As they launched their rowing shell onto Boston’s Charles River one sunny October morning, four Alexandria women prepared to live a rower’s dream: competing in the three-mile Head of the Charles Regatta that is to rowers what the Boston Marathon is to runners.
They’d trained together for months, even hired a coach to push them harder, and here they were, fit and ready.
Average age in the boat: 63.
That was two years ago. Harriett Pallas, 67, Brenda Waltz, 67, Pamela Zitron, 69, and Eleanor Richards, 61, are still rowing and still competing along with a growing contingent of older women who discover that rowing can be a good way to get and stay fit. Many later find themselves racing on rivers from the Potomac to the Thames and beyond.
The four came to rowing by different paths. Waltz and Zitron found the sport through younger family members who rowed, and Richards claims that learning to row “was my midlife crisis.” Pallas, already a cyclist, skier and tap dancer, tried it and was hooked.
“I don’t know what I’d be without rowing!” she said.
Most aerobic sports bathe the brain with feel-good endorphins after a workout, and rowing is no exception. Studies show that rowing offers cardiovascular and respiratory advantages for those who train even semi-seriously. And sports physiologist Fritz Hagerman, who taught at Ohio University and died in 2013, found that the lungs of rowers who train seriously use oxygen far more efficiently than those of most other athletes. After all, rowing uses all the body’s oxygen-hungry major muscle groups in the legs, torso and arms.
Weight control can be an added benefit. In the past year, Waltz has lost 60 pounds. “I realized if I was going to row the way I wanted to, I’d have to lose the weight,” she said.
Some women even swear that it staves off the post-menopausal thinning of bones that can lead to fractures.
Most older women who row admit that after they decided to give the sport a try, they got pulled in by the rhythm, the water and the way it looks easy but can be maddeningly challenging.
Just as important as the health benefits for many are psychic boosts such as companionship. A rowing shell full of friends can offset even an empty nest.
Best of all, for women of a certain age, rowing can deliver a huge sense of accomplishment.
Jayne Lytel, 61, a member of D.C.’s Potomac Boat Club, understands. “I start my day rowing three mornings a week, and I like the way it makes me feel,” she said. “I feel proud that I can do this!”
“It’s such a challenging sport,” said Joanna Rubini, 42, a coach in Alexandria. “It’s very empowering when you can do it.”
In the past five years, rowing has grown in popularity for every age group. USRowing, the sport’s governing body, says that its membership of 23,000 grew by 22 percent between 2015 and 2016. About 14 percent of its members are 50 or older. At the 2016 Head of the Charles Regatta, almost a quarter of the competitors were older than 50. USRowing doesn’t break down those figures by gender.
“The growth in the number of our older members underlines the fact that you can be 13 or 93; you’re always the right age to row,” said Susan Smith, membership director at USRowing. “Rowing is truly a lifelong sport, no matter if you’re a racer or a recreational rower.”
But first, there’s the learning process. And the fact that the stroke — like a new dance step — must be learned is another of rowing’s advantages.
“Running or walking, people can do that fine,” said Stella Volpe, 53, a sports physiologist and nutritionist who heads Drexel University’s nutrition sciences department. With “something like rowing . . . there’s the mental effort in learning something new. You need to think a lot in the boat.”
There’s also a good reason why rowing maintains bone density, according to Volpe, a rower herself. When the rower pushes against the boat’s footplate as she pulls her oar through the water, she’s “putting a lot of mechanical loading on the bones and the muscles,” she said. “And that’s good for the bone.”
Dana Perrone, 70, a member of the Potomac Boat Club, reports that since she began rowing 16 years ago, scans show she has maintained her bone density without the medication she once took.
“My doctor says, ‘Don’t quit!’ ” she said.
To learn the basics, newbies often try a “learn to row” event. USRowing sponsors a National Learn to Row Day, this year on June 3, when some rowing clubs in the D.C. area open their boat bays to the public for demonstrations of the stroke and even short paddles in one of those sleek narrow boats called shells.
But rowing demands more than an hour or two of instruction. And for those who want more, the Washington Rowing School in Bladensburg, several local clubs and Thompson’s Boat Center, near the Kennedy Center, offer learn-to-row courses. RowVigor, a new “rowing gym” in Arlington, provides rowing machine instruction for those who want to learn the basics on dry land.
Writer and photographer Mary Berry, 79, of Alexandria first picked up an oar when she was 52. Today, she drives to Philadelphia almost every weekend to row with a team out of Vesper Boat Club. A look at her family tree with its long-lived females convinced her she needed serious exercise if she was going to face the coming decades with a strong body.
“Getting old is rough,” she said. “And you need to hang on to your mobility. . . . The harder you exercise the more you gain in mobility.” But not if it meant destroying her knees, Berry concluded. Low-impact rowing was the answer.
For many women born before the mid-1950s, rowing may be their first experience of team competition.
“All of us were pre-Title IX,” Richards said, referring to the 1972 federal law demanding equal sports opportunities for men and women on most college campuses. “I never had the chance to be on a team, to compete.”
Berry found that racing satisfied her competitive streak while making her a better rower. As she began to work harder, to actually train with a coach, she began to experience the exhilaration of rowing in total synch with crewmates whose oars hit the water together and finish the stroke at exactly the same moment.
“I didn’t think I was particularly competitive, but racing was a way of getting better at rowing,” Perrone said. “You have to work harder than just paddling.”
Gabriele Cipollone, 60, a former Olympian, coaches Berry along with 11 other women who range in age from 60 to 80. In 2015 and 2016, her boats won gold, silver and bronze medals at the Masters National Regatta sponsored by USRowing. Berry and three other rowers won a gold in Belgium at an international competition.
“You have to have some kind of self-discipline to row,” Cipollone said. “A lot of women never did athletics. They aren’t familiar with the idea of pushing yourself for an hour. Or a half-hour, with a break, and then another half-hour. . . . Not everybody is willing to do this. If they decide, ‘It’s not for me,’ that’s fine.”
Michael Porterfield, 50, who coaches in Alexandria and at Capital Rowing Club, said coaching older rowers is gratifying but not always simple.
“You have to understand the athletes — their baselines and level of fitness,” said Porterfield, a coach for the women’s Olympic team in 2000. “You have to know how to work around limitations.” And sometimes, he said, it’s knowing when to tell a rower she is pushing too hard and needs a day off.
Older rowers “are all different. Some want to look at the birds. Some are super-competitive and don’t care they’re a shade slower than younger rowers,” Rubini said. “They still have an edge.”
But those who put in the work necessary to row well often gain benefits that go beyond stronger bones and competition medals. Cipollone said one of her older rowers “came to me and thanked me for saving her life”: Rowing had lowered her blood pressure and left her happier as well.
School counselor Dee Marrara, 53, started rowing a year ago in D.C. after she’d finished treatment for breast cancer. She spotted a flyer on a learn-to-row program at her oncologist’s office and decided to try it.
“I’m an athlete again,” said Marrara, a former collegiate basketball and soccer player. “Cancer took this away from me for a while. I can use my body again. I’ve regained my sense of identity.”