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Fun Facts about Rowing & Its History

Rowing team on blue water

Outdoor rowing has a long history, of course, and indoor rowing machines are older than you might guess. Here are lots of interesting and fun facts about indoor rowing, outdoor rowing and athletes. We start with ancient Greek warriors and conclude with modern rowers like you.


Rowing Machines for Warriors…

How old are rowing machines? They have a surprisingly ancient history! The earliest example we’ve found is from the height of Classical Greek civilization about 2500 years ago. Back then, Athens and Sparta were frequently at war. Their soldiers headed to battle in ships powered by hundreds of rowers each.

It seems that rowing machines helped the Athenians—and their version of democracy—triumph. Led by an admiral named Chabrias, the Athenian military trained on shore with wooden rowing machines. These machines let beginners master the rowing technique before joining a crew on the sea. At the same time, the warriors developed incredible head-to-toe muscular strength and endurance.


… And Machines for Students in Top Hats

In modern history the first indoor rower was patented in the US by a famous athlete named William Buckingham Curtis. This was back when men wore top hats, women wore bustles and Ulysses S. Grant was President. The year was 1871. Bill Curtis’s rowing machine was hydraulic and designed for amateur athletes. It didn’t have anything like the smooth, complete stroke cycle of modern indoor rowers, but it did help rowers train during the winter months and summer storms.


More about Bill & His Crazy Strength

Bill Curtis was not only the inventor of the rowing machine, but also an accomplished athlete. In the 1800s he was considered one of the world’s strongest men; he reportedly lifted 3600 pounds with his back! He became known as the “father of amateur American athletics.” Curtis was a prominent rower who helped organize the National Association of Amateur Oarsmen in 1872. This group is now known as the United States Rowing Association. He also participated in a number of other sports and founded famous fitness centers such as the New York Athletic Club.


The First College Boat Race in the USA

Rowing machines were desired in late 1800s America because rowing was a top outdoor sport. In fact, rowing was the first intercollegiate sport in the United States. The first regatta was held between students at Harvard and Yale in 1852. Who won the historic two-mile race? Harvard. Their prize was a pair of black walnut oars inscribed with silver. The racing tradition came from England, where rowing competitions had been held on the Thames since the 1700s.


The Modern Sport

While not much has changed in terms of the activity of rowing, the reverence bestowed upon it by participants and fans of the sport has increased. In the mid-19th century, rowing competitions became a fun reprieve for those who made their living as ferrymen and personal transport providers along the River Thames. Since then, fans of the contemporary sport have watched thousands of races take place on the same river. The Henley Royal Regatta, which takes places every year on the River Thames, is arguably the most famous rowing competition in the world. The regatta is also known for its prominence in society, and tradition often requires that spectators show respect for the sport by adhering to a formal dress code. In the United States, rowing is a sport and pastime popular in East Coast cities, such as Boston and New York.


Rowing Equipment

The type of equipment used in rowing can depend on the type of sculling participants engage in. Typically, a rowing boat is referred to as a “shell.” Modern rowing equipment often incorporates safety devices like a bowball, which is designed to minimize damage to other boats if contact is made, and a fin, which can help boats to stay on track while moving. Two-oared sculling requires that each participant uses two oars, while competitors in single-oar sculling only need one oar. In addition, the physical method of rowing can differ depending on whether participants use one or two oars in competition. Single-oar competitors often use more of a sweeping motion to move the vessel though the water.


Rowing Clubs

The Detroit Boat Club, founded in 1839, bears the distinction of being the first rowing club to appear in the United States. But the sport quickly gained traction among other segments of the nation. Yale University was the site of the first rowing club designed for students, starting in 1843, and the enthusiasm for rowing clubs spread among colleges, universities, and high schools. Rowing gained such popularity that it became one of the first sports in which colleges competed against each other for a title. Today, rowing clubs can be found in all but seven of the 50 states and organizations exist for rowers of all stripes of life, from children to seasoned professionals.


Rowing and the Olympic Games

Rowing is one of the original sports for the modern Olympic Games and has been scheduled for all of the summer competitions. The only time people didn’t row was during the first year in Greece (1896) when rowing was cancelled due to the weather.

The founder of the modern Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, was an avid rower. He argued that the rather aristocratic sport should be made available to working-class people. We’re not sure if “people” included the ladies though… It wasn’t until 1976 that women rowed in the Olympic Games. The inclusion of women’s teams in Montreal that year helped improve support for women’s rowing at clubs around the world. Many clubs began to accept women for the first time.


By some measures the best overall rower at the Olympic Games is Elisabeta Lipă, a Romanian who won eight medals (five gold!) between 1984 and 2000. The highest ranked male rower is the UK’s Steve Redgrave, who is formally known as Sir Steven Regrave. He has five gold medals and one bronze. Initially female Olympians competed in a 1000-meter race. Today all men’s and women’s Olympic rowing events involve a 2,000-meter course with six lanes.


The boats used for rowing are called “shells.” A boat for eight rowers is about 60 feet long, and a boat for one is about 27 feet long. The largest indoor rowing machines, in contrast, are only about 9 feet long and of course won’t hold a team. To help crew teams train indoors though, Concept2 designs its air rowing machines to be linked together if desired. Olympic rowing events include sweeping and sculling. For sweeping, an athlete holds one oar like a broom. For sculling, each athlete holds two oars.


Rowing Team

Trivia about Top Rowers, the Tall and Small

Just about anyone can row for fun and effective exercise, but world rowing champions tend to be long-limbed. For top female rowers the average height is about 6’0″ and for males it’s about 6’6″. Longer arms are an advantage in competition because a longer-armed person can get more leverage per stroke.


An exception to the height trend is the coxswain (pronounced “cox’n”), the person who calls out information from the back of the shell. The coxswain can be small but not “too” small. The International Rowing Federation requires that male coxswains carry at least 55 kilograms (121.25 lbs) in uniform and that female coxswains carry at least 50 kilograms (110.23 lbs). We’re being literal about the carrying… An underweight coxswain is allowed to carry sandbags in order to meet the minimum weight requirement. The speediest rowers move at about 14 mph. Those who dedicate their lives to rowing train for about 30 hours/week. They can easily burn 5,000 or 6,000 calories a day!


Rowing Machine Evolution in Modern Times

The past century has seen impressive developments in rowing machine technology. In the early 1900s a gas-based rower was popular at universities. It was similar to Curtis’s original design. In the 1950s these were replaced with machines that used mechanical braking, which athletes found to be uncomfortable. Indoor rowing fell into its Dark Decades.


Indoor rowing made its comeback in 1981 when a new brand, Concept2, hit the market. Concept2 introduced air resistance to produce a very comfortable and realistic rowing experience. For the first time, rowing machines became common in homes and not just at universities or public gyms. Concept 2 is now the best-selling rowing brand in the world. However, competition is strong. Another highly respected brand is WaterRower, whose machines actually use water for resistance… And today’s shoppers also have a choice of magnetic resistance rowers (which tend to be quiet) and hydraulic rowers (which tend to be very low-priced). The four main types of rowing machines sold today provide different combinations of comfort, performance and durability.


The 21st Century: Rowing is “In”

Lately indoor rowing is replacing spin class and treadmill time. People at all fitness levels are discovering that rowing, unlike many other cardio activities, is gentle on the body when it’s done right!

Ready to join a long tradition? Get started on indoor training with our comprehensive and honest rowing machine reviews!

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