USRowing implements new regulations to keep lightweight rowers healthy

October 28, 2019 — by Jeanette Zhou

In 90-degree heat, a rower wearing two pairs of pants and three jackets runs laps around the boats and trailers. After each lap, she steps on a scale and checks her weight; she’ll continue to run until she’s under 130 pounds.

This seemingly nonsensical practice is known as a “sweat run,” and it has become a common occurrence at many competitions where rowers are desperately trying to weigh under the limit for their races. Some rowers perform these sweat runs late at night, while others run in the morning before their weigh-in time.

Although these sweat runs are condemned by USRowing, the official governing body for rowing in the United States, their continued presence, along with other concerns for the health of lightweight rowers, led to USRowing’s announcement this summer that it was considering the removal of junior lightweight rowing as a racing category.

This announcement outraged many rowers, and within days, one petition to save lightweight rowing reached over 16,000 signatures.

First introduced as an Olympic category in 1996, lightweight rowing is a category in rowing where men have to weigh under 150 pounds and women have to weigh under 130 pounds; it was created for smaller rowers to have a fairer chance to compete, since heavier and taller rowers tend to dominate the sport.

Saratoga senior Jewoo Im, an openweight rower at the Los Gatos Rowing Club (LGRC), who used to row lightweight, is one of many rowers who feel lightweight rowing shouldn’t be removed. When he heard USRowing’s announcement, he wrote an email to voice his grievance.

“I wrote to USRowing of how the lightweight rowing category gave me hope to start crew because I didn’t see myself being successful in the heavyweight category against, you know, six foot seven rowers,” Im said. “I think it gives so many people who didn’t win the genetic lottery a chance to compete.”

While this category was created for natural lightweights, there are hundreds of stories of athletes making unhealthy dietary cuts in order to make weight.

Junior Anna Nugent, a former rower, says she is on the fence about whether the lightweight rowing category should exist. Although she believes that the category gives lighter rowers a chance to compete, she recognizes how the pressure of staying  under weight can cause rowers to have an unhealthy mindset and to develop eating disorders.

“I remember girls at rowing talking about tips they would use to eat as little as they could, which is a problem, as rowers need over 2,200 calories,” Nugent said. “Even when I was competing, it was rare that I would eat enough calories, and I wasn’t lightweight. I can’t imagine how unhealthy it would be for lightweight rowers.”

An article published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, “Promotion of Healthy Weight-Control Practices in Young Athletes,” describes the many dangers of weight-based sports for teens. The article states that many young athletes are also prone to dehydration and hypohydration, in order to change their weight.

However, the article does also mention that athletes could achieve gradual weight loss healthily. Los Gatos junior Kayra Cetin, for example, started rowing as an openweight in eighth grade, but after a long period of cautious cutting, she naturally brought her weight down enough for her to race lightweight.

“For a solid period of time, I cut down on all carbs and ate pure protein,” Cetin said. “That substainstally brought my weight down, so now I don’t have a problem making weight.”

The potential health risks involved with cutting weight are not a problem for natural lightweight rowers, such as Leland senior Alicia Lebars, a lightweight varsity rower at LGRC. With 16 hours of practice per week, Lebars says that she usually keeps a bit of a margin from the 130-pound limit. For her, the lightweight category improves her racing odds.

“I started rowing five years ago as an open-weight,” Lebars said. “I definitely prefer rowing as a lightweight because it gives me a better chance in my races and more options.”

While Lebars began rowing with a positive opinion of the lightweight rowing category, Los Gatos junior Melisa Kylid, another LGRC varsity rower, had a slightly different start to lightweight rowing. During her novice year, the varsity coaches were forcing rowers who were many pounds over the limit to lose the extra weight with extreme diet changes. Because of this, her club stopped racing lightweight for a while.

“My novice coaches didn’t like it because of the health risks, and they didn’t mention it to us,” Kylid said. “It didn’t seem like an option for me until last year, when we had enough natural lightweights to race.”

The Miami Herald estimates that around 40 percent of the 75,000 competitive rowers in the United States are lightweights, and forcing those rowers to gain an extra 30-40 pounds to stay competitive can result in the same dangers rowers face when cutting weight.

In the past, USRowing has also attempted to deal with the possible health hazards by putting new regulations in place. Another recent regulation USRowing announced for lightweight rowers is minimums for body fat percentage; male rowers need at least 7 percent body fat and females at least 16 percent.

In response to the backlash, on Oct. 21, the USRowing board tentatively announced its decision to keep junior lightweight rowing for the 2020 spring and summer season with a set of new regulations; these regulations include the need for a physician’s consent form at the beginning of the season to verify the rower’s status as a natural lightweight.

While lightweight rowing will continue for this year, the future for junior lightweight rowers depends on rowers’ compliance with the new regulations.

“It gets hard to always have to watch what you eat and your weight,” Kylid said. “However, lightweight rowing gives people with lower weights a better chance to be competitive with other people on the same level as them.”

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