THEY came. They sweated. They conquered. And then they got hammers.
The participants in Sunday's 12th annual world indoor-rowing championships perpetuated a competition now more than 10 years old. In a crowded gym here at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, rowers in the CRASH-B Sprints, the event's official title, showed that indoor rowing is not an oxymoron.
"Who said indoor rowing isn't exciting?" declared veteran CRASH-B announcer Fred Borchelt, after Igor Boraska from Rhode Island's Brown University won a close collegiate men's final.
Rowing the equivalent of 2,500 meters, contestants from the US and eight other countries challenged the 7-foot, 10 inch-long machine that is friend to no one: the Concept II Ergometer. Used by rowers to train and test their fitness, especially during the winter, the machine can now be found in health clubs and exercise programs.
Dennis Husband, a member of Britain's Royal Marines is a newly "hooked" indoor rower. "When I'm [rowing], it's what I would call `eyeballs out to the death,' and when I come off, I just collapse on the floor." He says that several minutes later he wonders why he didn't improve his score.
The "erg" is rowed by pulling on a bar attached to a chain which sets the flywheel-fan mechanism in motion. Praised as an excellent exercise tool, the erg is also abhorred. "It's wicked," says Ernestine Bayer, a New Hampshire resident who has been rowing on the water since 1938 and is one of the indoor event's most senior competitors.
Criticism aside, the erg is most rowers' choice for the off season. "There is no other machine that so closely approximates on-the-water rowing," says CRASH-B President Kurt Somerville.
The Charles River All-Star Has-Beens (CRASH-B), a group of former college and US National team rowers, began the event in 1982 to take some of the boredom out of their winter training. That year the CRASH-B Sprints, the first indoor rowing race ever, debuted with 85 rowers at Harvard University's Newell Boathouse. This year, the CRASH-Bs set a new attendance record, with some 1,085 water rowers and nonrowers competing in 16 men's and women's events.
Today, there are 79 indoor rowing regattas worldwide. One of the reasons the indoor regattas have become so widespread is that the Concept II Ergometer, created in 1981, standardized the measuring of times.
"The machine allowed the process to happen because you could compare times with a high degree of reliability," says Mo Merhoff, Communications Director for the US Rowing Association. Indoor regattas have also benefited from Concept II's computer program, which displays the times of up to eight rowers.
One nonwater rower who has made her mark here is professional triathlete Joanne Ritchie of Kelowna, British Colombia. Ms. Ritchie, rowing in her second CRASH-Bs, set a new world's record for master's (age 30-39) women. She rowed her 2,500 meters in 8 minutes, 23 seconds, beating her own winning time from last year by 13 seconds, and rowing faster than any woman in any of the events.
Ritchie says she thinks indoor rowing has become a sport of its own, with appeal for nontraditional rowers. "I'm a mother, so for someone like me, it's great because I can go into my basement [to `erg'] and not worry about baby sitters."
For those few who qualified for the finals and won, there was the awarding of the chrome-headed hammers, which, according to Somerville, is both honor and insult: A "hammer" in rowing is someone with a lot of power but no style. "Nevertheless, people love to get it," Somerville says.