Thursday, July 06, 2006


Now that the summer club season is here, it's a good time to think about growing women's lightweight rowing, probably the single most pressing issue in the sport today. We've just finished possibly the most competitive season ever, yet women's lightweight rowing remains the smallest of the four categories in the sport. Total participation is good, and may actually show the women to be close to men's lightweights. When I looked back at the 2004 and 2005 seasons, I found that around 90 schools boated lightweight eights or fours over the two years. Seventy did in each year alone and, of those, 50 were consistent between the two years. The problem, however, is that the dedicated programs are growing realatively slowly (although I think at an accelerating rate). Most of those 50 programs raced fours, as in any one year there were about 20 to 25 schools racing eights. Dedicated programs race eights.

The combination of Title IX and a NCAA championship has resulted in explosive growth for women's heavyweights, and logic would suggest that a NCAA championship for lightweights would do the same. While the desirability of such a championship for any category is far from settled, a major hurdle exists for a lightweight championship - the NCAA considers rowing to be a team sport. The most obvious manifestation of this is the emphasis on team championships. The latest issue of Rowing News announced Cal's team championship in the headline of it's NCAA championship article. A reader had to get into the text to read about Princeton's V8 which won it's championship after one of the most dominating seasons in history. Did any rowers care about the team championship other than Cal? I ask the question again, Would you rather win the V8 or the team championship? A newspaper reporter had an apt description for the team championship - it's like winning the Home Run Derby.

More important to us, however, is the fact that since rowing is a team championship, if lightweights were to be added they would have to be added as an event in that championship. In other words, those teams receiving team bids would need to have lightweights. No teams would receive bids for just a lightweight boat (which would be similar to a team receiving a bid for a V4). Since almost none of the programs sending teams to the NCAAs have lightweights, it's hard to imagine a lightweight event ever making it into the championship. In addition, some of the better lightweight programs are DII or DIII schools, which would not be allowed to mix with DI schools. Perhaps the structure could be changed to allow lightweights in separately, but it's not clear how.

Interestingly enough, if lightweights were simply another event, like a 2-, it wouldn't be so difficult to add them. The problems arise because lightweight rowing is more similar to another sport, not another event. A lightweight program requires different athletes, different coaches, different equipment, and different schedules. The NCAA tells lightweights they're simply another event, while the rowing world says it can't add that event because it would be like adding another sport. Perhaps this is another sign of how the NCAA misunderstands rowing, or perhaps a sign of how the NCAA would like to see lightweights go away.

While saying it wants to grow women's rowing at all levels, the NCAA has also said that it has no plans to add lightweights to its championship, a decision it leaves up to its membership. As best I can tell that membership has a voice through an advisory committee. It would be interesting to know if that committee has ever discussed lightweight rowing and what its attitude is toward the category. Perhaps we can find out.

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