Q&A: Bryn Mawr Rowing Coach Carol Bower

Posted September 9th, 2008 at 10:18 am.

After the U.S. women’s eight rowing team won its first Olympic gold medal in 24 years at this year’s games, team coxswain Mary Whipple said, “This is for the 1984 girls.”

One of those “girls” was Bryn Mawr rowing coach Carol Bower, who recently took a few minutes to talk about competing in the Olympics and Bryn Mawr rowing.

What’s your most vivid memory of the 1984 Olympics?
It was sitting on the starting line and noticing that my legs were shaking like they never shook before. In that moment, I realized that in spite of all our training and race preparation, there was still one more stage of excellence left to be realized: the ability to perform under the pressure and finality of the Olympics. I had been on the starting line in many important and intense races in my rowing career. Even though the task at hand was the same, the situation was very different. In the next three minutes either you’re going to do it or you’re not. Nerves, that is what I remember the most.

Do you approach training any differently when you’re going for Olympic gold?
You don’t want to change things so much as do exactly the same thing but do it better. It’s still the same mix of training: endurance (long steady rows), power (weight lifting) and speed work (short sprints). There is an important difference, though. No one is taking the year off during an Olympic year, so the competition for a position on the team is at its most intense. We were an exceptionally fast team because we had spent the summer proving ourselves against some really good women to deserve a seat in the Eight.

How has Olympic rowing changed since 1984?
On the most basic level, the distance of the race has changed from 1,000 meters to 2,000 meters. When women first started racing in the Olympics, the organizers (mostly men) were concerned that women might not be able to handle racing for 2,000 meters. What the organizers did not anticipate, however, was that women would do the same thing in a 1,000 meter race that the men would do; make it a “sprint event.” The down side to this was that it encouraged some of our competitors (if their culture supported this) to use performance-enhancement drugs to improve their strength and speed for a race that lasted just under three minutes. By doubling the length of the race (or making it the same as what the men have always raced), the physical requirements became those of an endurance race rather than a sprint. The performance-enhancement drugs at that time were not useful in an endurance race and thus lengthening it discouraged athletes from using them.

What’s happening with the Bryn Mawr crew team this year?
It’s really exciting. We are now rowing from a boathouse facility, which allows us to store more equipment and thus have more people on the team than we have in the past. Our co-captains, graduate student Katherine Faigen and Jane Morris ’10, headed up a campus recruiting effort to complement those who have come to BMC with high-school rowing experience. In addition to our 12 returners, we have 32 new members signed up.

Everyone started rowing this week and will be racing by mid-October. The varsity members will be racing against other varsity crews in the fall “head style” races. Head races are about three miles in length, and the crews start one behind the other and race against the clock as they race down the river. The novice crews will race as well, in the novice events of the same regattas as the varsity.

Can any student try out for the team and what do they need to do?
Yes, but this year we are not holding a “tryout” day. Instead, we are giving anyone with interest the opportunity to “try it out” and see if this is a sport they want to commit to. You do not need to have rowing experience to give it a try. Sixty percent of our varsity team did not pick up an oar before coming to Bryn Mawr College. On the U.S. Women’s Olympic team this year, the ratio is about the same for those who did not have rowing experience before college compared to those that did. That’s what’s so cool about the sport. It’s something you can take up at the college level and if you really like it, you can be really good at it.

Any student who’s interested in joining can contact the Athletics office and we’ll have them in a boat and rowing in no time. The fall is the nontraditional season, but we do race in the Philadelphia Navy Day Regatta, the Head of the Charles Regatta, and finally, the Seven Sisters Championship Regatta, which we will be hosting this year. The spring is our traditional racing season. We have a number of dual meets and larger regattas just about every weekend starting in mid-March and ending in May.

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