Elite is a word to describe the best. The top of the field. The greatest. In rowing when we think about elite rowers we think of Sir Steve Redgrave, the most successful rower in Olympic history. He obtained his final Olympic gold at the ripe old age of 38 years old. Some would have described him as past his prime, but he cemented his elite status yet again by bringing home another gold medal. As much as rowing is a sport that favours power and speed it also requires brains.
Over the longer distances tactics and a strong game plan as perhaps more important. This is why the most elite rowers are usually the most experienced. Able to be flexible and change tactics as the race ebbs and flows. Belarus rower Ekaterina Karsten has competed at 7 Olympic Games and competed at Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the age of 46.
The purpose of this article is to help us work out at what stage a rower can consider themselves to have joined the elite pack. Is it a certain race result? Do they have qualify for Olympic status? Do time trials count? Let’s talk about that.
2km Erg Times
When accessing data to determine who may be an elite rower. The 2km time trial is king. It requires the perfect blend of power, speed and endurance. Erg times (a time trial on a rowing machine) are usually an accurate and reliable way to assess a persons ability and potential. These times do not always transfer into speed across the water if the rowers technique is not up to scratch, but there are always changes that can be made.
For example, if we look at the NFL. The NFL holds a yearly combine which tests college athletes across various movements relevant to their position. The athletes who get the best times and grades always get drafted by the professional teams first. Now there is no guarantee that an athlete who does well at the combine will do well in the NFL, but there is a good chance they will. Look at Tome Brady the ‘greatest of all time’. He was drafted a lowly 197th. Now look at him. Similarly with rowers, people will always look at your 2km erg. time to assess your performance level and potential.
Looking at this table above provided by https://rowinglevel.com/rowing-times/2000m-times you can see a good breakdown of what is considered an elite 2km time for a variety of ages. It is interesting to see that the rowing times get quicker up until an athlete passes the age of 35 and that is where we see the times slow down. At the age of 30, an elite level rower would neto row a 2km in 06:10. It is crazy to think that the world record time is still 34 seconds quicker than this for that age group.
As we can see from the table, elite status really depends on two main factors. Your age and time. The quicker your time the more elite you are. Unfortunately there is no set standard for elite rowing. Different organisations will set different qualification times for competitions. Different rowing clubs will test in different conditions. These variables make it difficult to use just the 2km erg as a marker for elite status. This leads us on to competitions.
Elite Competition Status
A young rower can begin to compete as a junior (18 years old and younger) at national and international competitions. To achieve the status of Junior World Champion, the junior athlete needs to win a gold medal in their event class at the World Rowing Junior Championships. The next step up from juniors is the World Rowing Under 23 Championships. This Junior Championships is seen as way of bridging the gap between the junior events and the senior competitions.
Every year the senior World Rowing Championships are held at the finale of the international rowing season and World Champions are crowned. There are seven for men and the same for women and an additional six for lightweight rowers. The goal for every elite rower will be to qualify and then ultimately compete at the summer Olympic games. Held every four years, the Olympic Regatta holds special place in the heart of all hopeful young rowers.
To be an elite rower you must perform well in competition. I’m not going to sit here and write that you have to be an Olympic champion. I won’t even say that you have to be a National Champion. That said, performing under pressure and against strong opponents will stand you out from the rest of the field.
What physical attributes does an elite rower have?
Rowing is one of the most physically tiring activities out there in the world of endurance sports. Athletes need to show a rare balance between elite level aerobic and anaerobic energy systems. Rowing requires strength, strength endurance, stamina and power. To compete at the highest levels rowers must have all of these abilities and have the tactical awareness of how to use them.
When we look at pictures of the Olympic Champions, there is a clear body type. Tall, long limbs and tall height when sat down. Mukulic, in one his studies on elite Croatian Champion rowers found the average height to be approximately 194cm, weight 97kg and arm span 200cm. He found that the taller the athlete was the greater the potential that they would succeed. Mukulic stated that height often lead to great efficiency and speed over the water.
Physical fitness is something that rowers need to work on across their careers. It is unfortunate that aerobic capacity does not stay with you forever. If you do not use, you lose it. As the saying goes. Consistent exercise and training is needed across a whole career.
Whether you consider yourself an aspiring beginner or are well on your way to being an elite rower. Remember why we do it. The enjoyment.