Sunday, February 18, 2007


There have been some good comments posted over the last few days and I wanted to talk about the issues raised by two in particular. The first noted that most elite level lightweights come from heavyweight college programs (something I've noted before as well) and the second points to a rule allowing Ohio high school wrestlers two extra pounds at their next meet due to recent weather related practice cancellations. While perhaps not related at first glance, both deal with what one might call excessive weight-loss issues.

When it comes to elite US lightweights, I have an opinion and I'm certainly open to hearing others. I believe that few would be accepted into today's college lightweight programs. Many watch their weight fluctuate massively over the course of a year and because of the benefit of height in a leverage sport like rowing, the tallest women who can reach lightweight and still have the strength to row well, drop the weight. USRowing encourages this practice by allowing spring erg tests to be taken at 140 pounds, 15 pounds above the boat average weight limit. (Look at the heights and weights of these rowers - 3 are over 140 pounds.) If a lightweight rower walked into a college boathouse for an erg test weighing 140 pounds (ten pounds above the college limit), I would think she'd be sent immediately to the heavyweight pen. The reality, unfortunately, is that all countries' lightweights do this and for the US to take unilateral action would no doubt result in a less competitive team. All the safeguards implemented in college rowing would have the same positive effect in international rowing (year-long weigh-ins and certifications, hydration testing, etc.), but working on FISA for changes like this seems only slightly easier than rowing an erg on water. We have many excellent lightweights rowing in college, only to discover that at the elite level they are still undersized.

The wrestler story also points out an acceptance, and encouragement, of large weight fluctuations. The reader who posted this comment wonders why this is accepted with boys but viewed with alarm with women rowers. I think the answer is because women are more susceptible to eating disorders than men, although that certainly doesn't mean it's healthy for men. Lightweight women's rowing has this stigma that I think holds it back from mainstream (i.e. NCAA and therefore athletic director) acceptance. (Some coaches have told me that they don't believe this is true.) While I think we know women are more at risk than men, less clear to me is whether collegiate lightweight women rowers are more likely to suffer from eating disorders than their college attending age cohort, or even than heavyweights. I don't know the answer to this and would love to see research that settles the question. The idea, by the way, that women lightweights are more likely to have eating disorders than their classmates has become dogma in some circles. For that reason posts like this tread on dangerous ground (and one resulted in my favorite comment of all time, "You're an idiot.") but I'll never accept that it's wrong to ask for evidence. If there is a problem in college lightweight programs today, let's define it and address it. If there isn't, let's show it and help the rest of the rowing and athletic world move on. While there may be lots of issues at the elite level, I think college programs are trying their best to keep their rowers out of danger. We deserve to know if they have been successful.

This same reader notes that Ohio wrestlers are required to have hydration and body fat tests performed at the start of the season and wonders if something like this might be in store for rowers. Actually, I think that most (all?) separate varsity lightweight programs do this throughout the season. If the question is whether these kinds of tests may be instituted at race weigh-ins, there have been discussions about this. If you recall the presentation given by Tim Hosea at the USRowing convention, one of the recommendations was that lightweights only be certified as lightweights if their body fat reaches a certain percentage when at weight. I believe that hydration testing has been proposed for race weigh-ins. While I believe hydration testing is a critical part of health monitoring, I wonder what the effect would be on rowers' if they were subjected to a test at weigh-in that they could not perform before-hand for themselves. In other words, if you never know if you will be hydrated or not, will your reaction be to lose extra weight so you can put it back on with water before weigh-in to make sure you pass the hydration test?

Now let me try to head off nasty comments. I've said many times before that I'm not a doctor and these are only my opinions. I don't hesitate to express them, however, because if someone who is smarter or has more information can point out the error of my ways, my hope is that we all can learn something.

No comments: