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3-On-3: National Team Stars Talk Head Racing Success

by Jules Zane, jules@usrowing.org | Oct 12, 2015
Three experts answer three questions, offering unique insights that have helped them and others along the way. In previous editions we talked coaching education, college recruiting, and much more.

Three experts answer three questions, offering unique insights that have helped them and others along the way. In previous editions we talked coaching education, college recruiting, and much more.

In this edition, Bryan Volpenhein (U.S. National Team men’s coach and 2004 Olympic gold medalist), Gevvie Stone (U.S. National Team member in the women’s single scull) and Peter Cipollone (2004 Olympic gold medal coxswain in the men’s eight) all talk about successes they have had in head racing and tips to finish strong this fall.

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1. What changes should someone make going into head racing season, contrary to preparing and training for sprint racing?

Bryan Volpenhein (BV): “This time of year our training is geared to develop a strong aerobic base. We are doing miles and miles and miles of solid steady state with some long distance pieces a couple times a week. We also try and do one or two days a week with a few 10's or 20's mixed into the steady state to stay in touch with speed.  We focus on length and power per stroke to get the most distance out of each stroke.”

Gevvie Stone (GS): “Head races are usually more than double the distance of a 2k.21005522875_e818c2b0eb_k Given the difference, I think it's important to prepare with longer interval pieces during the fall, as it provides both mental and physical preparation. My hard work in the fall includes two mile, three mile, 5k, 7k, and 10k pieces. Because the pieces are longer, a sustainable maximum pace will be slower than 2k season and at a lower rating. It's good to work on getting the most out of each stroke!”

Peter Cipollone (PC): “There are lots of logistics to handle, like making sure you have your bow numbers and all kinds of little nits that will get you penalized or delayed (heel ties, anyone?). Make sure you know and abide by the local rules. After that comes the tough part: the racing. A 17-minute race is much more a "performance" on the coxswain's part than a 2k. You'll need to have your repertoire of calls ready so as to keep things fresh when the rowers get tired. You can also practice the fun stuff like passing crews under bridges, rolling starts into base cadence and sharp turns.”

2. Steering is a crucial part of head races, both for small boats and coxed events. What’s a good way to prepare for a course at a specific event? 

PC: “All head race courses are unique and usually have some trick where well-prepared crews gain an advantage. My job as a coxswain is to know these spots and own them. Study the course maps and talks to coxswains who have raced there before. Know the geography, warm-up patterns and times, points on the course where pile-ups occur and where the key turns are. Rehearse your approach to each trick, even if just on your home course and talk your crew through them in mock pieces. Sometimes you have to do weird things like have bow and three take air shots on a turn, or maybe even drag blades on one side. The ultimate prep is to be able to get out on the course and practice live. Do whatever you can to make that happen.

One last tip: if you are in a stern-coxed boat, be very careful about putting your oars over buoy lines. Too many coxswains get cute with that and get their crew nailed with a penalty. The miniscule amount of time saved is not worth the risk and there are other things you can focus on for a much bigger impact.”

GS: “Good steering during a head course includes awareness of not only turns and bridges, but also other crews and surprise obstacles. As a sculler, I think the most important thing to practice is turning your head and looking around. It's a big advantage to be able to turn and look without losing speed! It will lead to a better course on race day, especially as the direct course is only guaranteed to be the fastest course if the boat is starting with bow number #1. Another thing is to look at the race map and to make mental notes of the turns, obstacles (bridges, islands, etc) and, lastly and importantly, the rough distances of each straight stretch. If I know how long it should take me to get from one turn to another I'm more prepared when I get there.”

SunEights82M8BV: “If you can get to the course a day or two early to row over it and set your points that is ideal. Also, make sure you take the turns at race pace to get a realistic practice run. If you can't get there, study course maps and make sure you know it. Try and talk to locals and get the inside tips for that particular course. “                                                                                                                             

3. Can you share some of your best and/or funniest memories from a head race?

GS: “Head race season is my favorite and I've been rowing for long enough to have a lot of stories! I've chosen two stressful, one funny, and my most-recent best:

-- HOCR 2005: Racing for Princeton in the Champ 8+, our steering cable broke going through Weeks. I was a port in two-seat and had no clue what was going on. All I knew was that our coxswain (Lizzie Agnew) yelled for me and our four-seat to drop out and for the starboards to crank! Later I learned that she had also put her hand in the water to help get around the turn, and she managed to pull out the remaining nub of steering cable and use it for the rest of the race - impressive!

-- HOCR 2011: I raced in a mixed quad with Mahe, Twigg, and Andrew Campbell. Andrew was in charge of steering, and we learned as we were on the water that he had never steered with a toe before! Going through the BU bridge, we kept zig-zagging and none of our stern points were my usual stern point! It's a narrow bridge, and I could've sworn we were going to hit it. Fortunately, we didn't and Andrew's steering was spot on for the rest of the race.

-- HOCR 2014: I started behind Kate Bertko in the Champ single and I got close enough to her that she had to yield around the 2 mile mark. I gradually passed her during the long turn just upstream of there, forcing her to the outside of the turn. At one point, she turned to me and yelled ‘just pass me already!’. As if I wasn't trying!

-- HOCR 2014: The Great Eight (eight scullers from eight countries) race in the Champ Eight event. It started off a little rocky, but we rowed better and better, picking up more and more speed over the three-mile course. Additionally, our coxswain (Erin Driscoll) steered a perfect course! It was so fun to see the field fall farther and farther back as the race progressed. For Carling and Sanita, it was their first sweep race ever, so now they have a hundred percent win record in sweep boats!”

PC: “My second best head race memory is the Charles from '97. We had a hodgepodge of national teamers in the boat. Coach Teti told us, ‘If you lose, just keep going north.’ We broke the course record and won by about fifteen seconds. Ed Hewitt at Row2k got a recording of the race, which still gets lots of comments nearly twenty years later. Bowman Mike Callahan and I usually have a quick fist bump every year the record stays intact, kind of like the 1972 Miami Dolphins.

My funniest was also at the Charles. During my year off from college, I was coxing PennSunEights63M8 A.C. in the Champ Four. We had a fast crew, but we were starting fifth. At Weeks Bridge, we caught the Charles River R owing Association boat and locked blades. In the heat of the moment, I cut loose a barrage of profanity and (metaphorical) finger-in-the-chest physical threats. Their wide-eyed bow man shouted something like "Oh my gosh, just let them go!" We took off like a shot, but finished second. After the race, some friends invited me to a brunch in Cambridge. When I arrived, who answered the door, but the bow of that Charles River crew. That brunch was great fun. 

My best memory of all was 2004 in Boston. People stood in line in the rain and mud for hours and hours while we autographed posters. Then we did a row over with our women's eight. Tons of people had gathered just past Eliot, so we stopped there. I held up our gold from Athens, and the crowd went buck wild. It was like a cathedral of rowing.” 

BV: “My best head race experience had to be the Head of the Charles in 2001. We started first and it was our first race after the 9/11 attacks had happened. We wore FDNY shirts and NYPD hats. There was a lot of emotion and great energy. That was the loudest I've ever heard the crowds on the bridges!”

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