Power strokes

Olympian Jennifer Devine, M.D., grew up with asthma and didn't play organized sports in school. When she decided to get in shape as an adult, she took up sculling -- rowing alone with two oars in a one-foot by 27-foot fiberglass and carbon fiber boat -- and fell in love with the sport. She went on to compete in the 1996 and 2004 Olympics.

Like Devine, many women are discovering sculling outside of elite clubs and collegiate teams. Community boathouses around the country offer learn-to-row lessons, clinics and coached practices. The sport is on a rapid stroke-per-minute growth rate, with women sliding into most of the available seats.

What's the attraction? Besides the exhilaration of gliding quickly through the water, the low-impact sport, like cross-country skiing, provides an excellent cardiovascular and muscular workout.

Rowing doesn't just require arm strength. It works all your body's major muscle groups. Your hands grip the oars and your arms guide the motion, but the driving force of power comes from your legs. (In a shell, the seat has wheels and slides forward and back with the motion of your legs.) Your glutes, quads, hamstrings and abs will also get a great workout.

Here are a few tips to get you off the dock and onto the water.

Carry the shell carefully. You should be able to hoist the 40- to 50-pound shell from the floor to your shoulder. Standing near the center of the boat, place one hand on each side of it and grip the edges. Use your legs, not your back, to slowly stand up, and lift the shell on to one shoulder to carry it. Shells are fragile and long, so be careful not to swing it into something as you walk.

Pay attention to your surroundings. In a rowing shell, you sit facing the stern (back), not the bow (front), of the boat. As a sculler, you must look over your shoulder to see what's ahead of you. Not comfortable turning around in your boat? Attach a mirror to your hat. Pay attention to shifting winds and traffic patterns on the water, as well as wakes from powerboats.

Turn smoothly. To prepare to turn, slow down. Reach out further with one arm and pull that oar longer through the drive than the other. Do not pull harder.

Stay balanced. New rowers tend to swing their knees from side to side to try to keep the boat balanced. Instead, you should "set" the boat by changing the level at which your hands hold the oars, not by shifting your body weight.

Hold onto the oars at all times. If you let go of one handle, the blade drops down and the boat tips sideways. To compensate when the boat rocks, novices tend to overreact by lifting up or pushing down on their oars too much. Instead, hold both oar handles level to keep the boat balanced.

Know what to do if your boat flips. It's possible to get off balance and turn the boat over. In fact, most boathouses require that you pass a swim test before you can row. If this happens, stay calm and use the shell as a flotation device. Most of the time the shell will remain right side up. Gain control of the oars, which float, by placing them parallel to the hull. Swim the shell to shallow water before getting back in.

Practice on land. Ergometers (indoor rowing machines) are excellent training tools to work on your form and build strength and cardiovascular endurance. Many health and fitness clubs have ergs. Have a professional trainer show you the proper way to use one to prevent injuries and get the best workout.

Wear the right clothes. Dress in form-fitting layers. Loose shorts can get caught in the moving seat, and an oversized shirt can get in the way of your oars. Some shells are fitted with built-in shoes, so always wear socks. For shells without attached shoes, wear athletic shoes or water sandals.

Anatomy of a stroke

Catch -- At the beginning of the stroke, slide the seat up so that your knees are bent, your arms are outstretched over your toes, your heels are nearly touching the seat, and your back is leaning forward slightly. The oar blades should be perpendicular to the water. When you're ready, raise your hands to place the blades in the water.

Drive -- Let your legs do all the work. Push off your foot bindings and straighten your legs in a smooth, controlled motion. At this point, your upper body begins to lean backward slightly and your arms pull the oar through the water. As your legs reach a nearly flat position, quickly bring your hands to your sternum as you lean back into an angle similar to sitting in a comfortable living room chair.

Finish -- From the end of the drive position, slightly push down the oar handles to draw the oar blades out of the water. "Feather the blade" by turning the oar handles in a quick motion so the blades move from a vertical position to a horizontal one.

Recovery -- Move your hands away from your body, stretching your arms past your knees. Allow your legs to follow your hands while sliding the seat forward until your knees are fully bent. The oars should glide just above the water line. Now you're ready to raise your hands for the next catch.

Freelance writer Peggy Hoffman lives in Boston where she spends as much time as possible on the water, surfing, swimming, rowing or kayaking.

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