I know we have many alumni who go weepy eyed at the sight of an old wooden boat and cannot believe that the
feather light modern oars can propel a boat at speed.
The University of Washington coach, Michael Callahan,
combined his constant search for the perfect stroke and his enthusiasm for the history of Washington rowing
in this wonderful article comparing the Coniber stroke of 1949 with the Washington stroke of today. Pictures
from an old Time Life article and a little photoshop magic by Ursela Grobler James allows us to see the old and the
new side by side.
Our thanks to Michael Callahan for the article, to LIFE Magazine for the quotations and the older photos, Ursula
Grobler James for the graphic design and also to John Wilcox and Eric Cohen for their help in allowing Andovercrew
to reproduce this article.
Michael Callahan rowed for Washington from 1992 to 1996 and was both captain of the team and commodore of the
boat club. He was also a member of USA national teams from 1992 to 2004. He coached the USA under 23 team from 2002
He joined the Washington coaching staff as an intern in 2001 and became the Men's Head Coach in the summer of 2007.
His Washington team won the IRA Team trophy in 2008 and in 2009 the Washington boats won in the Varsity, Junior
Varsity and Freshman eights. They were first and second in the Varsity and Open fours.
Ursula Grobler James is a graphic designer and winner of the 2009 Head of the Charles
Championship Singles. As of January 30th 2010, Ursula holds the world record for the 2k erg by a lightweight
woman with a time of 6.54.7. Ursula will be rowing at the Crash Bs in Boston on February 14th. She trains in
To see her website please CLICK HERE
Head of the Charles
Ah, pair racing. It's fall, the leaves are
turning, the students are back, and the cycle begins once more with
Michael Callahan, Bob Ernst,
Luke McGee, and Nicole Minett waiting at the
doors of Conibear. They may greet their student-athletes with a hug or a
fist bump but every young man and woman understands the question that
hangs in the air: Who wanted it bad enough this summer to go to the Head
of the Charles this fall?
The athletes self-select themselves for the
boats based solely on time. So they take to the pairs to see who stayed
in shape, and who remembered the lessons of the last racing season. On
the men's side this year, Conlin McCabe,
Anthony Jacob, Mathis Jessen, Tom
Lehmann, Hans Struzyna, Max Lang,
Maxwell Weaver, Ty Otto and
Michelle Darby won seats on the traveling squad. On the women's
side, Veronica Tamsitt, Kayleigh Mack,
Kerry Simmonds, Erin Lauber,
Jennifer Park, Hanne Trafnik, Rosanne
DeBoef, Erika Shaw and Ariana Tanimoto
won and made the trip to Cambridge. It was a homecoming of sorts for the
two coxswains, Michelle and Ariana, as both hail from Massachusetts.
The Husky men's and women's teams finished
second among the collegiate crews. The men finished third overall and
the women fifth overall. It was a great show in spite of the snow and we
send a special Seattle thanks to Charlie Clapp '81 and
his team of East coast alumni for organizing this once again and putting
together a great affair.
Yes, that's snow!
Evolution of the Conibear Stroke by
Rod Johnson, Captain 1950, stopped by the
Conibear Shellhouse last winter and gave me a Life magazine article from
June 20, 1949, that illustrated the "Conibear Stroke" and discussed the
influence Washington had on the intercollegiate rowing world. While the
article was interesting to me last winter, its connection to the current
team became even more compelling when I revisited it this autumn. The
Life article stated:
"Nine of the 12 colleges entered at
Poughkeepsie this year have coaches who went to Washington, and who now
use a modified version of the 'Conibear stroke', which was developed at
Washington by the late great Hiram Conibear, the Knute Rockne of
collegiate rowing ... The Conibear Stroke consists of a quick even drive
with practically no layback. 'It's a lot easier to row sitting up than
lying down,' Ulbrickson says. "
Rod and I discussed how his coach Al
Ulbrickson taught the rowing stroke in his day. While it is a
commonly held belief among our alumni that the stroke is much different
today than it was 60 years ago, the photos in the Life article provide a
visual illustration of how the Conibear stroke is still strikingly
similar to the technique we use today.
"When the nation's best eight-oared crews
line up on June 25 (1949) for the Intercollegiate Rowing Association's
annual regatta at Poughkeepsie, N.Y., the defending champions from the
University of Washington will again be the favorites. In five out of the
past eight regattas Washington's Huskies have won the varsity
championship. Last year, for the third time since 1936, Washington
"swept the Hudson" by winning all three Poughkeepsie races varsity,
junior varsity and freshman."
Sweeping the IRA regatta is an enormous
accomplishment that demonstrates top-end speed, overall team depth and
race day execution at the very highest level. In the many decades that
the IRA regatta has taken place, a sweep has only occurred 15 times. Of
those 15 times, the University of Washington is responsible for six of
those incredible performances.
Our 2009 IRA performance was a great
achievement but we are most proud of the fact that we have continued the
tradition of excellence in oarsmanship at Washington.
I found this Life article particularly
compelling because of the parallels between Rod's team and ours. 60
years ago we had just swept the IRA, 60 years ago we were rowing the
Conibear stroke and 60 years ago our alumni watched eagerly as a new
group of Huskies took to the water to defend our title and uphold our
tradition of excellence. It was true then and it is true today. Our
connection to our history is strong and it is built upon the same tenets
as always: hard work, excellence of oarsmanship and the Conibear stroke.
In the next few pages I will compare the 1949
photos of Rod Johnson to the 2009 photos of current senior Max Lang. I
will not suggest that one is better than the other. While equipment and
technology have had an affect on the stroke, you will discover that the
essence of the Conibear or "Washington Stroke" is the same.
Rod Johnson '50 (left) and Max Lang '09 (right)
"On Lake Washington, adjoining University campus, shells go through
practice session. Stroke of crew in foreground is violating a
fundamental rule (eyes in the boat) by looking at the coaches launch
"Conibear stroke begins as Rod Johnson dips oar in the water. It must
"catch" in vertical position; slanted, it will go deep and forward
motion will be lost" (LIFE). Longer seat tracks in modern boats allow
rowers to achieve greater leg compression instead of gaining length
from lower back and shoulders.
Compared to today, the 1949 blade shape requires more skill to catch
water. Modern oar shapes load somewhat faster.
"Blade is anchored and oar bends slightly as Johnson's back shows
strain. Body angle is now set although he will slide back in shell 12
inches as his legs straighten out." (LIFE). Both oarsman are now in
the strong position building power in the stroke. (Keep your eyes in
the boat, Max!! Some things never change!!)
1949 oar materials were softer, with less blade surface area. Arms
bend earlier to keep rower connected ("anchored") to the water. On
modern blades, the shaft is stiffer and supports a larger blade
surface area. Instead of earlier arm bend, Lang is using more body
swing with straight arms to achieve the same connection.
"Body angle is constant, without layback, a whirlpool marking the run
of the boat as Johnson lifts blade from water (above) and recovers oar
for next stroke (below)" (LIFE).
Johnson uses his shoulders to rebound into the next stroke. Both
Johnson and Lang use hand speed out of bow to gain preparation for
next stroke. In both cases, their heads lead their hips, helping them
to keep connected to the boat through the footstretcher.
Johnson's and Lang's knees soften and start to bend. The recovery is
the part of the stroke where the rower wants to let the boat work for
The rower prepares to take another stroke. Johnson's blade is closer
to the water due to its symmetric shape. Lang's blade is further off
the water to make room to square the asymmetrical hatchet blade.
Drive Phase of the Stroke
The graph above describes the drive phase of
the rowing stroke. This graph recorded the stroke of an elite rower. The
Vertical (Y) axis is the force the rower applies to the oar in Newtons.
The horizontal (X) axis is the length of stroke on how long (in
centimeters) the rower keeps force on the oar. The area under the curve
represents the total energy imparted to the oar by the rower. The larger
the curve, the more powerful the stroke for the given boat speed. The
smooth force curve shows that power is always going "out," meaning that
useable power is always being produced. To produce maximum power, the
rower needs to be both connected to the boat and the water, AND his
stroke must be coordinated.
1. The force curve starts at (1) with the
blade anchoring, or connecting, to the water. The "catch" is immediate.
2. Rower loads the oar and builds power in this part of the drive.
3. The rower passes through the maximum peak force of the drive
4 and 5. Past the force peak, the rower maintains his connection with
the water. A rower who has good coordination and connection at the
beginning of the stroke is better able to maintain his power towards the
end of the stroke.
6. Oar releases the water. Rower is now in the recovery phase of the
stroke cycle, which is represented on the graph on the next page.
Observation of One Full Stroke
These sample curves illustrate another elite
rower's stroke. The green line represents the oar angle at the oar lock
through a full stroke cycle. We will follow the angle from release to
catch, the recovery phase, since we have already discussed the drive
phase of the stroke.
1. The rower's hands leave
the finish position towards the stern of the boat.
2. The rower's arms fully extended, shoulders follow hands towards
3. The rower's knees soften and start bending, body angle will soon be
set for catch position.
4. The rower's knees rise and thighs approach chest, beginning to square
the oar for the catch.
5. The rower's oar is completely square, rower is now matching oar blade
speed with boat speed.
6. Rower allows oar to enter water with minimum splash and no check.
This is an efficient hatchet oar catch.
These curves show the high level of skill and
strength required to make the boat go fast. Equipment and technique must
be closely matched for optimum boat speed. Throughout UW's rowing
history coaches and student athletes have strived to optimize the
complex interaction of equipment, training, and technique and our rowing
history tells the story.
The Conibear stroke remains a key component of
our technique, but some subtle changes have occurred. Differences in the
recovery, catch and drive are mainly due to equipment changes and modern
materials but the critical, accelerating connection to the water remains
the same. Although today's rowing environment brings its own challenges,
including the size of the program and cost per athlete, we still
continue to apply Washington's core values and the genius of the
Conibear Stroke everyday. And with it we strive to bring the very same
effort, intensity, and success that were the hallmark of the teams
represented by Rod Johnson and his teammates sixty years ago.
It is with sadness that we announce that Rod Johnson passed away on
December 20th, 2009, while this issue of our newsletter went to
press. Rod was a dedicated oarsman and a dedicated Husky, and the
entire Husky Rowing Family will miss him, as we extend our
condolences to his family and teammates. More about Rod and the
legacy left by the '48 - '50 teams can be found here -
All quotations and 1949 photos are credited to LIFE Magazine. Photo
design courtesy of Ursula Grobler James, graphic
designer and winner of the 2009 Head of the Charles Championship
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