Boats out of water: The 30-year rise of the MidAtlantic Erg Sprints

WASHINGTON — It’s the nation’s second-largest indoor rowing event.

That’s a sentence worth reading at least twice, to really appreciate what it means.

When winter’s grip takes its hold on the mid-Atlantic region, turning even the wide, flowing Potomac into sheets of ice, rowers are forced indoors to train on ergometers, or simply “ergs.” The devices measure the amount of work the rower performs, like a treadmill.

And so, on a chilly Saturday in the dead of winter 30 years ago, rowers began to meet at Alexandria’s T.C. Williams High School. They raced on ancient predecessors of today’s ergs — wooden contraptions that used bicycle wheels and lacked any timing technology. Race times were kept by hand, and there were just 30 machines, with two more for competitors to warm up on.

Last weekend, the Erg Sprints celebrated its 30th year, having expanded to more than 1,700 athletes. They came from 13 states and D.C. packed the gym at T.C. Williams all day on Saturday, racing several events at a time, more than 350 in all over the course of the day. The lacquered, hardwood floor was home to 120 machines, with 80 more in the side rooms for warmups.

“This has got a 30-year history, and it’s one of those things we always try to keep improving,” said Steve Scroggs, president of the Alexandria Crew Boosters and one of the Erg Sprints organizers.

One way the event has improved has been raising its profile — it now attracts Olympic athletes. While the focus of the event is on the high school level — a pair of “Rowing in College and Beyond” seminars were held in an adjacent classroom — a pair of 2012 Olympic rowers competed, including gold medalist Esther Lofgren.

“If you’re a rower, you know about it,” says Lofgren, who set a world record in the Open Women Erg Half-Marathon last Saturday. “It’s a really neat way to be with the rowing community. Our training can be very individual, so being here with thousands of other people, it makes you feel like you’re a little less crazy.”

It is certainly a chance for young athletes to be inspired through the cold months that keep them off the open water. If it weren’t enough having athletes at the top of their game to watch, there are the adaptive rowers, whose mere presence is enough to silence anyone complaining of early alarms for practice or long training sessions.

Some of the adaptive rowers are missing limbs; others, their vision. Some have to be strapped to their ergs to stay in balance. And yet, they do whatever they have to in order to compete.

“You’ve got returning veterans; you’ve got folks with disabilities,” says Scroggs. “I want all of our rowers that sort of feel sorry for themselves after getting up early in the morning, and how horrible they feel after going 2,000 meters, to suddenly see these folks with disabilities. They have found ways to overcome their challenges, and it’s inspiring.”

The races have a practical purpose as well. Rowing isn’t cheap — a racing scull runs in the tens of thousands of dollars. So each year, all-new ergs are bought en masse for this event at a discount, then sold to schools and rowing clubs around the region to raise enough money to fund the program.

It takes months of planning and more than 250 volunteers the day of the event to pull off something on this scale. But the older generation of local rowers knows the value it brings for the next wave of competitors.

“You don’t just put one of these things on at the last minute,” says Scroggs. “It keeps sort of the passion going, especially with the younger generation, for rowing.”

While a single erg machine evokes the slow wash of a wave sweeping the shore, when dozens move in concert, at high velocity, it turns a high school gymnasium into an engine room aboard an ocean liner, each human engine chugging rhythmically in concert. If you close your eyes and let it wash over you, you might almost think you’re on the water.

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