Thursday, October 06, 2005

Why Aren't There More Lightweight Programs?

This is the key question for lightweight women's rowing and a question to which many answers are given. Over the next several weeks, I'd like to start a discussion about these answers.

A few years ago I asked this question of the head women's coach of an Ivy League rowing program that does not have lightweights. She offered three reasons for a heavyweight only program, the first being that lightweights would require a separate coach and a separate racing schedule. Essentially, this is a "lack of resources" argument.

The lack of resources argument can be made against any non-profit earning sport (which is all but a very, very few) and requires you to make an argument that the sport is valuable. I'm going to short-cut that requirement by limiting my argument to those schools with heavyweight rowing programs. This allows me to point out the obvious fact that by the existence of those programs, the schools have already recognized the value of rowing as a sport. I'm even willing to further limit my discussion to those schools with men's lightweight programs, which means they have also recognized the value of lightweight rowing. The task, then, becomes one of showing the value of lightweight women's rowing. The obvious path is to simply point out that in this enlightened age, what is good for men is good for women (as far as athletics go), but I'll leave that aside for now.

First, let me address an argument I hear against lightweight rowing in general. Let's call this the "Midget Basketball League" argument, or MBL. This argument states that having lightweight rowing is like having a basketball league for short people. We find that silly, so why do we have lightweight rowing? The obvious answer to that argument is that rowing is a strength sport, and all strength sports have weight classes - weightlifting, wrestling, boxing, etc. This isn't to suggest that strength isn't required in other sports, only that in those other sports the variety of positions allows for smaller stature players to excel. In football, a small guy is useless on the offensive line, but can be quite successful as a tailback or defensive back. A short basketball center is doomed, but a short guard can be a star. In rowing, everyone plays the same position, like weightlifting and wrestling, and strength is important.

Now, let's look at the purpose of athletics at an institution of higher learning. It is, simply, to educate. To educate its student-athletes about dedication, determination, motivation, and desire. About hard work and about sportsmanship. Ultimatey, about winning and losing and about life. There must also be an attempt to educate as many students as possible in this manner. This does not mean that all students get to be on a varsity team, for that would teach false lessons. It does mean that more legitimate sports are better than fewer, and that women should have opportunities similar to men.

When it comes to this kind of education, it seems to me that lightweights fulfill the objective even better than heavyweights. We've all seen big heavyweights with a poor work ethic and short on motivation who nonetheless end up with college scholarships. Their size may very well carry them through four years of collegiate rowing as well. At recruiting time, heavyweight coaches are on an annual scavenger hunt, searching for those unusually large girls they believe can sit in the middle of an eight and yank on an oar. Not so with lightweights. A lightweight is a dedicated hard worker or she doesn't row. She can't take off for a stroke because the similar sized competition is always clawing at her stern. When a lightweight crosses the finish line in first place, she isn't thanking mom and dad for giving her their "big" genes, she's thanking her teammates for putting in the long, arduous hours at practice just as she did, which allowed her boat to beat her competition, which is exactly the same size. There are no shortcuts in lightweight rowing - not for the rowers or the coaches.

The mean height of a 19 year old woman is just over 5 feet 4 inches. If that woman's Body Mass Index is 22, right in the middle of the "normal" range, she weighs 128 pounds. She's a lightweight. Even at 5" 6' and 130 pounds a woman's BMI is 21, well within the normal range. So, the average normal weight woman is a lightweight, which means that there are a lot more lightweights in the college population than heavyweights. Boating a lightweight crew would not only give more women a chance to row, it would also create a more competitive program since there are so many more potential lightweight rowers.

Finally, below the top four or five lightweight crews, chaos reigns. By that I mean that each year another crew is likely to emerge in the grand final at IRAs. The field is wide open. Even among the top crews, new powers are emerging. If a school's goal is to provide a lot of women with a varsity sport, and have an opportunity to win a national championship sooner rather than later, why would it overlook lightweights?

Why have women's lightweight rowing?
- Creates an opportunity for more women to compete than other sports
- The large available pool of potential rowers creates a more competitive program
- All competitors are the same size forcing successful lightweights to be dedicated, intense, and technically proficient
- The lightweight field is wide open offering new programs an early opportunity to make an impact.

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