Without broad and open outreach to its membership for discussion and input, USRowing's youth lightweight task force has recommended eliminating lightweight rowing from future Youth National Championships, with likely follow on impact to regional and local regattas. This momentous decision disastrously affects thousands of youth lightweight rowers across the country who pour their heart and soul into the sport, largely because they believe they have an opportunity to compete on a level playing field. Rowing is a strength leveraged sport, and there is no denying that the stronger and taller you are, the more natural advantage you have over your competition. The vast majority of TRUE lightweights face overwhelming disadvantage vs their open weight counter parts.
We acknowledge that there are teams, coaches, athletes and parents who have engaged in unhealthy practices including crash dieting or living on restrictive diets. The lightweight category has been taken advantage of - and unintentionally marred by - mid weight athletes who believe that going light provides an easier path to competitive success. We whole heartedly agree with eliminating this situation, but please do not “throw the baby out with the bath water.” What about all the naturally lightweight rowers, yearning for their chance to compete in a fair environment? How pervasive is this problem truly? We hear anecdotal stories of athletes who lost a ton of weight, but what about the vast majority of lightweight athletes - happily and healthily pursuing their passion?
Does our rowing journey not matter?
At a time when USRowing (quite rightly) looks to find all sorts of ways to be inclusive, to create opportunities for people to row and compete from every background imaginable, why shut out this vibrant and committed community? So many young, small athletes are drawn to rowing in the first place because they believe they will have fair competitive opportunities. This grows the sport at large which benefits every rower of every size. No-one is being forced to row lightweight. No athlete has to compete in, nor any organization compelled to offer lightweight rowing. If you are against it, don’t do it or offer it - but please do not get in the way of others who do.
What is our alternative? It is beyond frustrating to hear and read the "bulk up" comments, seriously. The reality is there are tons of lightweights "bulking up" just to get to near the lightweight threshold. The idea of putting on another 25 - 40 lbs is ludicrous and as unhealthy as "cutting"... and how about that height differential, should we "tall up 3-8 inches too?" USRowing has suggested that introducing an age based system (U15 and U17) is an alternative to lightweight rowing, this is nonsense. A big 16 year old athlete has all the same advantages mentioned over a small 16 year old. At best this "solution" is a distraction - more cynically the only thing it will replace is lost regatta revenue from eliminating lightweight events. Please stop suggesting this is an alternative.
The age category brings up what should be a far greater concern for USRowing than the few midweights going lightweight... and that is the coming wave of injuries due to the increasingly competitive nature of Youth Rowing. First off, no-one under the age of 15 should be sweep rowing, this is absolutely horrendous for growing backs and is avoided the world over (where many organizations also insist on the use of macon blades in U15 as well)... yet USRowing acknowledges none of this and offers a National Championship category featuring sweep events in this age group! We have high school athletes at some clubs training 8-11 sessions per week, often in excess of 20 hours per week, essentially doing the same repetitive motion. There is a coming explosion of back, shoulder, rib and hip injuries - many of which will be sport ending and life long suffering. Athletes are turning to HGH, creatine and more to get that competitive edge. College coaches country wide report a huge uptick of "premature burn out" and athletes arriving at college with debilitating injuries. Over work, over use and sleep deprivation are rampant among youth rowers... and lightweights are now being told - "do more or be content with a lessor level of competition". Protect the true lightweight category and look at far more pervasive health threats to youth rowing.
We beseech USRowing to place a "stay of execution" on youth lightweight rowing for three years while they exhaustively consider re-shaping rather than eliminating the youth lightweight division.
We respectfully offer the following solutions:
Educate, Certify, Regulate.
In a similar manner to the SafeSport policy, USRowing could create an educational video on the potentially hazardous affects of lightweight rowing caused by crash dieting and a long term nutritionally limited diet, especially during growth. The information would also be plainly spelled out on their website. Every member organization offering lightweight rowing would be required to clearly post the same information on their own team's website. The great battle is to change people's mindset and will be more effective than any other single measure. No-one intentionally wants to put themselves, their child, their athlete in harm's way. Societal norms are constantly evolving; we used to tolerate (and worse still, celebrate) that which we now eschew - hazing is a great example. The same can happen with attitudes to weight loss.
Similar to the SafeSport policy, USRowing can require all clubs, coaches, athletes and parents to complete an awareness course, linked to their USRowing #.
Health clearance. All lightweight rowers should get from a licensed medical doctor a "certificate of good health" following an examination that includes weighing in at or below the 150 / 130 lb mark. This form to be completed prior to April 1st of each calendar year. This form includes the rower's full name, club affiliation and USRowing ID number (possibly even a USRowing Ltwt ID number). The form to be submitted to the club who in turn sends to USRowing on April 1st their entire eligible lightweight roster. No exceptions.
Require all lightweight athletes to weigh in at an official rowing / indoor event 4 times before Youth Nationals, in the same calendar year. A simple reporting portal, again using athletes' USRowing ID can track these weigh ins. Clubs need to be part of the solution, they need to mobilize and ensure that this data is recorded and sent to USRowing in a timely fashion. This may very well influence which indoor and on water regattas they attend. For example, an athlete may weigh in at two indoor regattas (using "winter weight 155/135 lbs), and two on water regattas at 150 / 130 lbs, before Youth Nationals.
Monitor the efficacy of these measures over a period of two to three years to determine if its working, or if more needs to be done. If necessary we can move to adopt the VASRA model or something like it. What we caution against is trying to implement ardent, sweeping changes all at once which then are ineffective or deemed "not workable" because of time and resource constraints. We can and must fix this - but it won't necessarily happen over night.
Answering the critics
Most other sports don’t offer “size" divisions.
If there was a demand for a “size” division then there is nothing to prevent them from doing it. There is clear demand and energy for youth lightweight rowing. Facile arguments like “there is not an under 6’ foot basketball league” are indolent and intellectually dishonest. There are different “positions” in most sports that create opportunities for a variety of body sizes… And if someone wants to create an under 6’ basketball league - have at it !
There are lightweight athletes / boats who are competitive with open weights.
This year at Nationals, the fastest Lt8+ (boys and girls) would have come last vs openweights in time trials. A similar result was reflected through reps, semi's and Finals. There are some rare athletes, and crews that can be competitive… sort of. As stated, rowing is a strength leveraged sport. Are lightweights to be told, if you work extraordinarily hard you MIGHT make an A Final… but probably not. Is this the most to which we should aspire? Lightweights work just as hard as their open weight counterparts, all we are asking for is for the scales to NOT be tipped against us, literally.
Other countries don’t offer Lightweight Rowing:
Since when does the USA seek to follow rather than lead?
There are very few countries in the world that have the numbers of youth rowing that there are in the US. It is quite probable that having a lightweight division would dilute the pool of athletes available to create genuine 1V calibre boats in either weight division.
Most lightweights are just young future open weights and an age division will provide them opportunities to compete:
First of all we wholly support age divisions and wish this was more common throughout high school rowing… but, a big 16 year old carries the same advantages over a small 16 year old, and age categories will not resolve the situation.
This notion is far more prevalent in boys than girls, the vast majority of girls have stopped growing by 15 or 16. If they are naturally lightweight at 16, they are likely natural lightweights for their competitive careers.
Living on a calorie controlled diet is not right for young athletes:
The problem here is the pretext that all lightweight athletes are starving themselves. The VAST majority of us are natural lightweights with many striving to get up to weight! With childhood obesity a nation wide health crisis, there are also plenty of inspiring stories of overweight short kids being motivated by the lightweight category who have quite literally turned their lives around. With a sound, year long (or more) approach to sensible weight loss they have gone from overweight and un-athletic, to becoming vibrant healthy rock star athletes, with all the positive self value and pride that goes with it. Yes - let us stop mid weight / sized kids from being unhealthy. Educate them, their parents and coaches to the adverse health effects, but let us not assume that this pertains to all lightweights, it does not!
I saw athletes going on a sweat run just before weigh in - the horror!
Everyone's body weight fluctuates on a daily basis, for all sorts of reasons. For athletes that are sitting, perfectly healthily, right at the weight limit it is not surprising that a few will find themselves .2 or .4 lbs over the limit at weigh in. This is especially the case at hot and humid venues like Sarasota. Going for a 15 minute run, even forcing a light sweat is hardly the end of the world. What do you think is going to happen to them on the race course? Weigh an athlete, then put them on an erg for a 45 - 60 minute steady state piece and then weigh them again... they will probably have just lost 2-4 lbs... the horror! Were they just abused? Excessive weight loss on the day is obviously not healthy, a dehydrated athlete is NOT what we are talking about here. Significant weight loss just prior to competition is serious and must be eliminated... but not everyone going for a run before weigh in is endangering themselves.