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Youth Nationals II: The Wrath of Competitive Age Tiers

Last week USRowing announced a new structure for the Youth National Championships to be hosted in Sarasota, FL the week of June 10-13, 2021. The changes were attributed to continued variables within the COVID-19 crisis and the uncertainty of any regional championships being held.

The new format departs from the old in two significant ways: The Championship will be an “open” championship, allowing any youth rowing organization to enter any number of crews and athletes without qualifying events, and the six lightweight events (B/G 2x, 4+, 8+) have been supplanted by 12 U17 events ( B/G 1x, 2x, 2-, 4+, 4x, 8+).

Presumably the impact of this announcement is lost on no one who follows these things. Lightweight rowing at the youth level in the US has just potentially received its final notice. The next opportunity for lightweights to race at the USRowing Youth National Championships would be 2022. At that time, all of the junior lightweights with any invested history competing as a lightweight will have moved on to college competition or grown out of lightweight status. The only voices to be heard championing youth lightweight rowing will be the roughly two dozen coaches who operate predominantly in that arena, and their influence over athletes with a much larger voice (via petitions like this one) will be reduced. There will simply be fewer lightweight athletes (fewer novices this year due to COVID) to mount any significant protest. Many of those novices who would historically race as lightweights are simply just young (13-15), and will easily transition into the U17 and U15 events.

I respect the pro-lightweight perspective. Many coaches and athletes have had tremendous success and tradition in lightweight events. The idea of competitors racing in such a way that prioritizes technique, power and fitness over size advantages is a noble one. My professional opinion, however, is that the community is better off without lightweight rowing at the youth level. Over the last 30 years I have consistently and persistently witnessed unsafe and unhealthy practices by coaches and athletes wishing to compete in this arena. The best way to end these unsafe practices is to remove the lure entirely.

The argument that lightweight rowing provides greater competitive opportunity to undersized youth athletes becomes unnecessary in the face of age-tiered events. There are two kinds of youth lightweight athletes: Those who are naturally light because they are young and still growing, and those who have grown but are unnaturally restricting their growth to stay under- or at-weight. Anyone who coaches youth boys knows the summer growth spurt between sophomore and junior year can completely reconfigure an athlete’s physiology. Competitive age tiers allow athletes of the same age (and relative size) to compete against each other, and encourages athletes who are growing to do so in a natural and healthy way.

The process of training while simultaneously managing an extremely strict nutritional diet or even restricting calories is too stressful for athletes whose minds are emotionally, intellectually, and neurologically still developing. The net result for those athletes who have been told they can only compete against athletes “their own size” is that they leave the sport after high school. Who can blame them? We don’t tell masters athletes they can only compete if they are over a certain height and weight, why does that message persist with youth athletes who are at greater risk?

Our community needs to reinforce the idea for youth rowers that the path to personal growth and competitive success is through hard work, diligence, and great teamwork. Competitive fairness only exists within limitations that are immutable, like age or physical disability.

Final fun fact: Did you know over the last ten years of Youth Nationals racing, on average, the top four boys lightweight finishers (in the 2x, 4+, and 8+) would have placed in the Grand Finals of their respective openweight counterparts? What could have those athletes achieved if they raced just 15 or even 10 pounds heavier?

*Correction: The first version of this article stated that adaptive (B/G PR1/PR2) and inclusive events were added to the Youth National Championships 2021 regatta. These events were offered at the 2019 Youth National Championships but there were no entries.

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