Nowhere Fast

Competitive indoor rowing gains a curious cult following

Jan 6, 2001
Outside Magazine

Chain man: Indoor rowing champ Matthias Siejkowski crosses the line.    Photo: David Foster

"WHERE'S maintenance?" a frantic volunteer yells over the jetlike whirr of 100 athletes zipping back and forth on stationary rowing ergometers inside Boston's Reggie Lewis Athletic Center."I've got piles of puke on 43 and 67!"

Victory here at the World Indoor Rowing Championships is a digital affair; each of the winners pulls hard enough to advance his or her computer-icon boat the equivalent of 2,000 meters and across a TV-screen finish line. Yet competitors pay for their virtual boat speed in decidedly human terms, with lactic-acid burn, carbon lungs, and yes, vomit, soaked up as necessary with cat litter carried about in ten-quart buckets labeled "Barf Control."
Curiously, many here row only indoors. They may never know the creak of a straining oar, the sound of water dripping off a blade as it glides back for the next stroke, or the sweet swing of a crew in synch, but this new breed of erg-centric oarsmen and -women is nevertheless swelling the ranks of this Boston event, and more than 40 indoor regattas nationwide. In 1982, just 60 athletes, mostly Bostonians, participated in what was then called the C.R.A.S.H.-B Sprints. This February's showdown pulled in 1,800 rowers, from nations as far afield as Turkey. Similar events will take place next winter in Portugal, Taiwan, and Sweden.

All of this spells a corporate fairy tale for Morrisville, Vermont­based Concept2, builders of the infernal machines. The firm reports double-digit sales growth for 20 of its 25 years in business. Yet even devotees scratch their heads over the sport's inexplicable appeal. The championships "started out as a joke," says Concept2 indoor race coordinator Robert Brody. "Now there are people who train for this all year round." With evident sarcasm, he adds, "C'mon, get a life!" 

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