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Peter Mallory's Blog

By pmallory - Posted on 20 June 2012

16 February 2012

Last weekend at the What Works Summit in Boston someone asked the panel I was moderating what was the best way to teach a beginner to row. It got me to thinking of all the hundreds of people that I have taught over the years, but after I flashed a couple of photos onto the screen during my speech at the Cambridge Boat Club annual dinner later that night, I kept remembering one person in particular, my son, Philip.

Philip was going to boat races since before he could walk. When he was a year old I took a picture of him toward the end of a regatta sitting in the middle of the parking lot in front of Long Beach Rowing Association surrounded by a hundred shells on slings. He was playing with a toy or something. An hour or two later I took another picture. He had not moved an inch, still playing with his toy, but now the parking lot was completely empty and it was time to go home. Very special kid, very focused. He needed nothing but a task before him, and he could entertain himself forever.

By the time he was 3 years old, his mother was the defending National Masters A Singles Champion, and Philip asked me if I would teach him to row, too. He had already learned to swim, so I said sure, but I purposely waited a few weeks before I finally took him down to the boathouse.

I taught him the way I had concluded over the years would probably work best for him. I put him into a wherry, put his little feet into the footstretchers. Luckily he was tall, and when I adjusted the stretchers as far to the bow as they could go, his little butt just made it onto the seat as it sat at the stern stops. Luckily I had a pair of sculls with really skinny grips. I put them into his little hands, taught him to put his thumbs over the ends, maybe 2 seconds, and taught him left-over-right, 5 more seconds. I pointed his bow away from the beach, waded in up to my knees, held onto his stern, told him to keep the blades square and go ahead and start rowing. It took him a few seconds. It took him a try or two. Within a minute he was rowing successfully with his arms. Within two he was rowing with his arms and back, me praising him all the way and offering occasional guidance as he carried on.

Soon he was begging me to let go of his boat. It was a sunny morning on Mission Bay with no wind, and we were in a protected cove so I let go and jumped into my own wherry that I had already prepared. We went out about 50 feet . . . and then it was time for me to get him to figure out how to get back to the beach. He quickly taught himself to turn by rowing with one oar, and pretty soon we were done. Ten minutes. Fifteen minutes tops. He was so stoked that he immediately asked if we could go back out the next day.

What was the secret? What is the secret for teaching anybody to row? Whether it is scull or sweep, in a wherry or a barge or an eight, structure your lesson plan so they can be successful the first day and every day. Simple as that.

Provide a stable platform, don't ask too much, and keep it short. Most of us fail to appreciate how very hard our minds are working when first we get into a boat. Forget the exercise. Have them go for a jog afterwards if you want them to exercise. All that counts is the processing their brains are doing, moving handles in order to move blades, balancing the boat, not banging the water, it's all so new. So don't push them too long or too far on any given day. Ask for little baby steps. Better they be frustrated that they must wait until tomorrow than they be frustrated that the oars are becoming harder to control. Assuming they are not 3 years old, you will be amazed and, more importantly, they will be amazed at how far they can progress in a week of short successful practices.

But Philip was 3 years old. Every weekend he would ask to go back down to the boathouse, but I put him off. We began rowing every couple of months, then every few weeks for the next several years.

Back in the year that Philip had started rowing, there were five ergs in our garage, and on foggy or windy days Philip's mother would erg, I would erg, and my team of junior boys would erg. Philip would watch. Pretty soon he wanted to erg as well. So at the tender age of 3, Philip posted the world's best time for his age group over 2,500 meters on a Concept2 ergometer.

Now before you get your underwear in a bunch about me being a pushy daddy or something, let me continue. Philip knew all about sending your times to Concept2 because we were all doing it, so he wanted to as well. So one afternoon I put him on the machine and he set off. He must have weighed well under 40 pounds. He immediately settled into a 500m pace of about 8:00 and held it. It took him over 40 minutes!!! The remarkable thing was not his result. It was that a 3-year-old was able to do anything for 40 minutes straight. But that was Philip.

I remember we chatted the whole time. I asked him how preschool had gone that day. His great athletic aim at that point in his life was to be able to do the monkey bars from one side of the jungle gym to the other out on the playground because all the girls could do it, so he told me how that was going. We had just gotten him a little red plastic box with a handle on it as a Happy Meal prize from McDonalds, and he was taking it to preschool with a juice box and a cracker in it so he could be just like the 5-year-olds who had real lunch boxes. Philip was always in a hurry to grow up.

The flywheel kept turning, and we kept talking. Finally the 2,500 meter mark arrived. Philip got off the erg none the worse for wear, and we went on to our normal afternoon activity, kicking a soccer ball back and forth between us while reciting the alphabet, a, b, c, d, or while counting, counting by ones, by twos, by odds, by evens, forwards, backwards, all in time with the kicks of the ball.

By the time he was 6, Philip was a gorgeous little sculler with true waterman skills. He could row a racing single on the square straight and true, but rowing was just one of his athletic pursuits by then. He was a competitive soccer player, destined to become a California State Champion by the age of 9, and he rode mountain bikes with his dad almost every weekend.

When Philip was 13, I hadn't coached in ten years, not since I had chosen to spend my free time with him instead of other people's children. The San Diego Rowing Club junior coach was a friend of mine, and he asked me if I would take a few of his "square pegs," the kids that didn't quite fit into his program for various reasons, and babysit them for the last month before the Southwest Regionals. He gave me five, some of them very good-sized, all pretty good athletes, but they were definitely a handful "for various reasons." We decided to put together a novice boy's coxed-quad. I asked Philip to join us so I could have six to work with. At the time Philip was under 5'0" and weighed 78 pounds.

A couple of the boys had sculled a little, but most had not. I immediately put them in three wide plastic double-gigs that I found at the side of the boathouse. Nobody had touched them in years, but they worked. We spent three weeks taking little baby steps, learning to scull all over again, then learning to row side-by-side, then learning to race each other, me switching lineups every practice, and soon I knew who the four fastest were. The problem was Philip was one of them, despite the fact three of the kids were over 6'3" and 180 pounds. I explained to Philip that he had to cox the quad. All the other kids had been on the team for at least a couple of months, and he had just joined. He reluctantly agreed, but every time our three gigs raced after that, Philip's boat seemed to win.

We raced the Regionals. They won, by nearly a minute, and Philip told me that he had definitely decided. He would stroke the novice boy's coxed-quad the next year.

So a year later at 14, Philip talked the SDRC junior coach into again inviting me to babysit the team leftovers for the last month before Regionals. No six-footers this time, and definitely an island of misfit toys. We had just enough to boat a second novice eight, which had its own race at the Regionals, but one kid skipped practice less than a week before the regatta and proceeded to nearly blow his hand off with some fireworks over Cinco de Mayo. And I had like three days to find another kid and somehow teach him to hang on in the bow seat. And that was a good day that spring.

But out of our funky eight we did manage to put together a fine boy's novice quad, all serious and disciplined, all little, Philip in stroke the teeniest of all, by now a bit over 5'0" and a whopping 93 pounds.

They took the lead immediately at the start, but several clubs had targeted the event that year, including our own San Diego Rowing Club A Crew, who towered over us and outweighed us by twenty or thirty or forty pounds per man in the three bow seats and maybe a hundred pounds in stroke.

Philip and his teammates rowed superbly, held the lead into a light headwind until with only 400 meters to go the Newport and the San Diego A boats slipped through, but that Regionals Bronze Medal was one of my proudest achievements as a coach. Here's a photo of them: [Alas, no photos on this blog.]

Besides the good memories, this photo also cracks me up every time I see it. Take a look at the photo below. Back around the time that Philip was the world's top erg, I had won the Masters' Nationals for SDRC, and it looked like this: [Alas, no photos.]

Check out at the expressions and the body mechanics. The apple certainly does not fall far from the tree.

As Philip grew older, an abnormality of his ribcage increasingly prevented his lungs from fully filling and emptying, and so it turned out that it was not his destiny to contribute to the great sport of rowing as a competitive athlete. A year or so ago, he turned to me and said, "Dad, all my life I've tried not to grow up just like you, but before I knew it I had fallen in love with rowing and cycling, just like you, and then I went to college and studied art history, just like you, and now all I want to do in my life is coach crew, just like you. What did I do wrong?" Absolutely nothing, I replied.

At the moment that I write this, LTJG Philip R. Mallory II is at sea, a Naval officer taking part in an attack force invading South Carolina. In a few days when he returns to his home port of Norfolk, Virginia, he will resume volunteering as a rowing coach at a local inner-city high school. He plans to leave the Navy sometime around 2016 and move with his wife to a place where he can systematically pursue his first love, teaching folks about life by teaching them to row. Seattle and Boston have been mentioned. I will be reminding him that through me he has friends in Annapolis and Philadelphia and Princeton and Victoria and Vancouver and Henley and Newcastle and Piediluco and Karapiro and so many other places around the world. He speaks perfect French as well as a little German, Italian and Farsi.

So I have a lot of things to be proud of these days, a great wife, a couple of unique rowing books, good friends and teammates and colleagues all over, rowers and scullers, miles of smiles . . . and a great son.

The Oarsman’s Song

The willowy sway of the hands away
And the water boiling aft,
The elastic spring and the steely fling
That drives the flying craft.

The steely spring and the musical ring
Of the blade with the biting grip,
And the stretching draw of the bending oar
That rounds the turn with a whip.

And the lazy float that runs the boat,
And makes the swing quite true,
And gives the rest that the oarsman blest
As he drives the blade right through.

All through the swing he hears the boat sing
As she guides on her flying track,
And he gathers aft to strike the craft
With a ringing bell-note crack.

From stretcher to oar with drive and draw,
He speeds the boat along.
All whalebone and steel and a willowy feel –
That is the oarsman’s song.

Steve Fairbairn

Here's another favorite photo, Philip and I on the moonscape summit of le Mont Ventoux the day before the 2002 Tour de France came through. Look carefully between us. That's one of the Tour tractor-trailers making its way up the road we had just climbed to set up the finish line for the race the next day. [Alas!]

Oh, the places we have been! Oh, the places you will go! Thanks for the memories, my good friend.