Not many things make me nervous. The day I sat down with Leo I certainly was but I was also beyond excited. I wasn’t nervous because I was getting ready to talk with an Indoor Rowing Legend but because there wasn’t much that I knew about him.
I knew he owned the longest standing Indoor Rowing World Record from 1991(500m – 1:10.5), I knew he wasn’t a typical rower, that he was happily married, a father of 3, and he was a proud Aussie from Queensland. But there wasn’t much to be found about him on the internet, which is no surprise thinking about him setting the World Record 26 years ago, in the pre-internet era. I wasn’t just looking forward to talking to someone who most of us look at as an Indoor Rowing Royalty, but I also wanted to make a Friend. I was genuinely excited to know more about his life, rowing, and his secrets to excellence.
I really appreciated him taking the time to sit down with me while on vacation traveling around the World. In this first part of our discussion, I tried to figure out how Leo was introduced into rowing and his connection to the indoor rowing ergometer.
Andras Hordos: You went to High School to an all boy boarding school on the Gold Coast of Australia, The Southport School. Can you tell me about those years?
Leo Young: Yes, it was a top end Private school where I initially had a swimming and later on a rowing scholarship.
AH: You went there between ’74 and ’78 and in your senior year the Rowing team won the GPS (Great Public Schools’ Association Inc.) title. How did that happen?
LY: Yes we won and broke the long standing record and we were the #1 school boy crew that year. That was the very first year I rowed, and I have never sat in a rowing boat before. Simply the coach that year decided to take a different tactic and he lined up all kids at school at the right age and he picked the 8 biggest kid at the school, who were also the best general overall athletes with only 2 guys with rowing experience. One sat at the stroke seat and one in the bow seat and put 6 really big guys between them and taught them how to row. We only rated on the course of the 2000m about 32-34 strokes per minute, sometimes rating as low as 28, and smashed the record that stood for so many years because we were a big powerful crew. We were mostly new to rowing and we couldn’t really rate that fast but we still dominated all the kids that rowed for a little while by then. So, this is how my introduction to rowing went.
AH: How tall were you back then?
LY: I grew a lot when I was 14 years old. On my birthday that year I was 5’3”( 160cm) and on my 15th birthday I was 6’4”(193cm) so I grew 13” (about 33cm) in 1 year. When I started to row at age 16 I was already 6’5”(195cm) and now I’m 6’6” (197cm). When I first reached 6’4”(193cm) I weighed only 58kg (128lbs).
AH: After high school, you went on and pursued an academic career. You have many degrees.
LY: Immediately after high school I got recruited into the Exclusive Defense Force Academy and they paid me full time to go to University. Initially I did a triple degree in Business, Accounting and Industrial Psychology. Whilst I was in the Air Force in Canberra I studied at the Institute of Sport at University of Canberra and did a Bachelor degree at Sport and Exercise Science and majored in Sport Physiology. Than went on and did a graduate diploma in Clinical Nutrition at Macquarie University and many things after that. I used all of those in business since then.
AH: You are the CEO at Synergy Fitness and despite the fact you are selling many different kind of Ergometers you have never made a rowing erg.
LY: That’s a great observation. So, it is like that only because Concept2 has done such a good job with their ergometer. We made every ergometer that was possible except the rowing machine because at the end of the day I don’t think that anyone can do a significantly better job than Concept2 creating a reliable, heavy duty equipment at such a very-very low price. You can definitely make improvements but the difference will be minimal and the cost difference would be very high.
AH: There was not much changed since the First model came out. They made it prettier, more comfortable and up to date but the original mechanics and the monitor only changed a little bit.
LY: Initially Concept2 created a very clever machine. It measured the acceleration and the deceleration of the flywheel. Actually, with time and with newer models on the market they simplified their monitor. The original PM1 was far more complex than its successor. The Monitors now simply allocates a speed to a given wattage, where is the early monitors rather than just measured wattage quite independently. But basically, the change was minimal. I guess if you made a winner stick with it. It is probably the most successful commercial equipment to date.
AH: So, you are saying the PM1 monitor on the Model B erg was superior to the post PM1 monitors (PM2 and up) and rowers? Why was it better or worse?
LY: you were able to create a spike in the wattage if you picked up the pace. I used to do max wattage tests. When you did these test, you did the max wattage at the first stroke. I tested it at maximum and lowest possible drag factor and wanted to see how high I can get it. You can’t do it now because on the new monitors the wattage is linked directly to speed. But at any given pace the wattage worked out exactly the same because the “swings and roundabouts” what you gained on the acceleration you lost when you decelerated.
That is why so many people try to justify the fact that no one can break the 500m record by saying it was done on a Model B and PM1 monitor. But if they ever got on a model B they would quickly discover that if anything it is more difficult because ergonomically nowhere as nice as the new Model D for instance. It had a raggedy seat that was not very stable, solid foot platform without the flex-foot, which actually was beneficial because it taught people to push from their full feet not their toes when they learned to row and they learned how to facilitate their legs better., but if you wanted to lift your heels your foot could come out of the foot straps.
The great thing about the model B was the heavier flywheel that had a much greater inertia, and psychologically made you feel like you had more momentum. I liked the feel of that better and thought that was a backward step when Concept2 reduced the weight of the flywheel. The rounding of the pace was different too but it is not making too much of a difference. But for anyone who thinks it is easier to row the 500m on a Model B with a PM1 there is plenty around to give it a try.
AH: When was the first time you sit on a rowing ergometer?
LY: The very first time I sat on an erg I was 16 years old and it was on a Starboard stroke rowing machine. But when I came back to rowing in my mid to late 20s I started back on the Gjessing-Nilson rowing ergometer. Back then Pertti Karppinen the Olympic Champion held the world record on that machine. After that I rowed the Concept2 rowing machine the first time in the late 80s. Whenever the first Model B came out that is when I tried one of those machines. It was vastly superior to anything around and easily the best exercise equipment in the World at the time.
AH: Do you own a Concept2 rowing machine right now?
LY: Yes, I do. After I set The Record I competed seriously in the professional surfboat racing competition in Australia where it is still quite big. But I stopped rowing all together in ’96, so over 20 years ago and pretty much I haven’t really been on the rowing ergometer since then. Maybe once every 4-5 years I jump on the machine and see what I can still do without doing any training on it. Not necessarily 500m but like the max speed I can still do or what HR I have at a nice steady state piece.
Now I’m 56 years old but I don’t really feel any different when I was 20-25 years old. It still feels the same to me. I haven’t been really motivated up until recently when 50+ years old athletes, like Paul Jeffrey(AUS) and Shawn Baker(US) achieving outstanding results.
I hope you already see how unique athlete Leo is and how knowledgeable he is regarding rowing. Make sure you check out the second half of our interview next week.
In Part II., next week we will talk about Leo’s preparation for the 500m record, the circumstances of the record validation process in the 90s, the recent 500m WR attempts, what it takes to break his 26-year-old record, Indoor Rowing at the 2017 World Games, the future of the sport , and much more.