It Sucks to Be An “A” Masters Rower

Welcome to a rant on the US Rowing Master’s handicap system!

I completely understand why the handicap/age category system is in place. Of course a 60-year-old is less likely to row as fast as a 35-year-old. I have no dispute on the system. Nor am I educated enough to decide if the actual time deductions for your age are accurate and relevant. Not my place and not the purpose of this post.

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No. I’m personally stating an opinion:

Being a “AA” (24-26) or “A” (27-35) sucks.

Observation No. 1: Where are the As?

A reporter recently interviewed me about rowing. I prepared by researching the growth of Master’s Rowing in the U.S. Shocking fact: the “A” age group is the most populated. (The 55-59 ranks second.)

I did a double-take. Really? Seriously? There are more “A’s” than anything else?

My experience has been it’s stupidly hard to find other rowers in my age bracket. I was probably the youngest member of Sarasota County Rowing for all seven years I rowed there. I can think of 4 other current/former members who were an “A” during my time there. That’s right. FOUR. Not even one hand.

Expand out of SCRC, to other Florida clubs. Now I can readily think of another SIX who were/are at some point in the last five years in the “A” group. Now we’re up to 10! Woo-hoo.

So US Rowing says my age bracket has the most members. Big question:


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Alan pointed out to think about the demographics of where we were. Florida. The “blue-hair” state. Resident average age: 42.  Sarasota: average age 45.

Okay, that makes sense. Maybe in the Northeast there are more rowers skewing younger.

Plus that US Rowing bracket might include some rowers who are actually collegiate or elite rowers.

But still. Look at the entries for the Master’s Nationals in Grand Rapids. There are 16 entries in the Women’s AA 1x. Only six are actually AA. One is a B. There are 11 entries in the Women’s A 1x. One is actually a B and one a C.

The Women’s LWT F-K 1x has 18 entries. 18! Women’s G-K? 15! You go girls!

Observation No. 2: No one wants to row with you

Not unless you’re a super beast with serious elite credentials who can literally pull an entire 8+ down a course.

Otherwise, you become a liability. There’s a reason my second nickname was “Handicap Killer.” Masters use handicaps strategically. It was getting horrible until regattas finally caught onto separating under 40/50s and over 40/50s. I don’t know how many seats I’ve lost because my age dropped the boat from one category.  I can’t blame them. In a head race, I can’t beat a two-minute+ raw time deduction.

Sure, they’ll row with you in practice, because the boat goes faster. But race with you? Pfft. Forget it.

Observation No. 3: Your racing is limited

Again, I understand the rationale and rules behind the system. It’s not fair for me to go head-to-head against someone 15, 20 or more years older, and vice versa. It’s not fair to them.

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But think about it: an “AA” can only race in the “AA” 1x. As an “A,” I can only race in the “AA” or “A” single. But as a “B” it starts opening more. Now I can enter in three different 1x events.

Factor back in the average-age-for-boats things, and it really starts to open up as a B. You’re old enough to not drastically drop handicaps for C/D boats. You can easily row in AA/A/B events.

Sometimes I’m trying to make a boat for a specific event, but I’m just too young to make it fit the age category. Like our Women’s A 2- at Worlds. If Holly or I had been just ONE year older, or if FISA rounded ages UP instead of down, we would’ve been a Women’s B 2- and B 2x.

The wrap-up

I’m racing at Masters Nationals next weekend. I managed to get into 5 boats. And yes, I had a hard time finding other women close to my age bracket to race with. I was told “no, too young,” to a few boats. I have no races Saturday because the event line-up isn’t friendly to us young ones. It’s immensely frustrating.

That’s my piece. Being an “A” has sucked. I can’t wait to graduate to a “B” (36-42) next year.

About camckenna

I write; I row.
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2 Responses to It Sucks to Be An “A” Masters Rower

  1. 8junebugs says:

    BWAH! At least no one has called me Handicap Killer to my face.

    I started at nearly 37 and am now 42; for the first few years, I was the youngest on my team…by quite a bit. That’s shifted as we’ve gained (much) younger rowers, but now I’m in the middle–I still tank the handicap of the F boats, I need epic speed to win a seat in the A boats, and B-C events are lower priority for us right now. And although I’m pleased with the training and results since I came back to the team, I also have little kids and have to take my land training where I can get it.

    I’m glad it’s not just me! And hi from Oakland/EBRC–you raced with my team at Nats and that’s how I got here. 🙂

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