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Rowing is Growing in Local Waters

Empowered by indoor machine known as an Erg, many are making the transition to the real thing in Long Beach

12-23-2011--(Staff Photo by Sean Hiller)- Wendy Andersen has transitioned to the water after joining the Powerhouse Fitness rowing gym in Long Beach.

By Bob Keisser

Staff Writer – Long Beach Press Telegram

Posted: 01/04/2012 12:00:03 AM PST
Updated: 01/04/2012 12:00:28 AM PST


But few are as daunting, exhilarating, difficult and transformative as one a growing legion of locals has chosen as their new sport of choice. After all, how many sports can take a person from an indoor machine to literally the waterways of Long Beach?

In the last three-plus years, the rowing community has seen the number of people turning to the “Erg” – the nickname for the indoor rowing machine – for fitness and cross-training increasing and soon after transitioning to boats at the Long Beach Marine Stadium.

Membership in the 80-year-old Long Beach Rowing Association has steadily increased, and Powerhouse Fitness now has two gyms geared toward the Erg, which is Latin for “work” – sharing one with the LBRA at the boathouse (5750 Boathouse Lane) and another on 1347 Loma Street.

Ergs have been around for several decades, but indoor rowing competition’s popularity has surged in the last decade. The rise was sparked by Olympians and rowing veterans coming back to the sport on the Erg and athletes from other disciplines switching to the Erg because it’s easier on the body and the best cross-training workout available.

“The club (LBRA) had Ergs as far back as 1987, but it’s been in the last six years that we started the classes and the training program,

and the indoor races became popular,” said Joan Van Blom, the two-time Olympic silver medalist (1976 and 1984) and the first-ever American woman to earn an Olympic rowing medal.
“We now have around 300 members who get on the water every week, a lot more than we had before we started the indoor program,” she continued. “The motivation for most people initially is fitness, being part of a group and experiencing something new.

“Then as they get stroke experience and realize how good it feels, they become curious about getting in the water. It’s always hard at first. There are balance issues, and even the best rowers go through that.”

But people are staying with it beyond the first wobble, and attracting more people to the boathouse as word spreads around town.

“It was happening when I was teaching classes four years ago,” said Jack Nunn of Powerhouse, the son of 1968 Olympic bronze medalist John Nunn, and one of the principal instructors. “The surge really started two years ago when we opened a second facility because we needed more machines and space.

“The program is designed to make it fun and effective, high intensity with interval training. An hour of rowing is much more efficient in gaining fitness than anything else. I tell people there are a lot of sports that a person can do for awhile, but rowing is something you can do for life.

“We have people in their 80s and 90s working with us.”

Transitioning to the water began when everyday people started competing on the Ergs at the indoor “regattas” at the classic distance of 2,000 meters, often against experienced rowers. Once times began to get comparable, the thought of launching into the Olympic Marine Stadium became a possibility.

The LBRA has monthly regattas, indoor and on the water, with its annual Beach Sprints on the Erg Concept2 model set for Feb. 4. It has programs for four classes of rowers – juniors, collegiate, masters and elite – plus one for beginners.

“We’ve had a lot of members who got started on the Erg who have gone on to compete in major competitions on the water,” said Van Blom, who holds all of the indoor world records in her age class.

She and husband John Van Blom, a six-time Olympian (four as a rower, two as a coach) who still rows competitively indoors and on the water, are the first couple of Long Beach Rowing.

Jill Ammirato, 64, a Long Beach State grad, was a physical education teacher at Banning High for more than three decades until retiring. She tried the Ergs when she was looking for something to get back in shape.

“All of the instructors like John are very good teachers, because you have to have the proper technique to maximize your work and not hurt yourself,” Ammirato said. “I was about three months into the program when John told me I had qualified for the World Masters championships.

“I wasn’t even thinking about that. I was enjoying the total core workout and how you could track your progress, like the race I did when I had a 500-meter split of 1:51, better than my previous best of two minutes.

“Suddenly I was going to Canada to compete in the World Masters against people who had been rowing for 30 years. I was a nobody, and there I was.”

That was when Ammirato decided it was time to get in the water. Since doing so, she’s posted times and results that have earned her a spot in training camps in France and Italy and qualified her for an Elite Masters competition in Vermont. She’s even become a training partner with some of the instructors who got her started.

“I just figured if I was good on the Erg that it would be fun on the boat,” she said. “Once you get the technical training and get comfortable, you really feel capable of anything. When you’re on the water and doing well, you’re on top of the world. My life is this. My friends are here, we feel like a family, and we have a lot of fun.”

Wendy Andersen, 33, who works for the city in Development Services, was looking for a new way to stay fit after suffering a knee injury and “finding that my pants were shrinking,” she said with a grin.

She tried the Erg earlier this year and took to it quickly.

“Everyone involved was friendly and supportive, which made you invested and motivated to do well,” she said.

At a competition on the Erg, she finished third in her age class and was stunned to learn she had beaten one of the most accomplished rowers in the LBRA, Sheri Klein, by six seconds. She was humbled by it – “Sheri was my hero” – but also encouraged by Klein and others to get on the water.

“There were four of us who joined at about the same time and we set (getting on the water) as a goal, and all four of us have,” she said.

“It’s so much fun for someone who just wants to stay healthy or active in a sport. I immediately realized this is something I can do for the rest of my life without worrying about my body breaking down.”

Her first step into a boat was wobbly. “But after you get settled, you kind of feel at peace,” she said. “You focus on the environment and the stroke. It’s a superb sensation to be in motion along the water, so calming. I knew right then there wasn’t anything else I wanted to do.”

Tom O’Keefe, 64, is a St. Anthony grad who loved track as a kid and became a competitive Masters runner, working with the respected Lakewood coach Dave Rodda, running every distance from the 400 to the 10,000.

He had a best time of 58.4 in the 400 in his 50s when he suffered a torn left quad in practice, ending his running career. A friend suggested he try the Erg to regain his strength and remain competitive.

“When you first try it, you’re happy to be in a room with a group and share that energy,” he said. “You can’t get that just anywhere. I wasn’t thinking about a boat like others. The Erg was a lot to learn, but I took to it right away. It’s the best combination of aerobic and anaerobic exercise you can get – shoulders, legs, core, maximizing almost every part of your body.

“But it’s also a sport that’s built to make you want to do more. There’s no point where you feel you’re finished. There is always more to achieve.”

That’s what got O’Keefe on the water. “I like the singles, because it’s quiet, and you just turn your brain off.”

“The cool thing is that it’s a benefit to anyone who tries it,” Nunn said. “And what you do on the machine translates to the water. It’s authentic, down to the smallest things, like the position of the thumbs. Water adds an animal dynamic of balance and weights, but it still is something one can learn. It’s something you can do for the rest of your life.”

Indoors, and outdoors.

— Bob Keisser


Notable local rowers

Jill Ammirato

The retired Banning High physical education instructor was a swimmer and basketball player in her youth and ran and hiked as an adult. It was after she retired that she felt a need to find a new workout program, never imagining that she would win medals in her age group on the Ergs and eventually get into a boat. She’s won several medals in her Erg age class.

Jack Nunn

Nunn’s dad John was an Olympian in 1968, and Jack tried a number of sports as a kid – running, surfing, soccer, tennis, hockey – but not rowing. “My dad introduced me to it when I was about five but I wasn’t into it,” Nunn said. “I gave up sports in high school and my dad said I needed to either get a job or find something else in sports.” Which was rowing. He competed in the Long Beach junior program, made the junior national squad, and earned a scholarship to Cal, where he was part of an all-freshman eights team that won the Pac-10 title. Cal won a conference title each of his four years as well as three national championships. He was a member of the national team and won a silver medal at the 2001 World Championships in the singles and continued to compete before suffering a knee injury. He now competes in a variety of long-distance sports, and has twice finished the Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii. To prepare for his first Ironman, he worked out exclusively on a Erg.

Tom O’Keefe

O’Keefe, who has worked in nutrition for almost three decades in the marketing unit of Juice Plus, went to St.Anthony, Long Beach City College and UC Santa Barbara. He helped launch a youth running program at Marshall Junior High and was competing on the Masters levels for more than two decades before suffering a torn quad that ended his running career. “I used to advocate running, and now I advise against it because it can break your body down,” he said. He continues to compete on the Erg and is a single sculler for recreational purposes.

Wendy Andersen

Andersen was a three-sport athlete in high school whose best sport was the high jump in track. She competed at UC Riverside as a freshman because she didn’t feel she was getting a lot of personal training. She began training for a field career in law enforcement and enrolled at Long Beach State for a criminal justice degree when she suffered a knee injury that ended that plan. An administrator for the City of Long Beach in Developmental Services, she picked up the Erg in late summer of 2011 and was on the water by the fall. “I did the eights first because I liked the feeling of being part of a team,” she said. “Now I do singles and doubles so I can just learn how to be a better rower. Getting a taste of competition has me looking to see where the sport can take me.”