching, lodging, and most meals. Prices vary depending on time of year, choice of room, and length of stay. They offer three-day and four-day packages, so I combined two to stay for one full week. While I probably could have benefited from a full month, I figured that seven days should give me enough time to start making some changes. At least I hoped so.
I flew into Richmond, rented a car, studied google maps, and set out to find them some 85 miles away. Their inn, called Levelfields, is a gorgeous Georgia-style manor house built in 1859. It was once the centre of a plantation, and an architectural landmark. Today, it stands on 54 acres, set back at the end of a 1000’ driveway with sprawling lawn, groomed hedges, rustic woods, backyard swimming pool, and fire-pit.
Levelfields has been completely refurbished, filled with antiques, and adorned with treasures that speak of lives steeped in rowing: old fashioned macon blades spanning one wall; a wooden rowing machine propped up beside the television; rowing medals and certificates hanging about; pictures from regattas gone by; framed newspaper clippings; rowing books and magazines; and on and on. There are six spacious guest rooms that accommodate double occupancy. Since it wasn’t too busy during my stay, they upgraded me to the “Coach” room – the largest upstairs room with king-sized canopy bed, private bath, ceiling fan, hardwood floors, fireplace, and sunrise view.
Rowing sessions take place three times daily on their private lake – a pond originally dammed to provide water to a mill – located a short drive away. Between rowing, they provide demonstrations, analyze videos, and discuss technique. They also videotape participants each morning and review the footage the same day, giving visual feedback and providing points of focus for the next on-water session.
From the moment you meet Charlotte and John you can tell that rowing is their life – and coaching is their forte. It’s obvious they get great satisfaction out of helping others row better, and are extremely passionate, knowledgeable, and encouraging. They have a knack for zeroing in on ways to fine-tune someone’s technique, and make it make sense.
During most rows, one of them coaches from a motor boat and the other from a single, providing two perspectives. Each tends to look at technique a little different, too. The way they describe it is that John coaches ‘physics’ and Charlotte coaches ‘finesse’. They also have different ways of explaining the same thing, allowing for a little nugget of something helpful to eventually resonate and remain with you.
During the first part of my stay, I witnessed them coach a mother and daughter who were absolute beginners, progressing them from wide-bottomed singles to narrow racing shells in just four days (and only five flips by the mom!). Later in the week, I watched them help very experienced rowers make obvious improvements in just a handful of sessions.
With me, they were able to remove the layers of years of coaching from many different coaches, and bad habits engrained from past injuries, and take me back to the very basics. They had me eliminate all power and effort, row lightly, and just feel the stroke. Feel where the blades want to sit in the water. See the height where my hands want to be. Notice the pressure on the soles of the feet. Feel the connection to the core. Roll the handles away at the finish. Take the weight off the handles at the catch. And on it went.
During my week with them, I became aware of so many little realizations, and had countless ‘ah-hah’ moments. Strange as it may sound, while I’ve been rowing for 13 years, I don’t think I’ve ever really ‘felt’ a stroke before. Not like this. It was a brand new experience, and so exciting!
Once I got comfortable feeling the stroke, the next progression was to make it fluid. Drive, recover. Drive, recover. They explained it this way: drive the boat, ride the boat. Then, once fluidity is achieved, start applying a little more pressure to the drive – but only the drive. The catch and finish, which they teach to be part of the recovery, always remain light and stealthy. Drive the boat with pressure and acceleration… ride the boat from finish to catch… suddenly, it was starting to make perfect sense… things were starting to click…
Charlotte and John share a philosophy that rowing should feel easy. It’s through applying power, speed and acceleration that it becomes more challenging. And I believe it’s the challenge that ultimately makes rowing so rewarding. That thrill of chasing the perfect stroke can be the most difficult thing – and in the same moment, the most satisfying. The most frustrating, and the most fulfilling. Maybe that’s the magic that keeps rowers coming back, row after row, for more. More pain, more gain.
I definitely feel like my time at Calm Waters was well spent, and well worth it. Did I fix everything I wanted to fix? Heck no! There weren’t enough hours in seven days to make that happen. But I did leave there feeling more competent and more confident, which is exactly what I set out to do. And now, the real work is only just beginning.
I came home renewed, rejuvenated, and more in love with the sport than ever before. And even more ready to keep trying. I’m also more motivated than I’ve ever been to continue training to achieve my own potential, and get as good as I can. Still hopeful that one day, maybe even sometime soon, it will all click…