Top athletes make rowing crew look easy, as they glide fragile-looking sculls effortlessly across the water. The reality: Rowing is a very demanding, full-body workout—the legs provide much of the power in the rower's stroke.
The basics: There are three ways that crew events are classified. First, the boats, or shells, can be either scullers or sweeps. In a scull, rowers have two oars, one in each hand on either side of the boat. In sweep-rowing, rowers use both hands on a single oar (and have a counterpart beside them to row on the other side of the boat).
Second, rowers can race alone (single scull), or in teams of two, four, or eight, plus a coxswain in some sweep boats. The coxswain, also called the cox, does not row. He or she sits at the back of the boat, facing the rowers and the direction the boat is traveling. The cox's job is to steer the boat and time the team's strokes.
Third, rowing events can be either lightweight or open. Lightweight men cannot weigh more than 160 pounds; the average weight in the entire boat must be 155 pounds or less. Lightweight women cannot weight more than 130 pounds; the average weight for the team cannot exceed 125 pounds.
Age kids can start: Typically between 12 and 14 years old, around 8th or 9th grade in the U.S. The shells used in rowing crew are made for adults, so younger kids are just too small to use them. Some smaller athletes start as coxswains and switch to rowing when they are taller.
Skills needed/used: Endurance, teamwork, coordination, balance (a single scull can be 26 feet long and less than one foot wide!).
Best for kids who are: Team-oriented, physically fit and willing to train hard.
Season/when played: Usually fall and spring.
Team or individual? Both. Rowers can compete in individual events (single scull) or in teams. When rowing as a team, athletes must coordinate their movements perfectly to get the best time.
Levels: Middle schools, high schools and colleges sponsor crew teams. These used to be limited to private schools and to the northeastern U.S. states, but more schools in the southeast, midwest, and west coast have begun adding teams. Interested teens can usually join rowing clubs, too, and USRowing sponsors America Rows, a program designed to help bring rowing to students who currently can't participate (due to lack of clubs or facilities).
Top-level rowers under 19 years old can participate in Junior Rowing events sponsored by USRowing or compete for spots on the national team. Junior races are usually 1500 meters long, while competitive and Olympic events are 2000 meters. Men and women compete separately.
Appropriate for kids with special needs: Yes. Adaptive rowing is a Paralympic sport, and adaptive rowing programs are available for rowers with physical disabilities, visual impairments, and intellectual disabilities.
Fitness factor: High. Rowing crew is a non-impact workout that uses all the major muscle groups. Rowers sit on a sliding seat which they push with their legs as they move their oars with their arms. Rowing crew also requires a strong core for balance.
Equipment: One big reason to join a club or team is to gain access to the shells (boats). Rowers wear team clothing—usually a tight-fitting "unisuit" for regattas. Sun protection (hats, sunglasses, sunscreen) is essential.
Costs: Joining a rowing club or even a school team can cost anywhere from $150 to over $1000 per season, depending on the athlete's level and needs (equipment storage, regatta fees, and so on). Lessons start at about $75 for a 6- to 8-week session and rise to as much as $250.
Time commitment required: Can be significant. School and club teams may practice almost daily in season, and continue with indoor workouts ("erging," or training on a stationary rower called an ergometer) in the off-season too.
Potential for injury: Medium. Drowning is also always a risk anytime an athlete is in or on the water. Reputable coaches, teams, clubs, and facilities will have rigorous safety procedures in place. Because rowers' weight is regulated (in lightweight events), unsafe weight control can be a problem. As with any sport, overuse injuries, sprains and strains (in this case, to the forearms, hands, and wrists because of the gripping action required to hold the oars) are possible. You can get a tip sheet on preventing rowing injuries from the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine.
How to find rowing clubs and teams:
- USRowing club finder
- Regatta Central club listings
- Regatta Central learn-to-row class listings
- USRowing camp directory
- Regatta Central camp listings
- row2k camp directory
Associations and governing bodies:
- Rowing Canada
- International Rowing Federation (Federation Internationale des Societes d’Aviron, or FISA)