Written By Charley Sullivan, openly gay rowing coach at the University of Michigan
Every four years, when the Olympics roll around, college rowing coaches get excited. We've noticed that even the tiny exposure our sport gets during the Games increases the number of interested freshmen who show up and try out for our squads in the coming fall.
Rowing being a sport where walk-ons can become Olympians in short order (Tom Peszek, of the U.S. Men's Pair in London, learned to row beginning his sophomore year at the University of Michigan, where I coach), we are always on the lookout for those guys who may have swam or played basketball or such in high school, and who have the right stuff — long arms and legs, big lungs and just enough insanity to try a sport that trains about 100 minutes for each minute of competition — to make it as a college rower.
So, with other coaches, I was ecstatic when the USA Men’s Four won a bronze medal in London. An incredible performance by four young, essentially inexperienced rowers in one of our sport’s most competitive events at the elite level is an unadulterated good thing.
Then Henrick Rummel’s crotch hit the blogosphere.
For all their hard work and grand success, the e-chat about rowing now centers not on the four and their accomplishments, but on spandex and Henrick’s junk, and the question of whether or not he had an erection on the podium. And one of the things we try to initially hide from potential freshman walk-ons is now fully on display.
You see, if you choose to row, and you have a penis and a testicle or two, said equipment will inevitably be on full display. In front of God and your grandma and everyone. This is a major piece of education that we do with our guys about two days before their first fall regatta, about the same time we give them their first pair of rowing shorts, or “trou” as we call them, short for trousers.
Trou are made of spandex. They’re tight enough to not get caught in the rolling mechanisms of the boat’s seats, and just loose enough to let you move well. Although you can wear underwear under them, it’s not particularly comfortable, it can get in the way, and really, there’s no need, so most male rowers I know go commando. Furthermore, many young men also shave their testicles; less hair to get caught in the moving parts. (This particular bit of knowledge is also often passed down by older guys on the team, not by the coaches. We draw a line somewhere.)
In any case, guys who row need to grow a pair and put on a pair, and to show off what they’ve got. Like swimmers and their Speedos, it’s territory that comes with the sport.
One of the reasons trou show off crotches so well is that one of their chief functions is, with similar to some bras, to “lift and separate.” That is, they are designed to get the boys out from inside our thighs.
Because we sit on seats that roll up and down a slide, and our legs go from bent up into our chests to squeezing down straight out and hard against the deck of the boat with each stroke, we have ample opportunities each row for the boys to get caught. Because that stroke cycle and motion are repeated over and over and over, our quads and thighs get to be big and strong. So, in an average training session including 80 minutes of steady state rowing, that’s well over 1,500 opportunities for the boys to get crushed by well-trained muscle. And, if we were to wear looser clothing, it would be 1,500 opportunities for longer hanging shorts to get caught between the wheels of the seat and the slide.
So our trou are tight, but just loose enough to move in, and are designed to get things out of the way. This incidentally means, therefore, that they do a fabulous job of “presenting” our stuff right up front, as Henrik more than ably demonstrated on the Olympic podium.
As rowing coaches try to lure new people to the sport, this isn’t the first thing we lead with. Teamwork like no other sport? Check. Hard work like very few other sports? Check. Looks beyond amazing on a resume to say you were a national champion in rowing? Five big checks in a row for Michigan.
But that we will show off your crotch is not a selling point that American kids, or their parents, are particularly ready for. So we delay that little gem until the amazing results of training and the thrill of competition are about to take their full effect, and when guys are already, irrevocably, bitten by the rowing bug.
Most guys do adapt, rather quickly even. As one might imagine, among a bunch of college guys, discussion of the rather intimate bits and functions of one’s body are commonplace. In men’s rowing – given early practices, the inevitability of morning wood and the necessity of spandex – discussion of penises and testicles, sorted by size, heft, and presence or absence of foreskins is commonplace, often with a good bit of “busting each others nuts." We quickly get to the point that we don’t even think about what we see on a daily basis. By the end of their first year or rowing, college rowers can be seen walking around regattas, hanging out between races, and ideally getting up on docks to receive medals, with everything on display.
This display issue is particularly true at competitions, since it brings a design issue up against a piece of rowing etiquette that comes. Wearing just trou, (the shorts-only version, worn with a separate shirt) that many rowers train in on a daily basis, it’s easy enough to reach in and re-adjust as you get up out of the boat. But in the “uni” (unisuit) version with the rowing top attached, that most teams now use in competition, reaching down and in is a much more involved process. As a result, many rowers immediately peel down the top of their unis when they’re done racing. Almost immediately, they adjust the boys a bit.
But rowing into a medals dock or atop a podium, the top stays firmly up. So showing off your junk while you receive medals is just a part of our sport. Unless your coach has chosen white, yellow or orange for the color of your trou, (the Michigan unis, which I designed originally, come in dark blue, very safe in this respect,) it usually happens without much notice.
Except if it’s at the Olympics, and lots of non-rowers are taking their one-every-four-years peak at our sport.
I’m not surprised this has taken off as a subject of interest. Face it, as a society, Americans are generally prudish about seeing men’s crotches, and we think that showing off your stuff is a sure sign you’re gay. Before I rowed, I swam, in the old days of tiny Speedos. And swimmers, like rowers, get fairly comfortable with what that can show off. But I still remember in the early 1980s when guys at my neighborhood pool stopped wearing the Speedos we had from swim practice when we hung out in the afternoon and started wearing long, baggy, show-nothing shorts. Speedos had become “gay.”
So how cool has it been to see the reportedly quite heterosexual Henrick Rummel basically shrug off all the attention his crotch has been getting? Learning to be comfortable with your body and to handle international discussion of your penis and testicles and with grace and good humor? Check. Publicly thanking a gay man and feeling flattered that he spent so much blogospace discussing your crotch without feeling the need to be defensive? Double check!
Perhaps this is another reason young men might want to come check out rowing when they hit campus in the coming month. We just may have something to teach them about performing well under pressure.
Charley Sullivan is Associate Head Coach of Men’s Rowing and a doctoral candidate in History at the University of Michigan. His team is five-time defending American Collegiate Rowing Association national champions. His academic research focuses on the formation of gender and cultural identities in the 20th century. Read Sullivan's 2011 article for Outsports about being an openly gay coach.