The Short Story
I made the decision to take-up rowing for casual aerobic exercise which ultimately transformed my body (120+lb weight loss) and cardiovascular health enabling me to compete as a 2014-2015 U.S. Rowing National Team candidate and a 2016 Olympic Hopeful.
The Long Story
“You need to lose weight and exercise regularly. I would be happy to refer you to a bariatric surgeon”. Knock me over with a feather! Was the cardiologist speaking to me? I booked an appointment with a cardiologist due to a family history of heart attacks which took the lives of nearly a half-dozen family members between the ages of 30 and 55. My father miraculously recovered from his heart attack, prompting me to mitigate potential genetic and environmental risk factors so I would have every opportunity to live. At the time, I weighed 350lbs., and I worked long hours in a high-stress career in investment banking. This was the catalyst.
I had just moved to the Washington, D.C. metro area and it was late fall, not exactly an ideal time to begin a new exercise regimen. Furthermore, years of football as a 325lb. collegiate nose tackle with its accompanying laundry list of injuries (primarily my back/joints) had stripped me of many conventional exercise opportunities. I had dabbled in cycling when I lived in the Bay Area, and yes, its a chore to haul 350lbs along the hills of San Francisco and Marin. I felt “seriously taking-up” cycling heading into the Winter was not a smart move, and after growing up staring at the black line of death in a swimming pool I knew I needed to find something else. So, despite having never used a rowing erg, I ordered one with the comfort of knowing I had a 30-day money back guarantee!
After I ordered my rowing erg, I had to share the news with my wife and work into that conversation my intent of storing the erg and using it in the annex off of our family room. With the blessing of my doc, I argued my plan persuasively to my very skeptical wife. She was less than pleased I hadn’t consulted her on my four-figure (not quite but she was rounding up) purchase, and she was not on-board with the aesthetic enhancement I had planned for our home. My arguments would have been much stronger had I known how low the depreciation rate would be (see figure X). Nonetheless, my message was accepted by my incredibly supportive wife who hesitantly agreed to allow me to proceed on a conditional basis.
Given my complete lack of rowing experience, I decided to turn to the internet to learn how to row on my erg. With a good 30 minutes of instructional video, I was prepped to begin. My first row lasted all of five minutes. Yes, my abs were not prepared to pay the rowing tax and within five minutes I had serious abdominal cramps. Fortunately, abs adapt quickly and I made it to my 20-minute goal on my second row. Outside of online technique videos, I was virtually clueless about every other aspect of rowing including where I should target my workouts with respect to the various metrics on my erg monitor. Quite frankly, the only real guide I had was a time goal and my basic Polar Heart Rate monitor to ensure I was exercising below my target bpm ceiling (which I had unscientifically chosen as 150bpm). Thus began my rowing adventure.
After a couple months of casually rowing, working my way to three to four, 20-30 minute workouts per week, I decided to step-up my game and really try and lose some serious weight. This meant actually dieting and setting a goal of rowing four-10Ks each week. My diet plan was basic:
- Eat Steel-Cut Oats with craisins and walnuts for breakfast along with the occasional 1-4 egg whites
- Eat a protein shake as a meal replacement once a day (either lunch or dinner)
- Eliminate: Sweets, bread, white rice, pasta, additional helpings (no seconds) and eating after 8pm
For rowing, I had seen gradual improvement and, with my limited knowledge and experience with cardio, decided a worthy goal would be a sub-38 minute 10K time while maintaining my heart rate in the 145-150 bpm range. With my diet plan and rowing goal in hand, I began on April 1, 2013. I dropped 20lbs that month and then 18lbs the next month. Cumulatively, since purchasing my erg, I had lost 50lbs and was feeling really good at 300lbs (a weight at which I had previously been physically dominant in college football). This, along with a somewhat reduced commitment to my dieting principles, explains how I only lost 1lb in June. I didn’t have a specific target weight, but I figured maintaining a weight below 275lbs would be perfect for me. In July, I began closing in on my cardio goal and lost another 10 lbs.
Years before I began rowing on my erg, I had discussed rowing as a potential outlet for my future children (if this sounds quirky, just know when I began dating in college I was more likely to date based on athletic potential than any other factor) and had decided that rowing was well aligned to some of my greatest genetic physical/athletic strengths (superior leg strength, long-torso and long arms). Identifying rowing as a good sport for my children was another factor why I chose to row for exercise so I could learn the sport and hopefully sow the seeds of interest in my daughters.
The Genesis of An Olympic Pipe Dream
As I began to close on my cardio goal, I realized from an on-line rowing community that my 10K time, despite being intentionally constrained by a 150bpm ceiling, was really good…90th+ percentile good amongst a population of thousands of rowers. I began to wonder, if I really gave a decent commitment to rowing if I could become competitive enough to qualify a fringe country such as my ancestral homelands of Samoa and American Samoa for the Olympics (I had understood there is often a lower hurdle in these countries to encourage participation)? After-all, who wouldn’t want to go to the Olympics? Some say this sounds like crazy talk, but on a relative scale its not as far-fetched if you understand my athletic background. At BYU, even amongst my teammates I was 99th percentile strong, particularly when it came to Olympic lifting. My high school weight coach, Mike Burgener, who also happened to be a U.S. Jr. Olympic lifting coach and who is currently the Head Olympic Lifting Coach for Crossfit, at one point suggested I quit football and pursue an Olympic path as an Oly lifter. I was a solid college football player and never had the opportunity to reach my potential in the NFL as a knee injury prevented me from participating in Fall camp after receiving several free-agent opportunities. Additionally, my mother had been a World Class swimmer (6-time U.S. National Swim team member), and so I figured I likely inherited some aerobic ability which had never been realized as a lineman (linemen are like alligators: sprints≤10 yards≤long-distance).
Through a series of conversations with various friends, I was led to a U.S. Rowing partner program based in Washington, D.C. where a dozen or so elite rowers train (many of whom are U.S. National team members and Olympians). I gave the coaches my pitch and they invited me out to ride in the launch during practice. After selling them a bit more, they invited me back to do a 2K benchmark test (my first one ever). I performed the test and the coaches appeared to be impressed by the negative splits I posted in achieving the targeted time of 6:30 (particularly on the last leg). The coaches suggested that my Olympic musings were likely achievable if I were to apply myself. They set some targets for me and offered me some training guidelines and advice. They welcomed me to train with them once I reached a weight of 230lb.
At the time, I was 290ish pounds and had never conceived as possible the idea of weighing 230lbs. In fact, I hadn’t been 230lbs since my freshman year in high school. In college, my lean-body weight alone had approached 270lbs (albeit those glory days were nearly a decade past at this point). The coaches told me that training for rowing would change my body and that I wouldn’t have a problem hitting 230lbs. I wasn’t fully convinced, but I decided to try anyway given the limited down-side. I figured my “Olympic Journey” would be like eating an elephant…just take one bite at a time.
Meeting the Mark
Fast forward 6-months: I had trained every morning as the coaches had instructed, and had begun to integrate with the team, primarily in erg testing. I posted a respectable 2K time slightly north of 6 minutes at the Atlantic Erg Sprints competition in February, but I had been dogged with injuries and my weight was caught in a range between 260-270lbs. I decided to perform a 6K test on my own in my family room. I hit 19:37, a time just shy of the U.S. National team development standard. I realized the bottleneck was not going to be cardio, I just needed to lose weight or all of this was for not.
Between March and July I continued to train, but kept my focus on reaching 230lbs. I felt like I was trying everything to lose weight, but to no avail. Finally, I decided that my “Olympic Dream” would not be realized if I weren’t out on the water every day with the team before winter’s arrival. I was desperate, and I decided that desperate times called for desperate measures. I decided to experiment with a plant-based vegan diet which would deprive me of eating meat but would ensure my calorie quality increased dramatically. I started losing weight but it did not endure past a couple of weeks. I needed to be more disciplined on consumption volume, so I decided to also experiment with intermittent fasting. That worked for a couple weeks, but the weight loss eventually decelerated. I decided to give-up my post-rowing juice consumption which was as high as 24-ounces (I had been told there was no way I could train without the fruit juice to replace the depleted glycogen in my muscles). Suddenly the weight, began falling off, and I was still completing my workouts. For the first time ever, I discovered what my ab-muscles look like (yes, I actually have some). Suddenly, I’ve reached beyond my 230lb target (shedding more than 120lbs). Suddenly, my body fat percentage hits the single digits. Suddenly, I’m wearing size 32 jeans. Suddenly, I’m training daily with the team on the water, and suddenly I’m a legitimate 2014-2015 U.S. Rowing National team hopeful.
Row Fast, Row Hard or Row Home
I’ve been asked what inspired me to use a heart rate monitor from the beginning of this journey, given my lack of experience in cardio and heart rate zone training. While there are several obvious reasons, it really comes down to competition. Whether competing with myself or against others, I am like an unbridled stallion and will literally expend every physical resource in my body to win. Absent a heart rate ceiling, I likely would have killed myself by going faster and harder than my heart could physically handle. However, with the proper parameters, I have molded myself into an elite endurance athlete.
I have yet to compete in a single race in a scull and going to the Olympics requires rowing harder and faster than all of your competitors. However, I have demonstrated the aptitude, discipline and persistence required to reach my goals. While I don’t know exactly what the journey ahead will be like, I do know I’ll keep eating the elephant one-bite at a time and sharing what lies ahead on this blog. Thank you for your support!