Allen Rosenberg Transformed Olympic Rowing: What can his methods do for your swimming?
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on December 15th, 2013

This week, TI Coach Bill Lang sent me a link to a NY Times obituary for Allen Rosenberg,the US national coach for rowing in the 1960s and 1970s, a period of transformation in rowing form and philosophy. Bill shared this with me because he saw such strong parallels between Rosenberg’s principles and those of TI. See if you agree.

Rosenberg, a former coxswain, stood just 5’1” and weighed barely 100 lbs, but  earned the faith and respect of athletes more than twice his size because his methods produced such striking results.

Most notably, he was the U.S. Olympic coach in 1964 in Tokyo, where the American heavyweight eight — eight rowers plus a coxswain, the showcase event in world rowing — reclaimed the gold medal the U.S. had lost in 1960 after decades of domination.  He also coached a gold-medal boat in the 1974 World Championships in Lausanne, Switzerland.


While Rosenberg transformed the sport in the 60s, his influence endures 50 years later.

These excerpts from the article illustrate:

By profession, he was a lawyer and a pharmacist, and he used academic-like acuity to help transform rowing from a brute enterprise into a modern amalgam of science and sport.

“More than any coach I’ve ever known, he studied how to make a boat move,”  said Ken Brown, who, at 6-3 and 194 pounds, was one of the smaller rowers on the 1974 championship boat. “He took what was often a frenetic way — putting the oar in the water and whaling away at it — to something more relaxed.  His constant comments were about lightness of hands and relaxing and balancing in the recovery part of the stroke. Concentrate on a long pull in the water, quiet and even. The less water you disturb, the faster the boat goes.”

The traditional rowing motion in the United States employed a collective burst of power. Rosenberg taught his rowers to fire  muscle groups in rotation rather than all at once. He explained its logic by using the metaphor of  moving a boulder.

“Some coaches say that if you want to move it, you put everything you’ve got into a single great heave. I contend that it is better to use muscle groups in sequence — legs, shoulders, backs, arms — because the problem is not merely to budge the boulder but to keep it rolling as smoothly as possible. No worthwhile races are won by crews who work the entire distance.

Applying the ‘Rosenberg Principles’ to Swimming

Swimming and rowing are similar in two ways:

  • * Both feature a ‘human-powered vessel.’
  • * Both were traditionally thought of as brute-force-and-fitness enterprises.

Swimming and rowing differ in even more significant ways:

  • * In rowing the vessel is perfectly designed to travel at high speed while barely disturbing the water. The rower must think only of applying strong, steady pressure to the water via the blade.
  • * In swimming, the ‘vessel’ is perfectly designed to disturb the water a great deal at even the slowest speeds.  The swimmer must divide attention between reducing drag and creating propulsion.
  • * A men’s heavyweight crew races over a 5000m course, finishing in about 5:30 at a rate that rarely exceeds 40 strokes per minute. I.E. An Olympic rower must take only 200 or so strokes to complete the distance.
  • * A typical triathlete (or open water competitor) racing 1.5k is likely to swim for some 35 minutes at a rate of 60 or so strokes per minute. I.E. An open water swimmer must take at least 10 times as many strokes as an Olympic rower!
  • * Despite the greater difficulties and demands of swimming, old-school thinking—faster, harder strokes as the recipe for speed—has been far more resistant to change than in rowing.

The similarities of TI technique and Rosenberg technique are manifest:

  1. Those who minimize workload win races. Not those who work hardest.
  2. Focus more on stroke length. Less on rate.
  3. Apply steady pressure. Not hard.
  4. Don’t disturb the water. Especially during recovery!
  5. Keep hands light for overall relaxation and to ‘keep the boulder moving.’



9 Responses to “Allen Rosenberg Transformed Olympic Rowing: What can his methods do for your swimming?”

  1. Rob says:

    You hit the nail on the head. Lots of parallels between the two. In the past, I often referred to TI when coaching rowing to recreational and masters crews. The example of stroke rate and Mark Spitz was especially convincing. (P.S.: I still think swimming is way harder than rowing!)

  2. Mariah Burton Nelson says:

    Great article, Terry.

    I was privileged to study rowing with Allen Rosenberg for a week at Craftsbury Rowing Camp many years ago.

    Yes, he was notorious for coaching us to be relaxed and smooth and efficient in our rowing strokes – a very TI approach.

    Thanks for this post about this wise, gentle soul.

  3. Bob D Weakley says:

    This was a good read for me seeing how one support the other the swimmer/the Olympic rowing.

  4. Gail Flint says:

    Great article and great comparison. I have some people who are self professed rocks, keeping the boulder moving will keep them motivated.

  5. Michael Levy says:


    This takes me back more than 15 years when I was just starting to work on TI technique at the same time I was learning to scull. I wrote to you back then about the similarities of the two sports. This confirms that my impressions were not unique to me.

    Today, as a much better rower, I still focus on the similarities. My rowing coach talks about staying connected to the water. He means that from the “catch” when the oars grab the water, to the finish, when they come out, the whole body should move as one piece. The oars should be moving in sync with the rest of the body as you drive with the whole body. When I swim, I keep the same idea in mind. From the catch in my stroke, when i start the downward pull, I never want my hand moving any faster than my hip. That means that my shoulders and arms are not driving my stroke; the roll of my body is. When I get it right, my streamlining is better, my swimming is easier, and my injuries are non-existent.


  6. Armagh says:

    I believe you mean a men’s heavyweight 8 covers 2000 meters in 5:30, not 5000 meters.

  7. Peter says:

    Love the comparison! I’ve found there are a lot of us former rowers in the triathlon world and these connections are important.

    That said, I should point out that Olympic rowing races are typically 2000m, not 5000. The current world record for coxed eight is about 5:20.

    Also, your third paragraph is a wholesale direct quote from the obituary and should be identified as such.

  8. Mary Howard says:

    Just a quick correction. The standard crew race is 2000m not 5000m. The 5:30 time is for 2000M.
    -Mary Howard, TI fanatic and former National Team rower.

  9. Ben Lawrence says:

    This is a terrific reminder. If it weren’t for your tutelage, I’d often be getting sucked into water battles “fighting” to keep up with swimmers more experienced than I.
    Your voice/written word is constantly playing in my head, especially during hard sets when my heart rate is climbing.
    Merry Christmas to you and family!

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