With Christmas on the horizon, I have two words for you! Steve! Fairbairn!
Yes, that most fascinating, most frustrating, most stimulating of rowing coaches who ever lived! The first volume of his collected works is now available for the first time in 60 years, available as an eBook for just $9.99. One might say, “Cheap at twice the price!” and it would be the understatement of the century!
Check www.amazon.com. Search for “Steve Fairbairn.” In America, this is what you will see:
Fairbairn made rowing controvertial
During his lifetime, Steve Fairbairn’s approach to rowing was part of everyday British conversation for rowers and non-rowers alike, like religion or politics, which rowing has often resembled.
Canada’s 2008 Olympic Champion Coach Mike Spracklen: “Steve was a controversial character who loved an argument – particularly with the proponents of English Orthodoxy.”
In those days, British rowing was ruled by an approach to technique as rigid as a cast-iron corset . . . and Steve merrily railed against the status quo with which he so passionately disagreed!
Was Fairbairn the Moses of rowing, leading his followers out of bondage . . . or was he the Antichrist? This was furiously debated around the globe for decades as far around the world as the British Empire extended, as far as the Far East and the Antipodes. Steve’s name was synonymous with good technique in the Low Countries, Germany, Eastern Europe, Russia, the Far East and the Americas, but all they did in Britain was argue about him. Editorials concerning his approach to rowing technique appeared not on the sports pages but on the front page of The Times of London, for Heaven’s sake.
And Steve adored it all, adored the attention, adored the controversy, adored the adulation of his legions of followers.
Historian Geoffrey Page: “He was frequently accused of ruining English rowing, mainly by what he termed the ‘Orthodox Brigade.’ He always had a ready answer to his critics, of course, and in one of the many letters he wrote, he said, ‘People have said to me: “If that is rowing, I don’t know anything about rowing.” To which I have replied, “I never said you did.”’. . . ”
British 1936 Olympic Champion Coach Jumbo Edwards: “I always felt that Steve in his engaging, mischievous way wrote his books not to be taken too literally but to give the oarsman food for thought and to rectify the exaggerations of Orthodoxy.”
Harvard’s immortal multiple Olympic Medalist Coach Harry Parker: “You have to make an allowance for the fact that Steve was fighting a religion, and you have to overstate things to get your point across. He had a lot of it really right, but he overstated some of it.”
Spracklen: “Steve introduced his own ideas, and his crews were successful, but instead of respect for his achievements, he found himself under attack from the English coaches. They disliked his criticism of their style, and it is evident that there was some envy of his success.
“Fairbairn was unforgiving with his criticism of the way they rowed. His outspoken and provocative comments annoyed the English coaches, who defended the way they rowed vehemently. But Fairbairn’s success gave him confidence and his criticisms increased, which served only to drive the two sides further apart. The press jumped on to the bandwagon, which only escalated the antagonism between the two sides.”
The long list of issues concerning rowing technique that Steve Fairbairn raised and addressed at the beginning of the 20th Century has not been expanded in all the years since. He had already identified and discussed in meticulous detail every aspect of technique that a modern coach must also deal with today, and almost every single choice he made back then has strong and successful adherents in today’s international rowing field. In fact, between 85% and 95% of 21st Century World and Olympic finalists can trace their rowing roots directly back to Steve Fairbairn!
If he were alive today, Steve would quickly conclude that most rowers worldwide have been following a modern descendent of his sworn enemy English Orthodoxy for 60 years now. I can only imagine how pleased he would be to discover that he is as relevant today as he was in his own era.
A century ago, Steve Fairbairn was a prolific writer
When I began my research for The Sport of Rowing, I desperately needed a copy of his complete works. Couldn’t find one. Out of print for decades . . . and whenever a copy surfaced, it would cost hundreds, even thousands of dollars.
About that same time, a good friend of mine was heading to the annual masters’ regatta at Henley. He combed the antiquarian bookshops for me and came back with a well-thumbed but very expensive copy of the most recent edition from 1951. My true appreciation of rowing technique began the day I received my copy of Steve Fairbairn On Rowing. It has since become my “little red book.”
I am very proud to be part of the team that is bringing Fairbairn’s complete works to a new generation of rowers and coaches in a series of affordable eBook volumes. The idea began with Diana Cook of Richard Way Bookseller in Henley-on-Thames, and Rebecca Caroe of Rowperfect.co.uk has made it a reality. Kudos to you both. Jonathan Lewis and Jürgen Hess are doing the hard work behind the scenes, and as a rowing historian, coach and recipient of so much good from my many teams and teammates over the years, I am more than pleased to donate the introductions and text commentaries. Imagine my pride!
Rarely do I use my blog to make purchase recommendations, but this is a worthy exception. The new eBook edition of Fairbairn’s earliest works is a great holiday present for every member of the world rowing family. And while you’re at it, get one for yourself. Read it, savor it, and share in Steve Fairbairn’s unbridled passion for our magnificent sport.
But don’t take my word for it . . .
The willowy sway of the hands away
And the water boiling aft,
The elastic spring and the steely fling
That drives the flying craft.
The steely spring and the musical ring
Of the blade with the biting grip,
And the stretching draw of the bending oar
That rounds the turn with a whip.
And the lazy float that runs the boat,
And makes the swing quite true,
And gives that rest that the oarsman blest
As he drives the blade right through.
All through the swing he hears the boat sing
As she glides on her flying track,
And he gathers aft to strike the craft
With a ringing bell-note crack.
From stretcher to oar with drive and draw,
He speeds the boat along.
All whalebone and steel and a willowy feel
That is the oarsman’s song.
– Steve Fairbairn