Rolling on a river: A crash course guide to understanding rowing

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Senior Kennedy Felice and junior Rachel Haskell carry the 4+ boat after the 4K race at the University of Kansas regatta in Lawrence. (Dalton Wainscott | Collegian Media Group)

The Kansas State rowing team is one of many teams under the banner of K-State Athletics, but not many sports fans know the ins and outs of the aquatic sport. For those who want to know more about rowing, here is a crash course.

Rowers use long, often multi-person boats to compete in river races called regattas. Boats typically carry either four or eight people, with eight-person boats captained by a leader called the coxswain. Rowers travel across the water using specialized oars called blades.

To be successful at rowing, rowers need to be committed. It’s not just a sport for working your arms; it requires full body strength and lots of hard work.

“If you commit to this sport and are all in, it will be the hardest, but probably most rewarding thing you will ever do,” senior rower Abigail Dressler said. “If you decide to coast through, you will not make it. You have to be all in.”

Besides rowing, Dressler is also a senior in accounting with a minor in leadership studies, so finding a balance in her commitments is key to her success.

Rowing events are divided into two disciplines: sweep rowing and sculling.

In sweep rowing, athletes use only one blade. In sculling, athletes use two blades, one in each hand. Further, there are three sculling events: single, double and quad.

A rower’s weight determines the competition they compete in, either lightweight or open weight. Any athlete can participate in the open weight categories, while lightweight men cannot weigh more than 160 pounds and lightweight women cannot weigh more than 130 pounds.


To start a regatta, all boats align at the start in their own lanes. Rowers hold the boats in place until an official, known as the aligner, ensures all boats are starting equal. Teams are allowed one false start to account for mistakes; if they use two, the team is automatically disqualified.

If any equipment breaks within the first 100 meters, then they will restart. Beyond that point, rowers must keep going. Rowers are also allowed to leave their lane at any time with no penalty, but an official will follow to ensure their safety.

The number of strokes a rowing team is making in a given moment of the race, known as the stroke rate, is a crucial part of winning a regatta. The stroke rate should be at a high number when starting, but further along, it can decrease a little.

There are four parts to a stroke: catch, drive, finish and recovery. The catch starts the stroke when the blade enters the water, the drive follows through to propel the boat forward, the finish gets the oar out of the water and recovery helps rowers prepare for the next stroke.

In boats of four or eight rowers, teamwork is crucial — a fact the K-State rowing team knows all too well.

“K-State races three boats of eight and two boats of four that compete in 2,000-meter races against other Division I schools,” senior rower Rachel Haskell said. “Each of these boats has a coxswain that steers the boat and is responsible for making sure that we stay on our power, have consistent rhythm and coaches us throughout the race.”

Senior rower Logan Frost described rowing as a sport that trains your entire body — including your mind.

“Rowing is one of the oldest sports ever, and historically, one of the most popular,” Frost said. “It truly uses every muscle in your body, but oddly enough, it’s mostly a mental game, really.”

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