Wade Ruffin, Brisbane, Australia

Age: 48
Club: University of Queensland Boat Club, Brisbane, Australia


Sculling or sweep?

I’m a sweeper but I’m sculling at the moment to have a break from sweep.

At what age did you start?

16

How did you get into rowing?

I started rowing at Brisbane Boys’ College. In Grade 8, I asked my parents if I could row; they said no. In Grade 9, I asked if I could row; they said no. In Grade 11, they said ok, you can row in Grade 12. So I started in September of Grade 11, rowing as a novice, and I made the first 8 which I was really happy with.

Then I had a bit of time off and one day I was called up by my old school coach, Ted Edgerton, asking me to start rowing again. I did and then eventually tested for the Queensland Youth 8+, the state team for under 19, which was coached by Gary Merritt. You race at Nationals, state versus state.

So I made the eight and we went down to Westlakes in South Australia and, after leading the race for 1500 metres by as much as a length and a half, we came 2nd. Damn! We just didn’t settle.

After that, I was in the Kings Cup squad [men’s interstate 8+].

And then I fell in love, and rowing came very much second. I’m still married to her today, so it worked out well. That was when I was 19. We were 25 years married last year and we have 3 beautiful girls aged 18, 20 and 22.

What did you love about it?

The rhythm. The cycle. The movement.

I get it on the ergo. The pressure, being consistent, being able to hold the split consistently, being able to hold the same shape—I find that really interesting and very challenging.

But in the boat I love the rhythm. And that perfect catch and that nice easy release are still things I get a thrill out of in every rowing session.

Even when we’re racing, when we’re working really hard, getting that nice catch where you go ‘plop’, release—beautiful.

How did you get into coaching?

In 2006, my oldest daughter came home from school one day and said: “Dad! I’ve signed up for rowing.” “That’s lovely”, I said. I hadn’t made any big deal of rowing. Then she said: “And you can coach. I told them you used to row.” “I’m not coaching”, I said. “I don’t know how to coach.”

I dropped her off at the learn-to-row session at Lake Kurwongbah and I said to the head coach: “Look, I used to row, so if you need a hand… but I haven’t coached before”. He said: “There’s your crew.” And that’s how it started. The Brisbane Girls Grammar Grade 8 thirds were my first ever crew—and I was hooked. I coached for 8 years at Girls Grammar.

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I then coached for 2 seasons at Centenary Rowing Club which focuses on junior rowing and promotes rowing to non-rowing schools. I helped the head coach, Michael Opstelton, coach the elite juniors to nationals for a couple of years. It was all small boat work, all sculling, and they only got the quad out for regattas. Best rowing water in Brisbane.

What brought you back to rowing?

I was out of rowing for a long time. That first 10 years when the children are young is not yours anymore. Then one day I was talking to Bruce Bennett, who I’m rowing with now; he was rowing the Head of the Yarra all the time and after talking to him I joined Toowong Rowing Club.

2011 was my first year back.

I was pretty fit. I was doing a lot of cycling and I’d started doing upper body work at the gym to balance the legs out. So I was straight into it. I got in the boat and pulled the oar pretty hard. I’d been training for 6 years and now I suddenly had a purpose.

I ended up rowing with a University of Queensland Boat Club eight in the 2011 Head of the Yarra with Richard Powell, Gavin Kiely, Ian Luxford and others, and we won the D8+. I was the hired help.

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Why do you row now?

I love rowing, I really do. I think it’s a fantastic sport. And then there are all the life lessons and things it teaches you about yourself, and about everybody else.

At the moment, masters rowing suits me because I’ve got my time back.

I train really hard and I race really hard but I don’t sit there at night going through the numbers about who I’ve got to beat. I just hop in the boat and pull as hard as I can. Other guys in the boat love to go through the numbers and theorise. I just say, “You tell me how hard I’ve got to go”.

I’ll try and beat you but I’m not overly analytical. I don’t take my rowing that seriously. 

That’s a good thing about masters rowing—it’s a great way to be a little bit competitive, have a little bit of fun, stay a little bit fit, and be around people that share your interest.

That’s why I think rowing is such a great sport. It’s about putting up with team mates, training together, the camaraderie, a shared passion—and you stay fit and it’s reasonably gentle on the body, compared to running or rugby.

The other good thing about masters rowing is just mixing it up and racing for fun. And that comes back to the distance. If it was 2 km racing, a lot of people would say no. But 1 km is a good distance. When it starts to really hurt you go, ok, I’ve got about 20 strokes left.

Moving from sweep to sculling

Last year [2015] we rowed the eight all year and we had a really successful year. And, just for a change and to challenge ourselves, we said let’s start sculling for the first 6 months of the year. So we’ve been in the quad and doubles since about February and our aim is row the  states [Queensland] and the nationals [2016 Australian Masters Rowing Championships] in the quad and double. And we’ll race the eight just for fun, but we’re not training in the eight.

I’m probably the only one of us who didn’t do a lot of sculling, so it’s probably the biggest change for me. If I said I’d sculled 10 times before this season, I might be exaggerating. So I’m having to work on my sculling and concentrate all the time.

I was rowing in 2 seat on Saturday and the 2 seat does all the calls; but I couldn’t talk, I was having to concentrate so much. We were working on a new rhythm which is different to what I’m used to and I said, “Guys, someone else is going to have to call”. I’m having to focus on my rowing just to get the movements right and be comfortable that I can keep up when we’re working fast and hard.

Every time I get in the quad, I’m feeling like I’m a novice again. It’s a good experience to feel like you’re way out of your depth. And it’s a good reminder of what people feel like when they are learning—awkward, unsure, nervous, a bit tense. It’s a refreshing experience.

My first ever race in a quad was at last year’s [2015] Queensland Masters Championships at Coomera. I was filling in in a D8+ and that was my day done. Until someone asked if I could jump in a quad—a guy was sick. I said, “Sure—I never raced in a quad before”. “Uh, can you stroke it?” he asked. “Well, I’ve never stroked a boat before.” “You’ll be fine”, he said.

So I jumped in the stroke seat of this quad and my warm-up was rowing to the start line. We did ok. Then the same guy asked me to race a double with him. I said, “I’ve never raced in a double”… I jumped in the stroke seat and did what he told me and we got through. I was really nervous; my fear was catching a crab and having a blowout. But I didn’t. I pulled as hard as I could, we didn’t swim and it was fun.

How often do you row?

I row Saturday mornings now and in a couple of weeks I’ll be rowing twice a week. Plus, I do 4 sessions on the ergo, bike, weights. With all the other coaching I do, I can’t be out 7 mornings a week—I want to stay married. And I don’t want to be out 7 mornings a week. Five I can stretch to.

Being coached as a masters rower

We don’t get coaching. We’ve had Sally Mills and Alana Hewish coxing us and they are accomplished rowers and coxes and they helped so much from the cox seat. They’re equally as important as a good rower.

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We’d love to have one coaching session a month. We don’t need a babysitter. We don’t need a coach beside us every session. But we all enjoy getting some feedback from outside the boat to help us make those changes we’re working on. We all think we’re doing the right things—there are no big egos in the boat—but every rower would enjoy a bit more coaching.

What technique changes have you seen over the years?

The big shoulder drive is gone. The big thrust now is legs only to start the drive. Some of the Europeans are doing legs, body, drive together. That’s about it. The general concept of rowing is still what it’s always been.

I read the book The Boys in the Boat, and it’s amazing—things they were talking about in 1935 we’re still talking about now. They were talking about the spring in the boat, that hidden benefit that only a boat-maker could know about. And how the stroke in the GB 8+ was rowing with a smaller oar so he could focus on his job which is to set the rhythm, not to pull the boat hard; that’s the job of the engine room.

And all they had was a coach’s eye and a stopwatch. It’s just insane.

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The materials have changed. I was reading a piece yesterday by Dr Valery Kleshnev who’s a sport scientist in rowing biomechanics. He had a chart of boat speed improvements from 1920 to 2005 and speed has improved all the time but it’s flat-lined over the last 10 years because we’re probably reaching our physiological training limits—more training isn’t going to make us a whole lot better.

Boat technology is still improving but I think he said it was about 1% per year improvement in terms of boat speed. There were patches during the war where the focus was on other things. And when we went from wood to carbon, that made a big change. But the rate of improvement has been pretty steady.

What they understood back in the 1920s was ‘feel’. Feeling what the boat’s doing. Now we have lots of numbers and gauges but rowing is still about feel. It’s not just about pulling hard.

The best rowers are not the strongest rowers. A strong rower thinks he can pull the handle hard. A guy who’s not very strong – or a girl – knows they’ve got to be very rhythmical, get the sequencing right and the timing.

Timing is everything. It goes for any sport. Timing will beat strength and power every time. It’s been proven in lots of sports.

Favourite boat class

My favourite is still the eight. It’s big and blokey and heavy and hard.

Having 8 guys absolutely wringing themselves in effort, and listening to and obeying a little person at the end telling us what to do—I think that’s pretty special.

Some people just couldn’t handle being told what to do when they’re under load, in fatigue, when everything hurts. It’s a really big mental challenge to be able to suck it up and try harder.

I also love the visual of the blades going in, coming out and hearing the rhythm—chuh-choo, chuh-choo—beautiful.

What I notice in the quad is the symmetry of the movement, and the speed is just extraordinary. When you’re racing, that reach – kwoosh – just kills rowing in sweep boats. It just feels so good. So symmetrical and controlled and delicate as opposed to a big eight where you’re reaching across.

You feel like a convict rowing in the eight but you feel like a prince rowing in the quad—the finesse, the precision… and so stable compared to a four.

What are you working on in the boat now?

In the quad, we’re working on a new tempo. In the eight, we tend to row leg drive, hands away, body steady over. But in the quad we’re doing fast hands, fast body. And it’s really different. It’s a challenge. Once the hands are over the knees, then we control the slide.

In sweep oar, I’ve seen that fast hands, fast body invariably leads to rush up the slide. It’s very hard to control the tempo once you’re there and then steady up. We spent Saturday doing that, rating 20. We got it probably 20% of the time. It feels good when you get it.

Favourite drill

Legs only, to warm up. Get what you want to move first moving first.

If you hop into a boat, even with experienced rowers, and you start with arms only, then body rock, then legs, you’re going to want to throw your shoulders over. But if you start by saying legs, legs, legs, legs, legs; legs and body; legs body arms—then it’s the legs you’re going to move first.

Older rowers, and we’ve got a couple in our boat, they want to move their shoulders too much off the catch. That’s how we were taught 30, 40 years ago. But now biomechanics has shown that the most efficient power comes from the legs, not from the torso. So we should be doing that drill to move the legs first.

It’s something I started coaching only 3 or 4 years ago and I wish I’d been doing it for 10 years. Because, especially with new rowers, if you can teach them to move their legs first with no body movement, that’s what we’re looking for in the boat.

Career highlight

In 2011, I rowed in the D8+ that won the Head of the Yarra; my eldest daughter won a silver medal at the nationals in the U19 8+; my wife did a corporate rowing event, her first ever rowing experience; my youngest daughter was rowing in the Year 8 first quad; and my middle daughter was rowing in the first eight as a fill in. All in one year. So I’ve got a photo of every person rowing.

That was special, having all of my family racing, in their own space, in their own glory.

Favourite place to row

At Centenary Rowing Club, where I was coaching, up past Jindalee on the Brisbane River. It’s the best rowing water I’ve ever seen. Glass water for miles and miles. It’s got quite high banks so you don’t get the wind. You can row a whole session and not get a wash. 

There were mornings where it’d be misty and they’d row on glass for an hour and a half. It’s so pretty and so quiet because as you row upstream towards Goodna, you’ve got farmland on one side and park on the other. That is a pretty special place to row.

I’d like to race at Lucerne. Ever since I was young, it’s always had a bit of magic.

Favourite rower of all time

James Tomkins. I don’t know him but he was a guy that couldn’t lift any weight in the gym—he was not particularly strong. But he was dynamite on the ergo and no one rowed better in the boat.

He stroked the Oarsome Foursome, and it showed me that you don’t have to be strong in the gym to be a great rower.

He did everything really well and has been a really good role model, even after he finished rowing.

It shows that rowing is about timing and finesse and generating power, not just pulling the handle hard. People think if you pull really hard you’ll be fast. But a James Tomkins will beat guys twice as strong as him because he’ll apply the power to the water and let the boat do the work.

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The easiest kids to coach are the weaker kids. You get a strong kid and he goes: “Oh yeah, I’m so strong!” And you have to say: “Don’t pull so hard – softer.”

Whereas with the weak kid, you say “Sit tall, push, there. Good rhythm. That’s nice. Keep doing that.” And they will, over time, develop a much better sense of feel for what they’re doing and an understanding of the dynamic of the rowing movement and how to apply the power that they’ll eventually get in an appropriate way.

The big kid who’s just strong will always think he can pull the handle really hard. And it unsettles the boat. Even on the ergo—I’ve got on to linked ergos with a couple of kids who just pull too hard and I can feel them when we’re linked together; I can feel the judder. Imagine what they’re doing to the boat!

It’s not just about brute power. It’s about applying the power carefully and gracefully. And that’s what I love about rowing—it’s about careful, precise movements.

And finding the balance between being strong and being precise is a fantastic challenge.

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How important is the social side of rowing?

I don’t hang out with my crewmates, but I go down there and I see a bunch of guys I know, all through rowing, and we have a common interest, we’re working together, we all get along well, there’re no heroes in our boat. That’s what makes it so much fun.

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Best thing about rowing

The rhythm and the endless search for the perfect stroke. And when you have the perfect stroke, to have another one, and another one.

Worst thing about rowing

Boat loading. If you could get rid of boat loading, rowing would be an even better sport. When I was coaching at Brisbane Girls Grammar, we’d have regattas for 6 weeks on the trot. Every Friday afternoon was boat loading and then I’d drive the boats up and we’d unload the boats, then reload, drive back to the shed, unload and put them all away. By the end of the 6th week, you’re just so over it.

When will you stop rowing?

When my body says stop.

Advice for aspiring masters rowers

Listen to people who know more than you do and trust their advice.

Very few coaches will tell you things to make you do things badly. I haven’t yet met a coach who will tell you something wrong just to make you look stupid—I don’t think there’s a coach out there that has that interest. So if someone’s offering advice, someone you respect, take their advice and implement it into your stroke.

There are two groups in masters rowing. There’s the male rower and there’s the female rower.

Quite a few male masters rowers know everything and they’re the hardest to coach because they say: “Well, I’ve been doing this for 30 years.” I say “Yah, but your results are still shit. So change something.” “Aw but …”

You’ve got to change if you want to get better.

The female says: “What do I have to do?” “Well, you have to change this, this and this.” “Great, I’ll do that.” And they’ll change it. But they take themselves too seriously. A lot of women get emotionally worked up because they can’t do it. They break into tears. I say relax, we’re here to have fun. This is fun first—camaraderie, health, training, lifestyle come after.

Women get too serious and too inwardly focused about how they’re doing—this is a generality, but I see enough of it. Their expectations of themselves are way too high. They just need to say, “I’m doing ok, no-one’s perfect”. They need to be comfortable that they’re doing well and trying hard. If you’re doing those two things, most people will say, great, I can see you’re trying hard so don’t stress over it.

And I’ve spoken to a lot of male and female masters, and that’s probably the one thing. Some masters men won’t listen; and maybe 10% of them just won’t change what they need to change. And probably 10% of women take it too seriously; they need to relax and enjoy it.

Everybody can make themselves better in terms of their physicality, whether it’s being more flexible, losing a bit of weight, getting a little bit stronger.

And we can all change our technique—if we want to. There’s no movement pattern that we can’t undo or redo.

If someone says “Ah, I can’t do that”, I say “Bullshit. You don’t want to”. Don’t say “I can’t; say “I’m not prepared to”.

If you say you’re not prepared to, I say “Fine, we won’t bother about that”. But don’t tell me you can’t when you’re not prepared to make the change. There’s a big difference in that.

And some people won’t admit that they’re not prepared to. But if they say, “No way, I’m not prepared to”, I say “Fine. That’s a limiting factor for you. Let’s try to work on this path”. And maybe in time when they see the benefit from that change they might say, “How about that other change I said no to? I think I’m prepared to give it a try.” And then you have progression.

There’s a big difference between not being able to and not wanting to try. And that’s something that’s very much in the psyche of the masters rower—the masters male particularly.

Kids are much more open to trying stuff. They’re not set in their ways. They have no history of it.

If every male with bad hammies sat against a wall for 5 minutes a day, they’d get 20% improvement in 3 to 4 weeks. And that’s posture, back care, strength, rhythm—from one small change.

What is Urban Rowing?

Urban Rowing is a rowing-focused training, teaching place. It’s not a gym.

I was training for the 2011 Head of the Yarra and I was in my garage at 5.15 am doing my 30-minute ergo pieces. And I thought, there’s got to be other people doing this. Wouldn’t it be fun if we could do it together and not be sitting in isolation? That was the birth of the idea.

Then I thought – what things would you want to have in it? You’d have ergos, you’d have weights, a rowing tank, video analysis, you’d have coaching, people who knew about weights, dieticians, a rowing-focused physiotherapist. That’s how it started.

We’ve been going for 2 years now and it’s developed so many different branches that I don’t know where it’s going to end up. I’ve done some things along the way and then thought, that was a silly idea.

The most popular thing we do is the 45′ Ergo Plus class which is rowing plus exercise. What is interesting is that 90% of the people who take the class are non-rowers. They like the rowing machine because it’s stable, it’s gentle, it’s using every major muscle, they get a good ‘huff and puff’ exercise, and they hop off and do some other exercises, and we do that 3 times. They love it. I didn’t see that coming at all.

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We’ve just started on-water coaching which is going to make mornings become even more hectic.

And we’re starting our first learn-to-row programs in April, on water. We’re doing 8 sessions over 4 weeks – one session with video ergo and rowing tank, so you’re getting the fundamentals bedded in. And then once a week you get to put it into practice on water. Monday at Urban Rowing for an hour; then Wednesday on the water for an hour and a half. So it gives people a really good chance to keep practising the skill of the big movements, which is what you’ve got to do well first—legs, body, arms—and then finesse the bladework, which is where the tank comes into its own because you’ve got a fully controlled environment where we can move your hands, move the blade, video you and show you what you’re doing straight away. And you can fix it. We’ve proved over and over that with the tank I can get you to do something in 5 minutes that’d take a week on the water.

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I’m also working on participation by using the rowing machine as a stepping stone into rowing. How easy is it to get someone to sit on an ergo, get the feeling of what rowing is—it’s repetitive, the same thing over and over—and if you don’t like that, you’re not going to like it on the water either because that’s even harder. But if you think over and over is really good, then you’re going to love rowing.

So to find the rowers out there, get them on an ergo.

3 words that describe rowing for you

Rhythm, camaraderie, challenge.

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