A Review of Western Washington University’s Erg Room

Western Washington University’s men’s crew is not a highly funded varsity program like Yale or Oregon State University rowing teams. Western’s crew is a small club team with less than 30 rowers. The team is funded by its rowers’ membership fees, fundraising, and the occasional generous donor. Due to the lack of funding, Western’s team doesn’t have a huge erg room like Stanford. They don’t have rows and rows of ergs like University of Southern California. They don’t have private weight rooms and cafeterias in their boat house, like University of Washington, whose boathouse cost over 18 million dollars to construct (Husky Crew). Western’s crew has a small, repurposed computer lab underneath a cafeteria. However, by training in that cramped room Western athletes can accomplish things that none of the larger universities can.

Prior to 2015, Western’s crew team had a real erg room in Carver Gym, a gym specifically for collegiate athletes. When Western began to tear down and remodel the gym in the summer of 2015, the men’s and women’s teams’ erg room was moved to an alternate location. The chosen place for the rowers to row in is a 30 by 10-foot computer lab, old white letters clearly state so on the one small window that the room possesses. The inside of the erg room, frankly, is not impressive. The first thing you notice is the musty, almost metallic stench of sweat that hangs in the air. The next thing that comes to your attention are the ergs: the rowing machines that the rowers use to train on land. Six battered Concept2 brand ergs sit in a tight row under white florescent lights. To the right, five more ergs stand upright, in order to take up as little room as possible. In one corner, a ten-year-old boom box lays on the ground, tangled in a mess of cables connected to even older speakers. The rowers often use these speakers to blast bass-heavy music as they erg, something which you can hear even from the outside hallway. In the other corner, a dusty fan oscillates, its protective cage held on by a bungee cord. A homemade pressboard wall separates the men’s and women’s sides of the erg room, making the already small room even more claustrophobic. I asked the coach of the men’s crew team, Carl Smith, his thoughts on the erg room, compared to the multimillion dollar erg rooms he rowed in when he was on the US National Rowing team. He stated, “It’s really just a shitty little closet. It’s been renovated in some capacity by laying down plastic mats but other than that bare walls, are space, very cramped. The room itself is nothing remarkable.” (An Interview with Carl)

In order to manage the limited space in the erg room, the rowers have to erg at different times during the day. This way the whole team of 30 rowers can cycle through the use of six ergs. On the rare occasions where the team tries to row all together, only a few people can erg at a time, and the rest stay nearby to cheer them on. Often, only six or so people can row at a time, as only six of the ergs are in proper working order. Six people may not sound like a lot, but when that many people are working out in an area as small as the erg room, the air heats up and gets humid, feeling dense and stale. The ventilation in the erg room is less than satisfactory, especially when more than a handful of people use it at once.

At first glance, the erg room seems pretty dismal, especially to me, a first year rower at Western. I rowed for two years in high school, at Sammamish Rowing Association, a highly successful and well-funded rowing club. The erg room at SRA was the size of a half size basketball court, and could fit 30 ergs comfortably, in well-spaced rows. In addition to this, it still had the space to fit various weight machines around the sides of the room, against the many windows in its modern stainless steel construction. As we erged, we faced an enormous patio, with a shutter style door that opened up to let fresh air cycle in. We blasted music through huge surround sound speakers as we erged as a team. This erg room was the product of a boathouse project that took five years and over 3.3 million dollars to complete (New Boathouse Project). Between Sammamish Rowing Association and Western Washington University, it’s very clear which erg room is nicer. However, now that I have been erging at Western for close to six months now, if you asked me which erg room I prefer, I would answer in a heartbeat: “Western”.

Other teams do not have to deal with conditions like the ones Western’s team endures. However, since other teams don’t have conditions like these, they don’t get to see the benefits that come with these conditions. Training in such a small place has the benefit of added team bonding. There’s no way around it. At SRA, my previous club, a problem arose in the erg room where the team was disconnected. The fast guys erged in the front, isolating themselves from the slow rowers, who erged in the back. The team felt separated. However, at Western, you may erg with the fastest guy on the team on your left, and the newest novice on your right. All the rowers in the erg room are selfless, erging not for themselves, but for their teammates next to them. The happiest moments for me, are not when I set a new personal record, but when I see a friend improve and get faster. In addition to this bonding, every single member of the team endures the terrible conditions of the erg room together. Just like how families or friends can bond over enduring a hardship together, the crew team bonds by erging together in the tiny space. You feel a mutual connection and respect for every other rower on the team, because you know they’ve been putting up with the same condition you have, and yet they still come back the next day.

The erg room may be a repurposed computer lab, but it also has its own unique benefits that no other erg room does. It may physically be a lackluster place for training, but the team bonding and discipline that it builds are more than worth the problems cause by the physical space. Erging in that room for next two years will be the most punishing and most rewarding thing that will happen to me at Western. It feels strange to say, but when Carver Gym is finished in 2017, and we get a new erg room, I’m going to miss erging in that “shitty little closet”.