Because of health concerns with athletes cutting weight, USRowing is considering a radical change, one that would not sit well with many in the sport, including 16-year-old Sarina Samuel, a rising junior at Miami Beach High.
Currently in rowing, there’s a lightweight division — under 130 pounds for females and under 150 pounds for males — and an open category for everyone else. The proposal, which USRowing is set to decide on by July 31, would eliminate the lightweight division, effecting thousands of rowers nationwide.
There are more than 75,000 competitive rowers in the United States, and perhaps about 40 percent of them are lightweights. The proposal by USRowing would not affect collegiate athletes, but it would eliminate the lightweight division at the youth level.
So here’s why USRowing is considering this: To make the lightweight division, some rowers cut 15 or more pounds in a short amount of time, which can be dangerous to one’s health.
But coaches and rowers say that mistakes made by some should not be used to penalize the athletes who are natural lightweights.
Sammy Merenfeld, a 15-year-old from North Miami Beach, said USRowing’s proposal would likely lead to him and many others quitting the sport.
“At 135 pounds naturally, this decision would take away my only chance of competing,” said Merenfeld, a rising sophomore at Hillel Community School. “I think it relates to others in the sport, too. We’re not going to stay and just lose to the guys bigger than us. It would probably end with me looking for some other sport.”
Samuel, a member of the Miami Beach Rowing Club, first heard about the possible elimination of the lightweight division on May 20, when her coach, Vladimir Matovic, broke the news. Matovic planned to make T-shirts to show his displeasure with USRowing.
But Samuel had a better idea.
On May 27, Samuel started a “Save Lightweight Rowing” petition on change.org, hoping for 1,000 signatures. However, within eight hours, Samuel, with the help of her teammates messaging every rowing team possible, had more than 2,000 signatures.
By the time Youth Nationals arrived two weeks later in Sarasota, they had more than 10,000 signatures, which they sent to the CEO of US Rowing, Patrick McNerney, and the organization’s board members.
“For a 16-year-old, she has a lot of courage,” Matovic said. “As a club, we were thinking to send a letter to USRowing, but she was faster than us. And it’s better if it comes from the kids.”
Matovic said that USRowing held a meeting with coaches on June 9 at Youth Nationals. It’s a meeting, he believes, that would not have been held if not for the pressure exerted by Samuel.
But Matovic said the meeting was held on the Sunday after Youth Nationals had finished, and many of the coaches had flown home. Matovic estimates that only 30 out of 225 coaches were able to attend the two-hour session.
(McNerney did not respond to repeated calls to his office for comment.)
Still, Matovic believes Samuel’s petition has given those on his side of this fight a chance.
“Before she stepped up, I think there was a 99 percent chance [they would eliminate the lightweight division],” Matovic said. “Now, I think it’s 50-50.”
Samuel, who at 5-7 and 124 pounds is comfortably under the lightweight limit, said taking up this fight was an easy decision.
“I knew I had to take a stand,” Samuel said. “I’ve been rowing competitively since the eighth grade, and there’s not one thing about the sport I don’t love, from training, to sportsmanship, my coaches and teammates and, of course, racing and being competitive.
“This was not something I was willing to let go. Rowing is my life.”
(Editor’s note: The petition now has more than 14,000 signatures and counting. To get involved, visit www.change.org/p/usrowing-save-lightweight-rowing)