Rowing Canada's 'death machine' grooms champions

It is a storied place in Olympic sport, the room where a rowing eight toils on the nightmare "ergometer." It's where Canada's best rowers test their pain tolerance.

Indoor training on rowing machines a key to success in cold climate

Christine Roper, a member of Canada's women's eight rowing team, believes indoor training is crucial to building an Olympic medallist.

By Callum Ng, CBC Sports

Olympic rowers know two training places excruciatingly well, on the water and wherever the "ergs" are.

"Erg stands for ergometer, which is the stationary rowing machine that we train on," said Christine Roper, one of eight women plus a coxswain in Canada's largest Olympic rowing crew.

"Or death machine, pain machine, hard machine, anything that you want to put that's not pleasant before the word machine," she adds.

Roper is tall and strong, like her teammates, and they spend about 25 per cent of their training time at Rowing Canada's indoor home — the erg centre — in London, Ont. The remainder is spent rowing on the nearby Fanshawe Reservoir, at least when it's not frozen.

Indoors, Canadian rowers will train, lined up in a row, on the dreaded ergs with no place to hide. "When you're on an erg it's just you," said Roper, 26, who was born in Montego Bay, Jamaica.

She moved to Canada in 2011 after graduating from the University of Virginia. 

"I think [the ergs are] probably the biggest contributor to our training and the things that we need to do to go fast, but they're never fun and they're never easy. All morning you're nervous and you're scared," she said.

One-stop shop

While the building is named after the feared machines, the London version also houses other training equipment, a comfortable lounge, athlete kitchen, staff offices and therapy areas.

Everything the athletes (currently four Olympic boats and one Paralympic boat) need is under one roof.

"When you're outside of it, it just looks like a brick building, nothing flash. When you go inside, it's quite a vibrant place," said Canada's women's coach John Keogh, who helped lead the eight to a silver at the 2012 London Games.

Before the centre opened in 2010, the Canadian rowers would have to drive to various location around town for their training. Keogh said the support the erg centre provides is crucial for improvement on the water.

Although an indoor centre is also an adaptation for the Canadian climate, Australia and New Zealand have similar facilities.

"It's a really important part of what we do in rowing, to have a place that we can call our own," said Keogh, who also credits the high standard of personnel — athletes and staff — for the program's success.

The women's eight can continue their streak at major events with a medal in Rio. Since a silver at the most recent Olympic Games, the boat has won a medal at three consecutive world championships (bronze in 2013, silver in 2014, bronze in 2015).

The Canadians will have to be at their best to challenge the heavily favoured U.S. squad. The Americans have owned the women's eight, winning the last 10 world titles.

The women's eight competition at the Rio Olympics begins on Aug. 8.