World Rowing looks at how rowing clubs in Brazil and the United States have tried to adapt.
Dealing with disappointment
Michael Callahan is the Head Coach of the men’s rowing team at the University of Washington (UW) in Seattle, United States. Last spring, he had to deal with the disappointment his athletes faced when they lost the opportunity to race for the last time.
Athletes competing in university sports in the United States are allowed to compete for four years, with the culmination races in rowing in the late spring and early summer. When the coronavirus hit and the spring races were cancelled.
“After the announcement that the 2020 season was cancelled we had three goals: the health and safety of our student athletes was number one priority, continue to make progress towards their academic degrees and thirdly continue to make progress in rowing,” says Callahan.
The rowers from UW live all around the world and Callahan says he first wanted to make sure everyone was situated in a safe place. After that, he and the team tried to make sure everyone stayed engaged. They organised Zoom calls with former top UW rowers to talk about how they rowed in their own countries.
“They did it without giving up state secrets!” Callahan says. “In the end the basic rule of rowing always became the topic of discussion. Decide on a style, do it together and pull for one another. All styles win races, it’s doing it well together that is most important.”
Adjusting to culture shock
Nearly 11,000 kilometres south-west of the Seattle rowers, members of the Flamengo Rowing Club in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil were trying to stay engaged as well. Bernhard Stomporowski had recently started as head coach for the club. From Germany, Stomporowski has coached all over the world and was just starting to learn about the local culture and language when the pandemic hit. Compared to the clear-cut policies at the university in Seattle, Stomporowski was struggling with trying to understand a foreign system.
“As a foreigner it’s hard to understand the measures the government takes,” he says. “I didn’t know about the national versus the local rules and how it’s enforced or not enforced.”
Stomporowski says the club was closed in May and no one was allowed to go back until August. The Flamengo Club is both a rowing club and well-known football club. Stomporowski says it was under great scrutiny by the media because of the popularity of the football club.
“In the beginning it was learning what needed to be done. The athletes had to fill out a questionnaire every time when they entered the club. If they forgot to fill it out, they were not allowed to enter the club.”
But after a few weeks the procedures became clear and Stomporowski says they were able to get back to training at a relatively normal level.
Back in Seattle, they were also adjusting to the new procedures and were able to resume training in the autumn months.
“The mantra of “staying positive and testing negative” became our mission for the autumn,” says Callahan.
The university has access to abundant and fast testing, which Callahan says was key to bringing the athletes back to the campus for training.
“As for the rowing we started rowing 28 singles in multiple shifts to get everyone on the water. We supplemented the rowing with weightlifting and ergometer rowing and running stairs. After a few weeks we moved to doubles and pairs and eventually progressed to fours within households,” he says.
“It was a very successful proof of concept that you can train and keep each other healthy. We had zero positive tests while training 20 hours a week.”
Both Callahan and Stomporowski are looking forward to potential upcoming racing. For the university rowers, this means university racing in the American spring. For Stomporowski, this means working toward final Olympic qualification in May and the Olympic Games in July 2021.
Despite challenging times, both coaches remain positive and optimistic about the racing to come.
As Callahan says, “our goal has never wavered, but the challenges and the ways we have had to adapt to pursue those goals have drawn us closer. I am incredibly grateful to my athletes, staff and university. I can’t imagine navigating this with a better crew.”