Olympic rowing vs coastal rowing: This Hong Kong junior team member has mastered both

Serious rowers usually only focus on fine rowing, but Dylan Robinson of German Swiss International School learned open water techniques as well

Kelly Ho |

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Hong Kong teen rower Dylan Robinson was born in Hong Kong and was raised in the US.

If you take a look at the Hong Kong junior rowing team, one member stands out – Dylan Robinson, the only non-local rower on the team.

Despite the language barrier, he has formed a close-knit relationship with his teammates, and found his bearings as an up-and-coming rower for the city.

The 17-year-old was born in Hong Kong and was raised in the United States, before he returned to the city seven years ago.

He picked up rowing in 2015, but his career didn’t officially begin until two years later, when he joined the youth development programme and later made the junior representative team.

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Before 2017, Dylan tried coastal rowing, otherwise known as open water rowing, which is very different from the Olympic event held on calm waters – which is sometimes referred to as fine rowing.

Dylan explains that coastal rowers have to cope with more unpredictable conditions because there are often strong waves, and no fixed lanes.

The two events also demand different skill sets – fine water rowers have to focus on constantly rowing as quickly as possible, whereas coastal workers have to make sure they keep the ends of their oars in the water so the blade doesn’t fight with the waves.

It is quite rare for a novice to learn both forms at the start, as most beginners would train on rowing machines, learning fine rowing. Dylan believes his knowledge and experience of rowing in open water helped him build a solid foundation for both forms of the sport.

Dylan (far left) started rowing in 2015, and he learned open water techniques.
Photo courtesy of Dylan Robinson

Regardless of the type of event, though, rowing is generally considered a gruelling sport. Not many people can endure the long outdoor races, or commit to early morning practices.

“The initial skills for rowing are very simple, so the sport is quite easy to pick up. But if you want to go far, it requires a lot of effort and mental strength. The amount of training matters a lot,” says Dylan, who trains six days a week.

The German Swiss International School student notes that without his teammates, who serve as his support system, he probably wouldn’t have kept up with the sport.

“Rowing is such a team thing, it is where I’ve found some of my best friends,” he says.

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“The atmosphere in the team is so supportive and enjoyable that makes me want to attend practice every day.”

The teen rower still clearly remembers that on his first day with the junior team, he was met with rough weather conditions, such as a tailwind (wind blowing from behind) and large waves.

Four kilometres into his 16km practice piece, Dylan embarrassed himself in front of the new coach and the whole team by capsizing his boat.

The coach still asked him to row to the finish line. That rough first day still serves as a reminder that he must stay the distance no matter what.

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“That was probably the worst time I ever had while rowing, but it really helped me in the future, because I knew that even if the conditions were so bad, I could still push through,” he said.

With his tenacious spirit and optimistic personality, Dylan has proven to be an asset to the team.

Last year, he helped the team win a bronze medal in the Junior Men’s Four event at the 2018 Asian Rowing Junior Championships held in Korea.

He will have another chance to shine in December, when he’ll pair up with a teammate to strive for a gold medal in the Junior Men’s Pair event.

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Speaking of his partner, Dylan says that, given the difference in their physique, he thought rowing with him might not work out.

“I’m tall and skinny, while my partner is short and stocky, I’m not sure why our coach stuck with us,” he says, with a laugh.

After adjusting their rowing styles, though, the unlikely pair has emerged as the team’s gold medal hope. “It was really tough in the first month, but we got through it. I had to shorten my stroke a bit, and he had to lengthen his – but we matched up eventually.”

Although Dylan is spending more time training in flat water, he admits the thrill of competing in and watching coastal rowing races cannot be beat.

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The Year 12 student will have a chance to watch and learn from the best from around the world soon, as the World Coastal Rowing Championship is set to take place in Hong Kong next month.

“I’m too young to take part in the race this year, but I will definitely be watching,” he says.

“There may be some Olympians from the Hong Kong team racing, too. I’m really hoping they will do well.”