Coach Spotlight

Noel Wanner


Noel Wanner has coached with us for the past several years, and this year is taking on some head coaching duties as well. He's had quite an involvement with rowing at a number of levels of the sport: rowing at Wesleyan, on to the National Lightweights' team, coaching, working with C2...Noel's covered most every base you can in American rowing. For this month's eNewsletter, we sat down with him to find out more.

Craftsbury (CSC): How did you start rowing? Can you give us a brief history of your rowing career?

Noel Wanner (NW): I started rowing as a sophomore in college. I had played soccer and lacrosse all through high school, and I played both as a freshman in college. However, most of the soccer and lacrosse players at my school were more interested in hanging out and drinking beer than in playing hard. There were a few guys on my freshman hall who had rowed on the novice team, and they all seemed so passionate and devoted to their sport. So I tried it in the fall, thinking that I would just get in good shape and then go play lacrosse in the spring. I loved rowing from my first stroke - the elemental competitive grace of it - and I never played lacrosse again.

CSC: I know you rowed as a lightweight: are you a natural lightweight, or did you have to count the calories?

NW: No, I am pretty naturally a "midweight"--about 6 feet tall and 175 pounds. But at the time, most of the national team lightweights were similar - you do lose some power as you lose weight, but most of your strength (and more importantly your leverage) remains. So every year I would start losing weight in January, in order to make 155 by June or so. I'd cut out butter, ice cream, beer, cheese, etc. Then I'd start eating salads for dinner--I found that eating a very small meal before bed worked well, as your metabolism is naturally lower at night. Then I'd eat a larger, protein-filled meal for breakfast, to give me energy to train during the day. You have to realize, I was still eating as much or more than most people eat every day--I just was working out three times a day, so I still lost weight.

CSC: How'd you make the National Team?

NW: I was on a small division III college team, which didn't have a lightweight program. I stroked the eight, and I had a great experience. But I definitely felt like I hadn't reached the limits of my ability, and I was curious to find out what those limits might be. So the year after college, I stayed at school and coached the freshmen, and I trained by myself after hours, trying to build my fitness to the national team level. At the time, the national team director published a workout program for national team members and aspirants, so I followed that, rowing mostly on the erg. It was a pretty lonely year of training, but I managed to get my erg score down so I was comparable to the top ten or fifteen guys on the lightweight team.

I submitted my scores to the coach, hoping to be invited to what was called a pre-elite camp, which was a camp for the best college athletes, run by the national team coach. If you did well there, you could get invited to the main selection camp for the actual team.

But - I didn't get invited. I wasn't on one of the elite college lightweight squads like Harvard or Princeton, heck, I hadn't even raced in a year! So I went to a development camp at the Riverside Boat club in Boston. I rowed there for a week, winning a bunch of seat races against the other development guys. And then one of the athletes at Pre-elite camp got hurt, and the national team coach called Riverside asking if they had anyone good. The next day I was driving down to the camp - I got a lucky break, which got me a chance to row under the eyes of the national team coach.

CSC: What's the best heavyweight joke you've heard?

NW: I try not to joke around with heavyweights--they get easily confused.

CSC: I know you've lived around the country, where are you from? Where's the best place to row you've experienced?

NW: I grew up in Cambridge MA, about four blocks from the Charles River. It's funny, because rowing was in my backyard, and I never thought about trying it. I spent my childhood playing basketball, but I was too short and too slow. When I came back to row in Cambridge, I loved it - it's so amazing to row on a river through the heart of a city - the noise and rush of the city is all around you, but you are separate, removed, hidden in a quiet world, gliding just out of reach.

Probably my favorite places to row were training on the Connecticut River near Dartmouth - miles and miles of empty, beautiful water. Craftsbury is right up there too.

My favorite race course was in Lucerne, Switzerland: the mountains come right down to the edge of the the water, and you can hear the cowbells of the grazing cows, ringing above your head as you charge into the last 500.

CSC: Many of us punters like to daydream about making it to an elite level in whatever sport we're interested in, but you made it. What was the best part of the experience? Any part you can find yourself missing? What was the least dreamy/glamorous bit, or the perhaps part that us punters aren't aware of?

NW: The best part about training for the national team was the purity of purpose: you know each day what you are living for, and what you need to do to be successful. Each day you train hard, trying to get a little bit faster, a little bit smoother, a little bit stronger. And you don't let any other aspect of life get in the way - everything you do is devoted to getting better. It's a luxury, in a way - to give yourself entirely to one thing, with no compromises - as opposed the juggling of priorities that "normal" life entails.

The least glamorous thing about the national team is the tremendous volume of training you have to do. To be an elite athlete, you have to have a tolerance for a lot of long, boring miles. And I mean a lot. You have to really, really love rowing. It's easy to love rowing when you row once a day, 5 days a week. When you row 18 times a week, you can get pretty sick of steady state, believe me.

Plus, you have to find a girlfriend who doesn't mind that you need to go to bed at 9 pm every night.

CSC: What sparked your interest in coaching and how did you get into coaching?

NW: When I retired from competition, I realized that what I loved the most about rowing the feeling of grace that comes when you take a good stroke. Most of us don't get to experience a lot of grace, that feeling of being perfectly in harmony with your surroundings, perfectly present in the moment. Most us spend the present moment worrying about the future or fretting about the past - rowing forces us back into ourselves. That's where joy resides, and by teaching rowing, I can help athletes of all ages experience that joy, whether in a race or just paddling around.

CSC: What has been one of your best experiences as a coach?

NW: I love coaching masters' athletes - they are so hungry for knowledge, and so excited to realize that you can have a competitive career after 35. Plus I think people who try to learn new things late in life are heroic - it takes a lot for an adult to allow themselves to be a beginner at something like sculling. I'm convinced that's the secret to staying young - keep learning new things, all your life.

So, really, I get to have great experiences coaching all the time, with athletes at whatever level.

CSC: What do you see as the most common mistake you see crews or individuals making on the water?

NW: Most people carry too much tension in their hands - gripping the oar too tightly makes good rowing nearly impossible. It's like any other sport where an athlete grips a tool -tennis or golf are good examples - you have to get the grip right before you can really progress.

The other mistake rowers make is not being aware of bow/stern balance. Everyone is aware of balance side to side - that's obvious. The more advanced skill is to be aware of how your body weight affects the boat - if you dump down at the release, you drive the bow down. If you allow the body to fall onto the knees at the catch, or go for extra reach there, you drive the stern down. The really great rowers "hide" their body weight from the boat - the boat just runs level, with little bounce or check.

CSC: I know you're pretty active beside rowing, can you tell us a bit of what other athletic (and other wise) endeavors you have going and are most excited about? Athletically, what sport out of your repertoire do you find most conducive to cross-training for rowing?

NW: Now that I'm out of competition, I just train and race for the joy of it. Racing is wonderful fun - a chance to push your limits, whatever level you are. I race my road bike here in Vermont in the summer, and I do some cross country ski races in the winter. Both of these sports are pretty good cross-training, especially skiing, as it uses the upper body, and requires the same kind of grace and timing as rowing. Both sports are about gliding, about trying to create speed and maintain it efficiently. Done well, both feel effortless. Done poorly, well....