Big Bodies, Small Boats

Romance Among the Oarsmen (and Oarswomen)

WITH OVER 20 rowing clubs in Seattle, long deemed a rowing mecca, there’s a muscular little subculture of dating among aqua-jocks. I know, because I’m one of them. It sounds great?the average guy is about 6 feet 5 inches, with 200 pounds of lean muscle packaged in tight spandex. Women come with six-pack abs and are trained to listen to orders?from their coaches and coxswains, of course.

The sport provides closeness and common understanding for its male and female participants, but there are hazards beyond the blisters and backaches. Down at the Pocock Rowing Center on Lake Union, I learn why from a former Brown University oarsman I’ll call Kyle. “You have to treat the boathouse like your office?you don’t date someone at work,” he says. After a pause, he adds, “The women also tend to be large . . . let’s leave it there.” Does he think female rowers have any such reservations about male heavyweights? Kyle smiles at this. “Of course they want to date us. No doubt.” For my part, I agree: Heavyweight rowers have long been known, and justly so, as the epitome of male beauty. Though occasionally arrogant for that reason, they make good partners.

On their side of the dock, women see a more pragmatic side of dating a teammate. Says one, “You spend countless hours around these guys with rock-hard, chiseled bodies, and you get warped. How can you be expected to settle for anything less?” Many athletes find it difficult to date someone who isn’t involved in a sport; the idea of not taking pride in, and good care of, your body is unfathomable. Problem is, while the guys may lust for petite and soft (calloused hands don’t feel so good in the bedroom), female rowers tend to be made of tougher, larger stuff.

This raises a very important, yet sensitive, issue: weight. Rowers are grouped into weight classes and are therefore obsessed with the subject. This creates much romantic tension at the shell house. Heavyweight men prefer to date down the scale (“those jerks,” is how one oarswoman puts it). Women rowers may prefer lightweight men to their proud heavyweight counterparts; they’re valued for great muscle definition and better personalities. According to one female rower in the Pocock locker room, “Lightweights and open-weight women get along the best because they are both on society’s lowest rung. There is no respect for being little men or big women.”

What about the big girls? They’ve got broad, strong shoulders, well-honed muscles, and a take-charge attitude?not every man’s notion of the feminine ideal. One such distaff athlete complains, “Lightweights make great friends, but it is hard for me to date one when I easily outweigh them.”

Then there’s the coxswain controversy. These tiny pacesetters are integral to each rowing team; often, a cox is the only female in a group of eight sweaty, handsome, strapping men. Not a bad place to be. In fact, many coxswains are frequently criticized for having joined up for that specific reason. (Massage, anyone?) “I am currently dating my coxswain,” one heavyweight guy admits. “I think it’s quite nice. It’s only awkward if you make it awkward.”

Lastly, whatever the weight category, whichever the sex, what’s a rower’s favorite thing to do on a date? Simple?eat.