I cannot tell you how often I get emails or questions from the "shorter" athletes out there asking me what they need to do to be competitive. So let's set the record straight.
First, height is obviously a huge advantage in rowing. It just is. If you are "shorter" you physically cannot get as much leverage as someone who is just as flexible as you, with the same wing span who is taller than you. The "longer" your stroke, the more leverage you have and the more you can move the boat. That said, you have to be in a powerful position at the catch to initiate that drive (ie. not over compressed and strong enough to take that load). Sometimes, at the junior level, junior women are tall but not strong enough for their length and so they are not fast *yet* because they are not physically strong enough for their full compression load.
Great Holly, what does that mean?
If you are "shorter" - in college at a nationally competitive program this is shorter than 5'9" - then you have to work with what you've got. Focus your energy on your "controllables" since you aren't going to be able to grow 3-4 inches with effort. What are your "controllables?"
1. Power and Fitness. You have to be the strongest and fittest you can be. Be a beast in that weight room. Make sure that you are doing more weight (under close supervision) and doing more reps than everyone else. Quadzilla with the core strength of a giant redwood. Work on your fitness so that you can go longer and at a higher rate on the erg than your competitors. You will not be able to beat taller athletes if you are out of shape. Obviously train smart - with coach supervision and guidance. You cannot compete if you injure yourself so be sure you are getting stronger and fitter every day while being intentional with your training.
2. Flexibility. You MUST have excellent hamstring, hip and achilles/ankle flexibility. You must be able to maximize all the length you can get. And since you are STRONG, when you get fully compressed out over that gunnel, you are strong enough to move the boat from there and your core is strong enough to support your body and reduce the chance of injury.
3. Attitude and Dedication. You need to be "Old Faithful" for your teammates and coaching staff. You are never late, never complaining, and always supporting your teammates. And you always DO THE WORK. Make sure that you leave school and academic drama out of the boathouse and you are the last to get sucked into all of that nonsense on your team. Worry about yourself, do not judge your teammates or their efforts - that is the coach's job. Your job is to give 100% effort with a positive attitude every day, making whatever boat you are in that day, go as fast it can. This is the essence of "Love the Fight" at RSR - you have to love and dedicate yourself to EVERY part of the PROCESS - not the end result. The ups and downs of training, not just race day or medals. Fully appreciate the effort which has inevitable discomfort, but also the satisfaction of knowing that you are giving your all and holding nothing back. Put it all out there - and you will know that you are growing - that you are pushing outside your comfort zone every day to get stronger, tougher and more resilient. This is what true growth looks like.
4. Mental Toughness. If you don't have a mental game- get one. Come train with us if you don't have one. Every athlete needs to have one, no matter your height, but especially shorter athletes. You must develop your process to prepare for practice, not just erg tests or races. Grit is trainable - it is like a muscle and your ability to focus on the most important thing at any given time, is how you become mentally tougher than your competitors. You need to train yourself to be a racer who is ready to go at any point in time. You need to be frothing at the mouth to race and be prepared to give more than your competition when your coxswain asks it of you. This is why we coach a MACRO Compass and MICRO Compass for our athletes and we use the SEE Framework for execution - SEEK Challenge, Expect Discomfort, Embrace Work.
For all those curious or seeking to row in college these are four skills/attributes that you will need to compete at that level.
In the above picture, that is me in 2001 at the NCAA Championship. I was a Senior at Harvard rowing the Varsity Heavyweight 8+ with, then freshman, Caryn Davies who went on to stroke two Olympic women's 8+ to gold medals. She's 6'4 and I am 5'6.
You can do it - but you have to be prepared to give your all to be the strongest, fittest, most flexible and toughest that you can be.