I grew up in Wyoming. Yes, Wyoming. People live there, people grow up there, and most depart quickly when given the opportunity. Let’s just say it provided a unique childhood and imprinted a perspective that has heavily influenced who I am as an adult. But you didn’t click on this article to read about my sappy childhood memories. You’re reading this article to learn something about rowing, right? Be patient. Just as you must be patient on the recovery part of the rowing stroke, you must be patient with me. I’m tellin’ a story here!
From childhood, I was intrigued with rowing. I first saw it on our tiny TV (for a few brief minutes during the Olympics) and was simply fascinated. The grace, the control, the synchronicity, and the suffering – especially the suffering, were all so impressive to me. It was beautiful and I wanted to be in one of those boats. It’s funny how we are most attracted to things that are unavailable to us. Girls with straight hair, long for curly locks and skinny boys can think of nothing but how to look like their heavier counterparts. This was rowing for me during childhood. I remember reading about rowing over and over in the encyclopedia at my elementary school library. At that time, it was mostly about the history of rowing dating back to the Ancient Egyptians. It was defined as “the art of propelling a boat with an oar”. Let’s just say the information I could get my hands on left much to be desired. I didn’t care about any of that, though. All I wanted was to be like those beautiful rowing athletes I saw on TV and in the books.
As with many fascinations from childhood, they are simply that and eventually fade into the realities that become our daily priorities. There was no rowing in Wyoming. And there was also no rowing in Alaska, Montana, Utah, or Nevada, which were the places I spent my teens and 20’s. However, I was fortunate enough to become my own version of those athletes I always admired. But it was with a volleyball in hand instead of an oar. Rowing remained somewhere in the back of my mind, but it was easily dismissed due to geographical limitations.
And then three things happened: California, a handsome boy named Rich, and this weird piece of exercise equipment called THE ERG. My volleyball glory days were over. I was a full-blown adult with a business, and not getting any younger. I was always interested in the biomechanics of the body and how to apply different forms of exercise to maximize my fitness level.
So one day, I’m at the gym and I see this extremely fit, tall, and handsome man on the rowing machine. I had seen this machine many times before, but had no idea how to use it. This guy was cooking and there was a puddle of sweat underneath that rower that would challenge any rainstorm. And to top it all off, he had on this strange unisuit getup that was folded over at the top, a heart rate monitor, and he was just glistening. Did I mention how handsome he was? The whole scene stopped me in my tracks and I couldn’t help but stare. This was not like many others that you see at your local gym, who try as they might to look the part with the right outfit and the right moves. No, this guy was an athlete, truly fit, totally legit, and I wanted to know what he was up to.
So I waited. And I waited some more. He was moving slowly on this machine, but applying so much force with his legs. What? I thought you used your arms and upper body when you rowed. Hmmmm, maybe he was trying out a new technique or something. I had to find out. I waited patiently like any good gym stalker does, and when the moment presented itself. I walked (ran) over to him and asked what kind of workout he was doing on this machine. And he casually replied, “Oh I’m just doing some steady state training on the erg”. I responded, “Oh, cool. Well it looks like a great workout!” But really I was thinking: What in the world is steady state and what the hell is an erg? Then all 6’8” of him stood up and he said, “Yeah, I row for UCLA and I’m just getting ready for the season to start.”
And here’s where it all began… “A rower!? Like one of those guys who rows in the boat on the water,” I asked like a total idiot. He laughed and said, “Yep, I’m one of those guys.” And for the next three hours and with enough chicken and sweet potatoes that the gym café had on hand (6’8” and a very hungry rower), I pumped this poor boy for more rowing information and stories that he didn’t even know he had in him.
He told me everything. He told me all about growing up in Virginia and rowing on the James River. He told the story of how he dislocated two ribs his freshman year and had to suffer through it, to how he had so much pressure from his dad that sometimes he wondered why he rowed at all, to his grueling training regimen, his relationship with the crew, and on and on. I was fascinated by all his stories. And when we left that little café many hours later, my love affair with rowing was renewed. Sorry folks, no love affair with Rich. I was way too old for him.
Probably the most beneficial information Rich gave me was regarding the erg. I had no idea that it was created by Concept2 as a training tool for rowers and that it mimicked the rowing stroke used on the water. I always thought it was some strange piece of equipment that was used to get your heart rate up in preparation for your real workout. Little did I know, but soon found out, that the Concept2 erg is the most effective piece of fitness and training equipment on the planet. The erg is the REAL workout.
Okay, back up. I bet you’re wondering what happened post the information sucking session with Rich. No? Really, are you sure? Well, let me tell you anyway…
I went straight home and Googleized the heck out of “learning to row”. And one result stood out among the rest: IROW Fitness. I wasn’t interested in learning to row from watching videos or reading articles online. Oh no, I wanted to learn to row from a real rower. And Ms. Iva Boteva, owner of IROW, was my answer. Iva was a Bulgarian National Team Rower, star athlete and stoke seat for USC in her collegiate days, and a former world record holder on the erg.
It was no more than a couple of days later, I found myself in her rowing studio. After our initial conversation, Iva suggested I first fully understand rowing on the erg before testing out my sea legs. I spent a month in the studio under her guidance and then we had our first water lesson. I learned to row in her training single called “The Tubby”. It’s a “full figured” boat that is very forgiving and easy to balance for novices. I remember being very nervous for my first water lesson. First, I didn’t want to flip the boat and have to deal with that whole humbling experience, but more importantly, and what scared me most, was the possibility that I may not actually like rowing on the water. Well, as it turned out, neither of those fears were anything to worry about. I didn’t flip the boat that day (oh, but have I had a few good flips since then) and from the moment I took that first awkward, unbalanced and very ugly stroke, I was hooked and haven’t looked back. Well, I’ve actually looked back a lot because you row backwards and you have to turn around all the time in a single, but you know what I mean.
I’m proud to say that I’m now my own version of those rowing athletes I saw over thirty years ago in the pages of the books at my little local Wyoming library. So many wonderful things have happened since I found rowing and made it such a big part of my life. My fitness level has never been better and I’m in the best shape of my life. My resting heart rate and vo2 levels are those of an elite athlete. I’m the athlete in my late thirties that has surpassed what I thought was my peak in my late teens and 20’s. My mental and physical disciplines have reached levels I didn’t think were possible, all for the love of rowing. I have made some wonderful lifelong friends through the sport and I’m only just beginning. Not long after starting to row, I met a trainer at my gym who’s an avid rower with nearly 30 years on the water. He took me under his wing and let me borrow his training boat until I was experienced enough to get my own racing shell. His name is Tom and he will be a lifelong friend. We still row together every week on the erg and on the water.
I could go on forever about all the blessings that have come my way via rowing. I’ll go on just a little more…
I run the indoor rowing program at a well-respected gym, EQUINOX West LA. I teach weekly classes where my students get to learn all the fundamentals of rowing, just as I did from my wonderful coaches, Iva and Tom. I now have my own home studio where I privately train clients to row. I’m at the point where I am turning people away because I simply have run out of hours in the day.
And yes, I’m a competitor at heart and I’ve been fortunate enough to add a few pieces of rowing hardware to my collection. I took home a bronze medal at the World Indoor Rowing Championships this last winter and I’m looking forward to my first on the water race hopefully this year. This September I plan to row a million meters and donate all the funds raised to a charity that provides athletic opportunities for underprivileged kids.
I row in some form six days a week (if not seven). Whether in my boat, training on the erg, teaching classes, or with private clients…you can find me rowing somewhere.
Rowing is a very special sport and it comes in many flavors depending on your goals. Any soul can find benefit in some way from rowing. It deploys nearly every muscle in your body while being extremely low impact. It will get you in the best shape of your life both physically and mentally. It’s an art, it’s a lifelong study, it’s technical, brutal, humbling, frustrating beyond belief, and yet so very lovely.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lisa Munyon holds a Master’s in Ayurvedic Science and had been a life long competitive athlete. From her years on the volleyball court to competitive rowing, athletics have always had a place. Lisa believes that proper coaching, discipline, and a commitment to health through nutrition and lifestyle, are essential for superior performance and results. Holding certifications in Pilates, Schwinn Performance Cycling, TRX, and over a decade of Ayurvedic nutrition and lifestyle consulting, Lisa views any experience to inspire others along their individual path to fitness and health as a meaningful opportunity. When Lisa isn’t rowing or involved in some type of fitness endeavor, she runs her own legal servicing firm. Lisa is based in Los Angeles with her four-legged son Velly Belly.