Two sports to love for the long haul

 

GET YOUR KIT ON:This week rowing and tug of war feature in our continuing series on taking up a new activity

THOUGH PHYSICAL fitness is the most obvious benefit of taking up any of the sports covered in this series, there’s also a social aspect to most. Mind you, it’s only with this week’s – rowing and tug of war – that I can actually guarantee you’ll pull.

To the uninformed outsider, neither of these looks like all that much fun, prompting visions of burly men with faces contorted by concentration and pain. Those involved, however, say they are hugely enjoyable sports, providing opportunities to do a great deal more than just shed a few pounds.

“It’s a problem, all right,” says Pat McInerney, the head of coach education at Rowing Ireland. “Most of the articles that appear on rowing are on athletes who are competing at Olympic level, or at least aiming for it, and they tend to go on and on and on about how tough the sport is. In the past we’ve all been a bit guilty of putting people off by dwelling on that.

“The reality is that every sport is tough at the elite level but – like just about all of the others – you can take up rowing without training 15 times a week. Sure, we’ve got people who do make that sort of commitment, and that’s great. But we’ve got clubs up and down the country too where there are men, women and kids who get out on the water maybe once a week and are entirely happy with that.”

A handful of clubs, primarily those run for former students at particular schools or colleges, are closed shops. However most, insists McInerney, will be very happy to have you knock on their door and avail of what can prove to be a very enticing deal.

“It’s not a difficult sport to get into, and it’s certainly not an expensive one,” he says. “All of the main cities have clubs, and most of the bigger towns do too. Membership can start at as little as €50 – some clubs in the country are virtually giving it away – to maybe €200 or a little more in Dublin. The clubs have everything you need to get out on the water, and you wouldn’t generally be paying for coaching.

“Most run courses for beginners. I think people will find they’re made very welcome. Membership [also] means access to gym equipment at a lot of gyms, so there’s that aspect too.”

The most obvious bit of kit on that front is, of course, the rowing machine – or ergometer – which, as it happens, is also highly popular with those training to pull on a tug-of-war team.

This is a sport that, as Donal Ward of the Irish Tug of War Association acknowledges, suffers from a bit of an image problem. However, few of its rivals enjoy anything like its historical pedigree, and the grant funding would doubtless be flowing freely if the sport was still included in the Olympic Games, as it was between 1900 and 1920.

Sadly, in common with a number of other sports, its hopes of re-admittance (something that would most likely mean medals for Ireland) are hampered by the fact that it is not the world’s greatest TV spectacle. The record for a competitive “pull” is 55 minutes and 56 seconds – a television commentator’s worst nightmare – although Fred Cogley chaired the very first meeting of sport’s governing body here following its formation in 1967.

The sport goes back far further than that, however. It is strong in farming communities, particularly in north Wexford where the Boley club (at one end of the rope for the world record-breaking pull mentioned above) was formed in the early 1970s by six Kehoe brothers and a couple of first cousins.

Though the likes of Sean Roberts and Shay Ryan have broken the family stranglehold since, the club continues to enjoy enormous success. Over the years it has racked up more than 120 domestic and 26 major international titles. Next week they’re off to defend their world 680kg (that’s the maximum combined weight of the eight-member team) title in South Africa.

“It’s a great sport for fitness,” says Bill Kehoe, a founding member of the team who coaches the current group. “But there’s nothing like it for building camaraderie and understanding within a group of people.”

Kehoe, whose brother James is still pulling at the very highest level after 31 years on the team, is used to people’s misconceptions about fat guys triumphing through grim determination. He knows better, though, citing the team’s success over a team weighing in at a combined 1,066kg in the US a few years back.

“It’s about strength and endurance, all right,” he says, “but also technique and tactics, and having a good pair of hands. A lot of it is about the angle at which you’re pulling the other team and sensing when they are weakening.

“It’s actually a little bit like rowing, but in tug of war there are eight people at the other end of the rope doing everything they can to upset your rhythm – so there’s certainly another dimension to it. As for the weight, fellas will start out in training at the beginning of a season weighing 100kg and get down to 85 by the time we start competing. Weighing a lot doesn’t count for much when you’re being dragged along the ground.”

WHAT THEY SAY

‘We’ve more than doubled the number of registered clubs over the last few years, with a lot being set up where there might have been one 30 or 40 years ago,” says Donal Ward of Irish Tug of War. “We’re working hard to develop the women’s side of things as well. Our development squad won a silver medal in the open club section of the British championships recently, so it’s going well.”

“Most clubs will take on novices; they’ll be delighted to have them. And you’re not just signing up to a gym. Every club is a nice little community,” says Colm Dowling of Rowing Ireland.

WHAT IT DOES

‘Rowing,” says Giles Warrington of DCU, “is one of the few sports where you really get to use all of the major muscle groups. At Olympic level, it is one of the ultimate sports – a study showed that Steve Redgrave had put in 34 hours of training for every stroke he pulled in an Olympic final – but it has has a lot to offer almost everyone. It’s not weight-bearing – your weight is displaced over water – so the risk of injury is very low, but you get a really great workout. It’s also becoming more and more accessible, with adapted boats for disabled athletes and opportunities to train and compete for the visually impaired.

“Tug of war has some similarities, and there’s also a great element of strength involved. While it tends to be a more static muscle action, you would be looking at burning more than 600 calories an hour when pulling.”

WHAT IT TAKES

The requirements for tug of war boil down to a rope (about €180) and footwear. Specially adapted hiking boots for a beginner cost about €130 from a firm in Louth (details at irish tugofwar.com), while top-end boots cost €200 a pair from Switzerland.

The indoor season, from November, involves greater expense, as you need special mats to lay in your team’s training area, which can run to €1,500. Gantries for training with weights are expensive, too, but existing clubs will provide access to these.

You can get started rowing for next to nothing, with clubs providing all of the equipment for beginners’ courses. Buying your own boat can be pricey, depending on the level you compete at, but that’s some way off for now.

WHERE IT’S AT

Locations of clubs can be found on the national associations’ websites: iaru.ie and irishtugofwar.com. Pat McInerney recommends dropping in to your local club, but schedules for introductory courses are also available.