The cool Ann Arbor air has settled, and the grey world is upon us once again. With Belleville Lake freezing over, this can only mean one thing for the Michigan women’s rowing team: winter training.
For those of you not familiar with the sport of rowing, the winter season is the time when rowers move indoors to train on the ergometers — a machine manufactured to simulate that of the rowing motion in a boat — in the Intramural Building. It is crucial to the advancement of rowers who are forced to train in cooler climates, and one with which all rowers inevitably establish a peculiar relationship. The winter season is the most critical time of the year because it is during this period of brutal training and unparalleled commitment that champions are made.
Winter training is like trying to find heaven in hell. Michigan coach Mark Rothstein has established a rigorous training program for his team over the years, using his 16 years of experience to tweak and perfect its intricacies. It consists of weightlifting, core strength development, cross-training and above all, 8-10 hours per week of training on the ergometer. It’s a strenuous and taxing commitment, but the team knows it’s required of them if they want to win.
When rowing, the biggest challenge is not physical, but mental. Every rower has the physical capability to finish their workout, but the challenge is activating the mental capacity to finish strong. The ergometer presents itself as a distinctive test of self-will. Every stroke of every minute is publicly displayed and recorded, placing relentless pressure on everyday performance. The ergometer pumps out a variety of data points that quantify power application, power output and consistency, which the coxswains and coaches then use to evaluate, measure and predict current and future performances. For every workout conducted in the ergometer room, each rower knows exactly what is expected of her. She is given a specific speed and rating at which to row before letting loose on the ergometer to achieve it.
“When you’re in a boat, you can’t directly see what a person’s doing, but when you’re on the ergometer, each individual is held accountable to a number,” Rothstein said.
Redshirt junior Emily Idoni added that it is this state of accountability that ignites the team’s motivation. She said that it helps to know “that each of your teammates is right there feeling the same pain of the workout that you are.”
During this phase, rowers are in constant mental turbulence to maintain an optimal state of hunger, focus and vision of the future. This is a daunting task, but it’s made possible by establishing a passion for winning and intersquad camaraderie.
“There can be some very dark moments during winter training, especially during the workouts where you are working at your anaerobic threshold for an extended period of time,” said fifth-year senior rower Melissa Ongun. “The burn can be something that makes you regret ever starting the sport.”
But it’s fighting through that burn with and for your team that makes it all worth it. These athletes, much like the majority of athletes in Ann Arbor, have discovered a profound love and distinguishable pride for Michigan and the team they are associated with. There is something very unique and very powerful about going through a whirlwind of agony, failure, rapture and success with those around you that creates an impenetrable bond between teammates, the type of bond that helps to win championships.
Ongun and Idoni made clear their intentions about the upcoming spring season; they want nothing less than to repeat as Big Ten champions, and it will be the result of their sustained effort, intensity and ruthless ferocity during winter training that will make it all possible.
Rowing is a unique and ancient sport, and one that is easily overlooked. It’s the simplicity, the stark devotion and the love-hate relationship that makes rowing one of the craziest, most harrowing, honorable and rewarding sports to be a part of. It’s a sport that pushes its participants beyond all known physical and mental bounds, allowing them to achieve goals they once deemed unachievable.
“We realize that it won’t be easy, but it will be worth it,” Idoni said.