Making Weight The cutthroat commitment of crew

by Tilly Friedlander and Alexandra Lee

It’s 8:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning. Fog hovers over the water as the rowers of the Marin Rowing Association (MRA) begin to arrive at the boathouse, alert and ready for their morning training. It’s the day before the first major race of the season, and each athlete appears determined in the hopes of competing in their desired boat against other Bay Area teams.

The girls’ varsity coach, Sandy Armstrong, clutches her clipboard, attempting to decide who will make up tomorrow’s varsity boat as she corrects the coxswains’ every move through her megaphone. From the coach’s motorboat, there’s a clear view of the focus, coordination and unison exhibited by each rower. The sport requires nothing less than grit, drive and ambition, all evident in the rowers’ determined eyes. Watching their oars slice through the water so peacefully, it can be difficult to imagine the intensity—including rigorous dieting—that many rowers have been through to get to this point, or beyond.

At the MRA, rowers have the option of rowing in the heavyweight or lightweight boats. If rowers choose to row lightweight, they commit to remain at or below the maximum required weight of 130 pounds for girls and 150 pounds for boys by the time they weigh in at a race. They are also encouraged to weigh as close to the maximum amount as possible. If a rower is naturally above the required weight, they have about two and a half months to cut weight in time for races.

Last school year, senior Calvin Norstad rowed for the MRA’s boys’ lightweight team. Unlike many of the lightweight rowers who are naturally at 150 pounds, Norstad’s natural weight was above the maximum. This year, he will be rowing for the heavyweight team because he could not continue to maintain the 22-pound deficit under his natural weight of 172 pounds.

“It just felt like the atmosphere was kind of closing in on me. It’s a weird feeling, being 22 pounds under [my natural weight], because you’re just so tired all the time. The strength that you normally have is just gone,” Norstad said.

According to coach Armstrong, she won’t accept female lightweight rowers who are more than five to 10 pounds above the required range. Additionally, she explains that weigh-ins are very frequent for females in particular, in order to ensure that rowers are near the range, or if not, that they’re losing weight at a steady pace.

“If there was somebody that wanted to be in the lightweight that weighed 140 pounds, I would not consider them” Armstrong said. “It would be too much weight for them to lose. We weigh in about once a month, just to be aware of what’s going on. And if people are in that natural weight, we’ll know.”

The lightweight team is appealing to the more competitive rowers, as one girl and one boy lightweight boat goes to Nationals along with only one of the four heavyweight boats, called the varsity boat.

Communicating with members of the MRA Girls' Varsity rowing team at practice, coach Sandy Armstrong corrects the rowers' movements using her bullhorn.

Senior and former lightweight rower Katie Reis joined the lightweight team initially because she aimed to compete in Nationals and didn’t think she had the physical capacity to be on the varsity heavyweight boat.

“For me, it was more of a height thing. I thought that I wasn’t tall enough to get to that level where I could be good enough to be in the varsity,” Reis said.

Like Norstad, Reis has also transferred to heavyweight this year, as she preferred not to diet.

According to Armstrong, lightweight rowers who are five to seven pounds over the required range are encouraged to lose the weight over a long period of time, both to be healthy and to minimize problems that can arise on race days.

“If a week out from that big race somebody is weighing in at 135 pounds, we have asked them not to [compete with the lightweights in that race],” Armstrong said.

Junior and heavyweight rower Sally Noble is a president of the Body Positive Club at Redwood, which is a San Rafael organization dedicated to helping people value their unique qualities and minimizing self-hatred. According to Noble, although there is a respectable intent behind rowing lightweight, it can end up being taken advantage of by competitive rowers who aren’t naturally in the required weight range.

“The idea behind [lightweight is] really good, giving smaller girls a more competitive chance. But it just gets taken advantage of where instead of girls who are 130, there will be girls who are like 140 or 145,” Noble said.

Noble said she feels disheartened to see rowers who are purposely dropping weight to compete.

“There’s a freshman this year who’s on varsity and she’s trying to go to Nationals all four years so she’s dieting a ton and it’s just sad to see that,” Noble said.

According to Armstrong, at the start of the training season, when some lightweights are beginning to cut weight, coaches provide them with tips on healthy ways to do so.

“We give them guidelines as to how to cut out calories and increase their workout so that you’re not just cutting calories but also burning more calories. [We] leave it up to them to put that into their lifestyle. We [don’t] dictate what they eat. We let them know how people lose weight, and that it’s not a difficult thing to do,” Armstrong said.

At the start of his junior year, Norstad utilized several dieting techniques to cut weight, focusing mainly on portion control and an increase in vegetable intake. Although this approach sounds healthy, for Norstad the hunger was overpowering both physically and mentally.

“It’s terrible. I would have dreams about eating food. I would also have dreams about hurting myself intentionally, so that I could just go to the hospital and eat whatever I wanted because I wouldn’t have to row anymore,” Norstad said. “It’s not that I didn’t love rowing. It’s that I didn’t love rowing lightweight.”

According to Norstad, after races, the lightweights have two weeks in which they can eat anything that they want, commonly unhealthy foods, because they don’t have to worry about maintaining weight. After the first race day was finished, Norstad said he consumed three sodas, along with cake and ice cream.

For junior and second-year lightweight rower Gabe Mandossian, weight fluctuation was prevalent during this period of “freedom” after the races. According to Mandossian, he gained approximately 15 pounds in two days from binging on high caloric foods.

As a result of the extreme weight fluctuations, some rowers developed mental issues in addition to the physical ones. Although never diagnosed, Norstad believes that he developed short-term depression during the time that he was dropping weight, as his lack of energy and desire for food lingered.

“My parents were concerned because I was pretty depressed. I wouldn’t talk to them that much. I would just watch Youtube in my time off. I wouldn’t do my homework because I didn’t have the energy. It wasn’t until I told them that I wasn’t happy and that I just wanted to quit that they were like, ‘This is really bad now. Let’s fix this,’” Norstad said.

Unlike Norstad, Mandossian decided to compete in Nationals, despite his common feelings of tiredness and dizziness.

Training for their upcoming races, members of the MRA Girls' Varsity team row at morning practice on Saturday, March 3.

Each lightweight rower who was cutting weight had a different way of restricting themselves from eating foods that would cause their weight to increase.

Senior and former lightweight rower Stash Pomichter practiced strict techniques in order to do so.

“The hardest part for me was after the afternoon practice. I’d come home. I’d be tired. Mentally, at the end of the day, you’re most weak in terms of mental strength, so I actually put a lock on my fridge multiple times, like a padlock,” Pomichter said.

Despite using a scientific approach to dieting by counting calories, Pomichter still found himself struggling to consistently diet in a healthy way.

“Some weekends I would just eat a bunch of stuff, then I would have to deal with the next week by eating way less. It would’ve been a lot healthier if I did it steady over the long term, but that’s hard when all you can think about is food,” Pomichter said.

Although she hadn’t experienced this pattern of eating herself, Reis has heard of very unhealthy practices on the girl’s lightweight team.

“There are some terrible horror stories about people throwing up to make weight, people taking laxatives to make weight. Those are things that when the coaches hear about them, they jump on it and say, ‘That’s not okay,’ and they monitor it,” Reis said.

Despite rumors of unhealthy practices, Noble tries to integrate ideas that she emphasizes in the Body Positive Club to rowers at MRA.

“Intuitive eating is a big thing in Body Positive,” Noble said, “especially for rowing where you are burning a lot of calories, it’s important to fuel your body correctly and that’s where a lot of girls get in trouble.”

According to Armstrong, if lightweight rowers weigh too far out of the range, then there are some questions that the coaches need to ask themselves.

“If they’re not in [the 130-132 range], we as a coaching staff need to make a decision if it’s healthy for that person to lose those five pounds,” Armstrong said. “It’s really difficult to lose five pounds in a week. So, that’s why we try to take a step back where we want it to be over time. And then they maintain their natural lightweight.” Armstrong said.

Noble recalls an incident last year in which a lightweight rower lost 7 pounds in one morning in order to race.

“One time last year a girl before a race, that morning, weighed in seven pounds over, 137. And so she had to put on leggings, sweatpants, whatever, rain jacket, sweatshirts and stuff. And she had to bike for a long time. And then go drive to the course and then run like 3 miles. And she weighed in, finally made it, and then she had to race,” Noble said.

According to Armstrong, the only suggestions that she offers for losing weight are to cut back on starches and to lose the weight over a long period of months, not rapidly. In her words, all of the guidelines and suggestions given out by the MRA are in the best interest of the athletes.

As a lightweight rower, Reis began to think about food in a different light. It wasn’t an aspect of mere enjoyment for her, rather it was pure energy needed to compete.

“The transition from never thinking about my weight to weighing myself at least once a week was different. And it changed the way I thought of food. I had started to see food as my fuel and thinking, ‘Do I need this?’ and ‘What am I putting in my body?’ So, I actually ate a lot healthier when I was a lightweight than I do now, but I also ate a lot less,” Reis said.

Armstrong recognizes that with any lightweight sport, eating disorders are something to monitor. Part of her responsibility as a coach is to look for health-related red flags in each rower and to place them in a different rowing category, if need be.

“The key in all of this is that if there is an athlete, whether it be a lightweight or heavyweight, who has a tendency toward the issues that go along with eating disorders, meaning body concerns, control issues, stress, all of the stuff that goes with potentially having an eating disorder, yes, lightweight or coxswain, or even being a heavyweight can trigger those things,” Armstrong said.

Noble talks to her coaches about advice for ensuring that rowers are practicing healthy eating habits.

“It’s really important to eat consistently what you’re body is craving, and that’s a really important way to nourish yourself. That’s something that I’ve talked to my coach a lot about, because that’s important to both health and athletic performance,” Noble said. “I feel like that’s one big way that [the Body Positive Club and rowing] overlap.”

Reis feels that the coaches for the girls’ lightweight team adequately ensured that they were handling the weight loss in ethical and healthy ways.

“I feel like usually people just talk to the girls about lightweight and say, ‘Isn’t it so hard to try to be skinny?’ But our coach was very good. We had a lot of talks about nutrition. We do weigh-ins not to shame you, but just to make sure that you’re on track when it comes to race day,” Reis said. “I think that that stems from stereotypes and the reality that there are a lot more eating disorders in girls. But, unfortunately, that kind of hurt the guys that no one checked up on them and they didn’t talk about it as much.”

Both Mondassian and Norstad agreed that the coaches monitored the boys’ lightweight team less frequently and claimed that that probably hurt their ability to diet in a steady fashion.

Senior and former lightweight rower Jack Wentworth began rowing weighing about 200 pounds without much muscle, and had to cut to 150 pounds by the time he started lightweight racing his sophomore year. Wentworth found that he was not able to maintain the lightweight diet for a long period of time because it began to affect his energy and health.

“I had to give myself a very, very strict diet and it was borderline unhealthy but nothing too extreme, but toward the end of the season I wasn’t able to continue keeping that weight,” Wentworth said. “I was trying to put out about three times as many calories as I ate, and I was losing weight at about two pounds a week. And then it got to a point where my body kind of plateaued and I wasn’t able to lose any more weight.”

Wentworth said that the dieting caused him to miss several school days.

“I was run down a lot, my immune system was pretty weak so I would usually get sick pretty frequently, and I was in and out of school because I was really tired and hungry a lot,” Wentworth said.

For both Norstad and Wentworth, the constant lack of energy began to affect their school work as well, making it difficult to concentrate in and out of class.

“I’ve always been a pretty good student, haven’t really had to spend hours to get my homework done and complete it well. But, with lightweight, my attention span completely fell apart. Classes that I normally got As in easily, I was starting to drop to B,” Norstad said. “You just don’t have the mental capacity [to do schoolwork].”

While dieting and weight loss is a constant concern for several lightweight rowers, there are additional influential factors associated with rowing. Other pressures that some sources attributed to lightweight rowing include sacrificing personal well-being to benefit the success of the team, and in general constantly performing at a near-perfect level.

“Nobody really asks the question ‘Is it the right thing to do?’ They just ask, ‘Will it make the boat faster?” Norstad said. “So it was like ‘Okay, you’re going to have make some important sacrifices for the boat,’ which I was happy to do because that’s what a teammate would do,” Norstad said.

Norstad recalls some of the pressure that he felt as a lightweight rower to make sacrifices about his weight and health to benefit the rest of his team’s success as a whole.

“The coach wasn’t necessarily concerned with anybody’s personal health or well-being as much. I’d say more about the team’s well-being, in a way. Which is good and bad, but a coach should care about their athletes,” Norstad said.

According to Wentworth, he initially struggled with the repeated reminders to stay at the top of his game.

“We were constantly being pushed and being shown the scores from previous years, and your seat is always being threatened to be taken by another person, so you’re always pushing yourself as hard as you can to get faster, stronger and fitter so you can keep your seat in the boat. Pretty much everything was really hard for me the first year,” Wentworth said.

One of Wentworth’s biggest stressors was not letting his teammates down, which was a genuine concern as his entire boat could be disqualified from the race if he didn’t pass the weigh in.

“For example, our first big race in the lightweight event my sophomore year was in San Diego, and everyone has to weigh in in the morning. I remember the night before I was 152 [pounds], and I was stressing out, I was freaking out,” Wentworth said. “I weighed in at 149.9, but if I were to weigh 151.1 I would’ve disqualified my whole boat.”

According to Reis, a lot of the pressures lightweights feel come from their own internal thoughts, rather than any explicit statements from coaches or teammates.

“The pressure mostly just came from ourselves. I could have totally been on the heavyweight team, but I made the decision for myself [to race lightweight] because at the end of the day, I wanted to win races,” Reis said.

This year Reis had to adjust from being encouraged to lose weight to being encouraged to gain weight, as part of her transition from lightweight to heavyweight.

“Compared to last year, I’m almost 20 pounds heavier. I’m lifting more weights than I did last year, my times on [rowing] tests are a lot faster because I have more body and muscle mass,” Reis said.

While Reis learned how to diet and lose weight in a healthy way as a lightweight rower, she believes there were other girls who lost the weight in an unhealthy way, feeling the internal pressure to make progress quickly.

“I wouldn’t say that anything that I ever did was unhealthy. Everyone has their personal story and I know of people who probably did things that they shouldn’t have done. They would never admit it and our coaches never knew,” Reis said. “That’s something that they decided to do and they put that pressure on themselves.”

Norstad felt that the stress and intensity around maintaining weight as a lightweight rower was too extreme for him to continue to race with that team, and he believes he made the right decision to quit when he did.

“It would’ve been awesome for me to get a medal. But, looking back at it, I don’t think I would’ve enjoyed the three months before that. I would’ve hated those months. I don’t think it’s worth it. Just wasting months of your life in absolute hell for one day of happiness,” Norstad said.

While the high expectations and pressures of being a lightweight were intense, Mondassian didn’t feel alone in the process and continued with the reassuring notion that his friends were going through the same struggles.

“You’re in it together. No one’s really alone. You can talk to the other guys. We were all miserable together, but at least we were together,” Mandossian said.

Despite the intense dieting and pressures that some lightweight rowers feel, going through the experience together allowed a sense of camaraderie and teamwork to form.

“It was a really cool group of guys and it was a really fun boat dynamic. My sophomore year I was definitely a lot closer to weight, so it was easier for me. And then my junior year I decided to be in the [lightweight] boat because I thought it was a more fun boat to be in,” Pomichter said.

According to Norstad, over any other experience, the close friendships that he formed over the months of lightweight rowing are what stuck with him the most.

The teamwork and bonded relationships that Norstad reminisces about during his time on the lightweight team is part of what makes rowing so unique. Stepping into the boathouse on that Saturday morning, it was easy to see what the sport is truly about: a strong sense of camaraderie.

It’s not just practice a few times a week, or even an important race, but a lifestyle that each of the rowers share. However, in the midst of the intense training, dieting, and dedication that can be necessary, it is often difficult to remain positive. While rowing is beautiful to watch, the struggle of the sport can extend far beyond the regatta for several athletes, into sometimes dangerous realms.

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