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International rowing to the letter

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Annabel Vernon | 12:40 UK time, Thursday, 11 August 2011

My two-year-old niece is currently learning her alphabet (I know, she's pretty advanced. As long as she doesn't ever better my rowing achievements I won't mind). That inspired me to come up with an A-Z of international rowing to help people learn more about our lives and what we do.

A: Anxiety. Anxiety or nerves affect everyone, irrespective of the level of competition. I got as nervous when racing the college bumps at university in Cambridge as I do for the World Championships; mainly because whatever level you're at, competing means the world to you.

B: Blisters. These initially cause problems for the novice rower's hands, but later turn into calluses, which are more unsightly but also more practical. Being from a farming background, I don't mind being a horny-handed daughter of the soil; but my goodness calluses don't half rip holes in tights and pashminas.

GB rowers spend two to three hours a week on  the ergometer

GB rowers spend two to three hours a week on the ergometer

C: Coaches. This is the collection of middle-aged men from around the world who tell us what to do - from sarcastic Australians, to no-nonsense northerners. But of course, as a woman, we don't mind being told what to do by men, do we?

D: Dreams. This is going to soundly cheesy, but I personally think the best thing about being an international athlete is that I'm constantly working towards my dreams.

My dream is to go to the Olympics and win, and I'm doing everything in my power, as part of a squad of similarly determined and passionate women, guided by a team of coaches and sports scientists all experts in their field, to achieve that. What could be better than that?

E: Ergo. "Cogito ergo sum," said Descartes - "I think, therefore I am". "Ergo, ergo sum," reply rowers who spend two to three hours a week on "ergometer" rowing machines. Coaches love these grey machines because they can see the numbers and they know exactly how hard you're working. "Ergs don't float," we grumble in response.

F: With apologies to my Mum, sometimes in sport, no other word will do.

G: Going out. Not something that we do every often as we fight a constant battle against overwhelming tiredness (see T), and are thus tucked up in bed by 9 or 10 o'clock most evenings. Which is ironic, really, because many of us first started rowing because at university the rowers had the best social lives. Nowadays, we are the ultimate binge drinkers: we don't drink for months on end then have one almighty night out after the World Championships.

GB womens' squad

GB womens' squad sport their formal Team GB Olympic outfits in Beijing

H: Henley Royal Regatta. Ah, Hen-lah. The showpiece of British rowing. The standard of international racing very much depends on which countries choose to include it in their summer racing schedule, but for club rowers it is the pinnacle of achievement. Everyone wants to either win or get knocked out on the first day so they can don their blazer and drink Pimm's for the remaining days. Therefore, everyone's a winner at Henley.

I: Interviews. Is it possible to give a sporting interview without slipping into clichés? You try to avoid them, but suddenly you find yourself saying that at the end of the day, you're going to go out and give it your best, and it was a race of two halves, and ...

J: JDI (Just Do It). This is what sport comes down to in its simplest form. You can over-analyse your technique, you can use cutting-edge technology, you can bring in experts in all sorts of things; but sport at its essence is not complicated. Whether it's getting your boat across the finish line first, or indeed kicking a ball into a net, or repeatedly hitting a cricket ball over a boundary rope; be simple and be ruthless. JDI.

K: Kit. Rowing kit evolved from the classic PE kit of shirt and shorts, but whereas other athletes now wear clothes which can look good or be flattering (tennis dresses, rugby shirts, cricket whites), rowing has evolved the other way, becoming less and less flattering, especially for the womenfolk. Tight, shiny lycra, revealing all of one's lumps, bumps and sweat patches. Coming to a catwalk near you soon!

L: Lakes. Many hours ploughing up and down lakes around the world can be repetitive, but putting in perhaps 30 laps a week on the stunning Lake Bled in Slovenia (where the World Championships take place at the end of this month), Lake Varese in Italy (where we are on training camp for the next few weeks) or the Rotsee at Lucerne is surely far preferable to following the bottom of a swimming pool, or the black line in a velodrome. Count your blessings.

M: MTFU. Another acronym, often shortened to merely "Man Up". I'm not sure what the feminists of the 1970s and '80s would have made of this saying, which is in very common usage in the GB women's squad but we can be sure of one thing: Maggie Thatcher would approve.

N: Nutrition. Quality and quantity (3-4,000 calories a day for openweight women - up to twice the recommended daily amount) is the key here, all washed down with copious amounts of sugary electrolyte drinks. Just wait until we retire and you can bet that we're all going to pile on the pounds.

O: Olympics, predictably. See my previous blog on this subject.

P: Pain. I could write a PhD on this. There are many different kinds of pain: the my-legs-are-burning-my-lungs-are-screaming pain; the everything-is-tightening-up-and-I-can't-see-anymore pain; or the I-want-to-climb-out-out-of-my-skin-because-my-entire-body-is-killing-me pain when you've just crossed the line in a race. It is your constant companion in rowing. However, as the saying goes, pain is temporary but glory is forever!

Q: Quadruple scull. The boat in which I've won three of my four World Championship medals thus far (and one of the six different boat types used at Olympic level). A quad is a relatively small hull for a lot of power and energy, so the trick is to learn how to blend the power with finesse, precision and timing. When you get it just right, the boat flies.

R: Rib. The most common of rowing injuries is the rib stress fracture, which I've been fortunate enough to avoid. With several hundred watts going through your body every stroke, tremendous pressure is put on your torso in a repetitive manner, thousands of times a day for years and years.

S: Sweat. We've trained in some pretty warm environments over the years but nothing compares to Gifu, where we contested the World Championships in 2005, when the entire team of 50 or so athletes were erging in a hall with no ventilation, in the humidity of Japan. I think there was more sweat than floor by the end. Nice!

T: Training programme. The Excel spreadsheet emailed out to us periodically by the coaches, detailing minutes per day to be devoted to each training zone or activity (weights, trunk conditioning, etc), is the Bible to us. Rowers divide into two groups: those who study it avidly weeks in advance, can always remember the schedule for the day, and can always produce the session's required rates, split times or distances upon request; and those who believe that ignorance is bliss.

U: UT2. This is the name given to the training threshold at which we do probably 90% of our training. Heart rate roughly between 150-170, rate 18-20 strokes per minute, just get your head down and bash it out. Getting tired or bored? See 'M'.

Annabel and her mum - the least sporty woman in Cornwall (officially)

Annabel and her mum - the least sporty woman in Cornwall

V: Vernons! I'm never quite sure how I've ended up being an Olympic rower: I come from a long line of Cornish farmers, and whereas my Mum and my younger brother both hate sport and pride themselves on having never owned a pair of trainers, my Dad and my older brother are both stubborn individuals and devotees of 'extreme' sports - surfing, wakeboarding, windsurfing - so how did I end up in the most disciplined of team sports?

W: Weights, or "strength and conditioning" as the coaches prefer. The classic idea that people have of weight training is something along the lines of Arnie or Rocky, bashing out a montage of bench presses to the music of some power ballad from the 1980s. The reality is a bit more mundane. S&C not only increases our power and strength but can rehab injuries or niggles, correct imbalances and increase our flexibility and core strength to assist with injury prevention. But yes, we do still sometimes put on the Rocky soundtrack.

X: eXhaustion. Just as the Eskimos apparently have over a hundred words for snow, I could probably think of a hundred different ways of being tired. Training for 30 hours a week or thereabouts is essentially a constant process of getting tired and recovering, getting tired and recovering, and so on. There's walking-up-stairs tired, falling-asleep-everywhere tired, generally-a-bit-grumpy tired, counting-strokes-on-an-ergo tired, losing-your-sense-of-humour tired ...

Y: Why do we do it? See the entry for 'D' and this should give you some idea. Ultimately I think one has to refer to George Mallory, with his famous reply when asked why he wanted to climb Everest, "because it's there". Why do I want to go to the Olympics? Because it's there.

Z: Zzzzz. Sleep? Not a problem. Anywhere, anytime, any day, I can pretty much fall asleep on request. I think 'training induced narcolepsy' should be a recognized medical condition.

Feel free to write in with comments or alternative ideas. Having just completed a training camp in Germany, we're now off to Italy to make final preparations for the World Championships in Bled in September.


  • Comment number 1.

    Lovely stuff. Vast majority of it applies below international level too...

  • Comment number 2.

    'M' Should be for Misery too. Whether it's training in gale force winds in the middle of winter in the pouring rain, someone in your crew doing something that really annoys you, an unexpected poor performance in an ergo test, a race or training piece that doesn't go well, coaches saying things that make matters more confusing, or just getting up early every morning and only getting a few mornings to yourself a year, there is always something to moan about! But we keep going through all the bad things because when it's good it's really good.

  • Comment number 3.

    Brilliant analysis of the joy and pain of almost all sports.

    Alternative answer to "Y", quoting Richard Noble who, when asked why he had broken the land speed record, replied:" For Britain, and for the hell of it!"

  • Comment number 4.

    MK01 has it. I rowed at school, we trained 6 days a week. Best thing was having lunch reserved for us and getting multiple rations. Hard to find a worst, but weather would be involved. We camped for a week at Henley every Easter and trained at 7.30am, lunchtime and 6 in the evening and it was actually fun! Fortunately, the Ergo was in it's infancy then...

  • Comment number 5.

    Great piece and all the best for the Olympics!

  • Comment number 6.

    Great Post, great analysis of the highs and lows of rowing at the highest level.

  • Comment number 7.

    Nice article! But do you only do 2 to 3 hours a week on the ergs?

  • Comment number 8.

    Really enjoyed this blog although I have to admit I don't have a faintest clue who you were! British rowing in the media has a tendency to be of the well educated (Oxbridge races is the only rowing show on popular TV) and of course the men who have brought home gold in the Olympics over the last decades in the coxless pairs and coxless fours.

    Anyway gives me something to today by going through your previous blogs and will hopefully read a lot more them in the future (particulary after the Olympics to see was it all worth it), however please don't mention calluses again.

  • Comment number 9.

    R for Rain? for those days when its 6am freezing, the middle of December and you can barely see the river your drenched before you've even pushed off and the only place you want to be is in bed.

  • Comment number 10.

    great article annabel, really enjoyed it. witty and informative!

  • Comment number 11.

    An absolutely superb blog! Loved it & facebooked it :D

  • Comment number 12.

    I can see how being horny-handed and used to handling large lengths of wood can help with rowing, dispite the blisters!

    Good A - Z

  • Comment number 13.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 14.

    @ 13 Liverpaul85

    I do not see how my comment is childish. If you would care to explain I would appreciate it. The general duties performed on farms build good core strength and grip in the hands which are key physical attributes in rowing. Are there not many farms in Liverpaul? Did you mean Liverpool by the way?

    Back to the blog, like E! Good to see some Descartes in there! Ergo are one of the only fitness machines i would use, though there deffinately is a love hate relationship there!

    And J (Just Do It) a good mantra to have in your head when your body is giving up on you. Along with M (MTFU), altohugh M could have been Mind over Matter aswell!

  • Comment number 15.

    @14 Daverichallen

    Well its childish because Annabel has written a fantastic blog and you decide to abse your comments on the fact that she wrote "horny-handed" come on Dave, you must be able to think of something more intelligent to write about?!

    And also....MTFU?? i do not understand, care to enlighten me?

  • Comment number 16.

    @ 15 liverpaul85

    If you feel you need me to explain simple accronyms like MTFU when the first and the last letter have been spelt out in the blog then I fear you maybe reading above your intellect and all I can suggest is tomorrow you pick something more age specific for yourself.
    I fear I have miss judged you from your name. I thought you would be a man of 26 from Liverpool possibly by the name of Paul. However with regards to the reasons and comments above this has thrown into doubt the meaning of the letters 85. Maybe that is your IQ score, Paul is your dog, Liver is your favourite food and you reside down south some where? There must be truth in there somewhere.

    This blog has made me wonder what other sports people would do for their own respective A-Z. Some are deffinately applicable to many if not all sports, other sports will throw in their own unique letters.

  • Comment number 17.

    @ 16 Daverichallen

    Was actually just wondering if you would Man the F up and explain on here what it meant. I guess we both now realise the answer to that.

    So judging by your name, i would guess you are Dave Richard Allen or maybe you are German and its Daver Ichallen?

    And if you want me to read something more suited to my intellect please suggest something as i'm sure you have read all the Beano's.

  • Comment number 18.

    @ 17 Liverpaul85

    You are right. I have read all the Beano's. And all the Dandy's. When I was 8! I suggest Desperate Dans adventures. Simple pleasures. My 5 year old son also has a Where's Wally that you would most likely enjoy.

    However are you going to contribute to this (as you put it yourself) intullectual article (albeit in a more simple way than other thus far) yourself, or just continue to poke fun and try to undermine a fellow European?

    How was the World Cup? Maybe for a world cup A - Z 'D' and 'E' could be Deutschland 4 - England 1?

  • Comment number 19.

    Great list but mystified about the negative attitude to lycra. IMHO women rowers look fantastic in lycra ( I should admit I met my wife through rowing - and yes, she looked rather good in it.)

    And I understand that from a woman's point of view, fit male rowers look pretty good in it too.

    But yes... there's nothing worse than someone out of shape wearing it (which sadly, is why I haven't been able to wear it since I stopped rowing seriously some years ago...)

  • Comment number 20.

    This is so true on so many levels ! I am just staring 2 sessions a day, which is 15 hours a week !!!! I love the quote pain is temporary but glory is forever that's what gets you through an ergo ! :)


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