I rowed lightweight at Dartmouth and it literally almost killed me
I love rowing, but it. is. fucked. up
Most people don’t know much about the sport of rowing. It’s an unorthodox, rare, expensive, and admittedly pretty dull sport to spectate. Not many high schools or universities have competitive rowing teams, but students in those who do often share the same sentiment – The rowers are a cultish group of intense athletes, mysterious, insular, and oddly content not being in the spotlight.
- Competing in the Silver Skiff regatta in Torino, Italy
I started rowing spring of freshman year of high school after two consecutive injuries in football and basketball. I didn’t have a spring sport at the time and my father had competed as a heavyweight oarsmen at Cornell, so I figured that the crew team might be worth a shot. I had very limited knowledge when I joined, not just about the sport itself but also about the limits of my own body and the true meaning of dedication, perseverance, and teamwork. I had no idea how the sport would transform my life completely.
Over my four years rowing at Malvern Prep, I discovered my best friends and enormous pride. My teammates and I collectively won city, national, and international races. When our time together came to a close at graduation, I was heading off to Dartmouth, two of my teammates to Penn, one to Cal Berkeley, and another to Georgetown. We were shadows of the undisciplined kids we used to be, not only physically fit, but also mentally sharp and feeling utterly invincible.
- Competing at the Henley Royal Regatta on Thames in England (Fawley Challenge Cup)
But as we would all learn, competing on any Division 1 sports team is no cake walk. Adjusting to the academic rigor of an Ivy League school is a major undertaking in itself. When you couple that with heightened levels of competition and intensity in your sport as well as the tempting social vices of the Greek system, it’s a very delicate balancing act. I was fortunate in the fact that my team stuck together and all rushed the same fraternity together, which dampened those temptations to go wild so we could stay focused when we needed to.
I was used to training usually twice a day, six days of the week, but what I now had to worry about was doing all that and maintaining my body weight. I was now a lightweight rower, meaning I had to weigh in at 160 pounds or less the day before racing in order to be allowed to compete. If I didn’t make weight, my entire team wouldn’t be allowed to race. As one of the larger guys on my team, this pressure was an all consuming part of my life.
Being big in rowing is a good thing – heavyweights are typically over 6’ 3’’ and 200 pounds at least – and as a lightweight the challenge is to be as big as possible but still be able to make it pass the dreaded weigh in.
- With my teammates and best friends after a race at Dartmouth
Many of my teammates were a bit luckier, they had these same pressures of making weight, but being a bit smaller naturally it wasn’t such a point of concern in their lives as it was mine. My natural body weight in the summer when I wasn’t in season was usually around 185 pounds. At just under 6 feet tall, the majority of that weight was due to having a large muscular frame, not from fat. I always had to be aware that my my body couldn’t slim down as easily.
My anxiety would begin every season as we met at the pool to have our body fat percentage measured. By submerging ourselves underwater and measuring the difference in weight from land, you can get a pretty good idea of how much body fat you have. I usually would start the season at around 180 pounds with a body fat around 10 percent. We would all get personalized weight loss plans that calculated out fat loss and weight loss per week in order to get to our target weight. For me I would have to run a calorie deficit of about 500 calories a day on top of a cardio and weightlifting workout in order to make this goal. A strict plant and protein based diet and a concoction of weight loss supplements also helped.
I was so self conscious of my weight and how I looked. Looking back on old pictures of my gaunt emaciated team photos, I can’t help but feel like the whole thing was nothing short of insanity. Why did I put myself through that physical and emotional abuse on a routine basis? Now I know that part of the reason was my desire to suppress my gay identity and maintain a hetero and hypermasculine identity, but at the time I was in true denial and, I think, undeniably mentally ill. Thankfully, my body was the one that put an end to it all…
It all came to a head spring of my sophomore year. It was our last head to head race of the regular season before the big championship race. We would be traveling to Ithaca to race Cornell on their home course – away races were always the toughest because you had to travel on top of cutting weight.
I woke up at 6am that Friday morning, exactly 12 hours before we would weigh in. I got on the scale knowing the horror to come. The number flashed: “172.1lbs” “Fuck, this is going to suck” I thought to myself. I had cut a lot of weight before on a regular basis, but never had I ever been in a position where I needed to lose 12 pounds in 12 hours to compete. I honestly did not know if I was going to make it, but for some sick reason I was thrilled at the challenge.
With only a half day to lose all the weight, you aren’t going to be able to trim fat from your body – at this point it’s all about squeezing all the excess water from your body, like juicing an orange. You can lose up to 10 percent of your body weight in water before you are considered dangerously dehydrated, so I wasn’t too concerned. Any kind of “aided” weight loss of this nature is prohibited by the sport, but coaches know what is going on and turn a blind eye. They know what is going on, but it’s up to you to get it done and stay quiet about it. Some kids ran with trash bags on, some used diuretics, but the most popular option was the sauna.
I trudged up the hill to the gym and met a few of the other “fat” teammates in our locker room. It was important to have buddies with you when using the sauna to cut weight because of the danger of passing out from extreme dehydration. We would do intervals of about 10-12 minutes in and a few minutes out of the sauna. We wore our heart rate monitors to track the time but also to make sure we never went above 170 bpm. Typically, every 10 minutes or so you could sweat out about a pound of water, but over time you would see diminishing losses.
Before getting on the bus, over the course of an hour and a half I was able to lose six pounds. Halfway there. I then sat on an intentionally hot bus melting for five hours as we traveled across Vermont to Ithaca. Losing the water weight alone isn’t the hard part, what was really difficult was not being able to drink any water or eat anything during the process – when you’re that close to the weigh in, anything you put in your body is added weight.
- Before weigh in
After arriving and rigging up our boats the team went out for a “sweat row”. It was an unseasonably warm 80 degrees in Ithaca – perfect. We bundled up with our winter workout gear and went out for a short practice. It wasn’t uncommon for me to literally feel like I was going to pass out during these practices, and typically there would be heated exchanges as people were going mad from thirst and hunger.
We docked our boat. Now almost 5pm, I had no saliva left in my mouth and could barely speak. With one hour to go before weigh in this was the final opportunity to lose any additional weight before the moment of truth. I got on the scale in the locker room and the scaled flashed ‘161.9’. I was fuming – “how could I only lose four pounds over the last seven hours?”
I got on the exercise bike and continued to sweat. At this point most of the lighter guys were enjoying small sips of water and light snacks because they knew they were safe. My coach, and even the opposing coaches would come and check in on us – they knew the hell we were in. “Hang in there” they’d say. We sort of became a spectacle, everyone was wondering who wasn’t going to make it and watching in anticipation.
My coach tapped my shoulder and pulled me out of my fog, “OK it’s time.” We proceeded into the locker room in our underwear lined up by boat to weigh in. The opposing team’s coach monitors your weigh in to avoid accusations of cheating. My whole team was clear, now it was my turn. I got on the scale, the numbers flashed “160.4”. The Cornell coach responds, “OK Austin, rules state you have 20 additional minutes or your boat is disqualified”.
I rolled my eyes. At this point I wasn’t that concerned that I wouldn’t lose the remaining half a pound in the extra time I was given. I was just done with it all. Everybody else in the boathouse was now drinking water and eating and recovering from the past 24 hours of intentional starvation but I had to keep going. I got back on the exercise bike and out of anger was able to lose the weight in only five minutes…
After having pedialyte and some protein powder I started to eat again. It was important to rehydrate first and not to eat too much, otherwise you would expand your stomach too fast and get sick. The next morning I woke up feeling refreshed and energized and ready to go.
Cornell was the fastest team that year so we had tempered expectations for how the race would go – and as many expected they doored us. In fact, they beat every single Dartmouth boat, lightweight, heavyweight, and women. It was an absolute clobbering. Little did I know the implications of that race on my rowing career as I was about to experience an entirely different kind of pain.
- GO! …. First strokes of the race
I awoke at 6am the next morning back in Hanover not feeling well at all. I had some stomach cramping and assumed that I had some sort of stomach virus or digestion related problem. My friend came to wake me up at 9am for breakfast but I remained in bed. He returned after lunch, shocked to find me still in bed. “Get up you lazy bum he yelled at me”. Another, sarcastic friend yelled, ” you’re just constipated!” At this point the pain had skyrocketed, I was now experiencing shooting pains in my lower stomach and could not leave the fetal position without extreme discofort. My friend, being a handy pre-med soon figured something was really wrong.
On the way to the hospital I vividly remember screaming in pain after my friend gingerly hit a speed up, I felt like my insides had been stabbed. When I got the ER they quickly figured out that my appendix was very inflamed to the point that it might burst. I was rushed into emergency surgery to have it removed before it ruptured, which would have been very very bad. I awoke to my coaches there by my side.
The whole thing happened so quickly, I was back in class the next morning. The surgery itself was a pretty regular procedure, but it still required a six week recovery. To be quite honest I wasn’t that upset when the doctors informed my coaches I would be out for the championship race. At that point I had simply had it. The costs of this sport on my body were becoming indefensible, and for what in return? So I wouldn’t have to confront my real self?
While I didn’t quit rowing until the following season, I realized at that moment the damage the sport that I loved so dearly had done to me mentally and physically.
- Last 500 meters of a race at Dartmouth
Several years later, working a desk job in New York City, I am still affected by it all. Despite not being in a competitive environment anymore, I am incapable of having a normal relationship with food or exercise. I feel guilt every time I eat something that I really want to have because I feel like at some point I will have to lose those calories again. I enjoy food in the moment and later it makes me feel horrible about myself. When I exercise I always feel like I have to be training super hard, because that’s what I did for seven years of my life. I am still nervous to go to the gym because I associate it with the physical pain I experienced those many years I had competing. When I do go, I am discouraged by how much less fit I am now than I used to be – not to mention how messed up my back is.
I would never dissuade anyone from rowing, either recreationally or competitively. It is a truly amazing sport and I would do it all again in a heartbeat. But in pursuing your passions in life, whatever it is, I think it’s important to be able to detach yourself from the current situation and be honest with yourself. There is no reason why anyone should have to have something they love come to have a negative long term impact on their life. If I had been able to, I think I might still be rowing today and also be healthier at the same time.