Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Coaches' Thoughts on Lightweight Rowing (cont.)

The second set of questions I asked dealt with weight concerns:

2) There seems to be some hysteria about women participating in any sport with weight limits. Will this ever be overcome and do you think it accounts for lightweight women's status as rowing’s red headed stepchildren? How will the USRowing Medical Commission on Lightweights affect collegiate lightweight rowing? Why is there no women’s lightweight coach on the commission? Why is the NCAA involved?

All of the coaches recognized that there is a general concern about "weight restricted" sports, particularly among women. While recognizing the danger of uninformed weight loss, the coaches also evinced their belief that intelligent weight management poses no danger to an athlete. Most also expressed the need to educate concerned officials and administrators on how weight is managed at top programs.

Particularly distressing was the fact that no coach seemed to be at all informed about the USRowing Medical Commission on Lightweights. One speculated that NCAA involvement might mean the NCAA is considering bringing lightweights into the fold.

The coaches used these questions to discuss some other aspects of the weight issue. One noted her surprise that few coaches seem to have competed as lightweight women. She felt that the experience would provide a unique perspective to understanding and managing weight control. One coach speculated that there may have been a drop-off in lightweights rowing (men and women) as a result of the growing stature of the US population over the last fifty years. This coach went on to say that more lightweights rowing should translate into more opportunities for lightweights to row.

The most interesting answer came from the coach of a dedicated lightweight crew who noted that the program, in conjunction with the school medical staff, is collecting data that will demonstrate the safety of lightweight rowing. This coach believes that the program's lightweight rowers are measurably more healthy than the student population at large and hopes to collect the data to prove it. The coach believes that hard data will create irrefutable evidence to use against critics of the sport.

A few points on these answers. Without specifically agreeing that there is some hysteria about lightweight rowing, the coaches did see weight restriction as ammunition for critics of the sport. One coach did say that my characterization of women's lightweight rowers as "rowing's red-headed step children" was a bit harsh. I was particularly disappointed to learn that no coaches were involved in, or even knew about, the USRowing Medical Commission on Lightweights. How can there be such a body without the involvement of lightweight coaches? I applaud the efforts of the coach who discussed his program's efforts to collect health data. I agree that this is exactly what needs to be done to show how healthy lightweights are, both in body and mind.

As I mentioned in my last post, I think the weight issue is a red herring. Unlike other sports in which low weight is seen as a benefit (running, gymnastics, etc.), rowers have every incentive to be as close to their weight limit as possible while not risking going over. This simple fact makes a huge difference. There is never any pressure to drop below 130 pounds (minus a small cushion) and even coxswains are limited in how much weight they can lose. It's hypocritical for the NCAA or college administrators to be concerned about anorexia in weight restricted sports and not concern themselves with obesity in other women's sports. Obesity is more prevalent in society today and weight gain is encouraged, or at least tolerated, in many women's NCAA sports, including heavyweight rowing. I hope that at least one coach will soon have the data to show how healthy current lightweight rowers are and I would love to see data comparing the health and general fitness of former lightweight rowers to other former female athletes.

More to come.

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