The History of Rowing

March 17, 2017 by
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It’s an incredible sight – watching a crew propel their boat faster and faster through the water, bodies in unison, focused on one goal.  In CrossFit, though we don’t often get to literally test the waters, we do get to speed through meters and calories on the ever-challenging indoor rower. And let’s be honest, similar to most exercises in CrossFit, no matter HOW much we practice rowing, it never gets easier. You only go faster.

We thought we’d give you a little taste of rowing’s great history, so that next time you’re on the Concept2, you can thank those who pioneered it.

Rowing in H20

It was first used as a means of transportation, rooting back to ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. Modern rowing as a competitive sport started in the 17th and 18th century when races were held between professional “watermen” on the Thames River in London. Competition grew with the creation of boat clubs at prominent universities like Oxford and Cambridge in the 1800s (Rivalry between these two universities was FIERCE). And in 1843, the first American college rowing club was even formed at Yale University (The English Channel couldn’t hold it back any longer!)

In response to the growing popularity of the sport, the World Rowing Federation (FISA) was launched on June 25, 1892. FISA was the first international sports federation to join the Olympic movement and has been in the Olympics since summer of 1896 in Athens (Fun fact: The rowing events at the 1896 games were cancelled because of high winds).

Rowing on Land

As the sport of rowing grew across the world, a training tool for rowing was in high demand. Though history shows that Chabrias, an Athenian admiral introduced the first rowing machine in the 4th Century B.C. as a training tool to teach inexperienced oarsmen rowing technique and timing, we did not see rowing machines until 1872 when W.B. Curtis shared the hydraulic based damper design. Between 1900 and the middle of the century, the Narragansett hydraulic rower in Providence, Rhode Island became another popular machine. By mid-century 1900s, indoor rowers were modified to improve power measurement and quickly became an important off-season training tool on college campuses.

Today there are multiple manufacturers who produce dozens of rowing machines for both commercial and in-home use (the majority now use air, magnetic or water resistance). However most CrossFitters are probably most familiar with the Concept2 (“ergometer” or “erg”), designed by brothers Peter and Dick Dreissigacker. The brothers first began crafting carbon fiber oars in 1975 while training for the Montreal Olympic trials (they were unsuccessful). And in 1979, college crews testing the Concept2 oars found an increase in their speed. With newfound success, the Dreissigackers were determined to design a winter training device for rowers. In 1981, they nailed an old bicycle to their barn floor, pulled the free end of the chain, and the first Concept2 model (A) was created. Five models later, we now have the Concept2 rower that we all know and love – a machine that can measure performance and be easily transported. No doubt this machine has revolutionized training for athletes of all levels.

Rowing in CrossFit

Rowing has proven to be a staple tool in CrossFit’s dynamic and constantly varied programming. Dark Horse Rowing examined over 4,176 WODs and found that “at least 1 out of 11 workouts” included rowing. We’ve seen rowing as a part of the Games over the past 10 years (except in 2008), and this past year it appeared in Event 14: The Rope Chipper.

“Between the 2013 and 2014 Open, total rowing volume adds up to 100k meters showing that programming on the CrossFit website is a clear indicator of what is to come.” That’s a lot of rowing—I guess we shouldn’t have been surprised when rowing appeared in the Open Workout 14.4 (and again in 15.5 combined with thrusters – cue the pain face).

So, what do you think? Will we see a repeat of 16.4? As for the Games, I’m predicting a rowing race will appear for a team event. Nothing beats a nice, Wisconsin lake.

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