BRANFORD — On the day Joe Criscuolo first took a class at PULL Rowing, the South Main Street studio next to the old Branford Theater, he barely got through it. Before then, he’d rarely exercised. He was out of shape. He was, as he put it, “saggy.”
Still, he went back. Soon, “I was hooked,” said the North Branford resident, one of the main protagonists in the story of how, in the space of one week in late March, PULL Rowing became Crew Rowing.
“There were the unique workouts,” he said, of the low-impact, cardio-based rowing drills combined with high-intensity strength training. “And also the camaraderie. I looked forward to it. I think all the members did.”
Then, on Feb. 16, came an email from the owners of PULL Rowing. The company had decided to go in a different direction and would be closing the studio. The last day of classes would be Saturday, March 30.
“At first it was like a death in the family,” said April Palmer, a co-owner, with husband Jim, and with Criscuolo and his wife Deb, of Crew Rowing. “People were distraught. There were tears and hugging. But then we rallied. We had six weeks. No way were we going to let this place close.”
There were meetings — in the lounge of the gym, at the houses of members. There were ideas
— members purchasing individual rowers, for example — that floated and sank. There were more meetings. Members came forward only to get cold feet. Others, like Criscuolo and his wife, eagerly took the plunge.
“We really wanted to be in on this happening,” Criscuolo said.
All along, the clock was ticking. If no agreement was reached by Monday, April 1, the doors of PULL rowing would clang shut for good.
The final class was on Saturday, March 30. Six days before, April and Jim had signed a lease for the space. On Sunday, they, along with the Criscuolos, paid the former owners for the rowers, the equipment, and furniture.
That’s hardly the only thing they did that late-March Sunday. The four newly minted co-owners changed all the names and the logo which Jim, an accomplished artist, had created.
They replaced the sign with the new name of the business.
“Another member helped us with the research,” Jim Palmer said. “We wanted Crew Rowing because it describes what the sport is, first of all, and it also describes a group of people who have bonded together and are rowing together as a crew. The name was available, so we grabbed it.”
Late Sunday night, March 31, they completed the transformation. Then, April Palmer said, “came a lot of praying.”
“We didn’t have a client list,” she said. “The website we used for people to sign up for classes wasn’t up and running, and the merchant account wasn’t either.”
She told as many members as she could to “just show up and we’d work it out later,” she said.
They showed up Monday morning and, in the five weeks since, they’ve kept coming, and in ever greater numbers.
The reason, according to Jim Palmer, was not just the sleek WaterRowers that use water to mimic rowing on a river and afford a fluid motion. Nor was it rowing itself which, as Nicole Catanese of Harper’s Bazaar writes, “might be the most effcient exercise ever,” with its cardiovascular benefits, and the way it works all the major muscle groups while burning up to 600 to 800 calories per hour.
“It was really what the former owners called ‘the magic sauce,’ he said, referring to rowing intervals interspersed with dynamic strength exercises with kettlebells and medicine balls, as well as weighted plank variations, push-ups, lunges and squats.
Not to mention the trainers, whose expertise, warmth, and sense of fun, “have played such a large role in making Crew Rowing what it is,” Jim Palmer said.
Those trainers were, in part, what lured Branford’s Theresa Ferguson back; it was also the variety of their workouts. “They’re different every time, so you never get bored. Plus I’ve lost 16 inches and 22 pounds since I joined,” she said.
For Linda MacLean, “it’s a stress-reliever, and I’m just a lot stronger and a lot more toned.” Because there are only 12 rowers, “the classes are small, so you always get a lot of individualized attention from the trainers.”
Then there’s the spa-like setting. “We’re carrying on a legacy that we came to love and respect,” said April. “Like the former owners, we keep the space immaculate. There’s never any dirt or dust. Everyone gets an individual towel, a cold compress to cool down. Water bottles get filled during workouts. It’s like nowhere else.”
Above all, though, their members “came back for the people,” as Ferguson put it. “Everyone encourages each other, everyone is cheering each other on. There are a lot of sweaty high- fives.”
In the end, said Frank Carrano, “as much as we were all devoted to the former owners, once we recognized that it was more than them that drew us here, it was up to us to keep it going.”
Criscuolo agreed. “Sure I’ve lost a lot of weight, a lot of inches. And I feel better. I have more stamina. I just feel good about myself,” he said. “But it’s really about the people, the crew. It’s the crew that made this work.”
BRANFORD — To explain the continuing dominance of champion swimmer Michael Phelps, scientists identified his 80-inch wingspan, double-jointed ankles and paddle-like hands. For Alex Bregman, the Houston Astros All-Star third baseman, it’s his abnormally short arms that keep him from overswinging on outside pitches.
Add Jim Palmer, co-owner of Branford’s Crew Rowing, to the list of biomechanical phenoms.
On Friday, July 5, the 65-year-old quietly completed a marathon row. That’s 42,195 meters, or
26.2 miles. It took him four hours and 10 minutes. He could have kept going.
According to Tom Holeva, former owner of Pull Rowing and endurance runner, that’s quite a feat.
“It’s probably physically harder on your body to row a marathon than to run a marathon because it engages five major muscle groups, and also 85 percent of the muscles in your body,” he said.
“If you were to ask a decent endurance athlete to row even 5,000 meters, they would probably struggle.”
That’s how it started, when someone challenged Palmer to row 5,000 meters, roughly 3.1 miles. At the time, he’d been rowing regularly at Pull Rowing (now Crew Rowing) for about 18 months.
“I like a challenge,” the Westbrook resident said. “I like to challenge myself.”
Not long after, he rowed 5,000 meters with surprising ease. In the next weeks he completed an 8,000-, then a 10,000-meter row, and then a half-marathon, a distance of 13.1 miles. It took him 105 minutes. His heart rate never exceeded 120.
“I’m not the fastest rower out there, I don’t have particularly strong legs, I’ve had a knee replacement, and should have the other replaced, and people who are really good rowers couldn’t do longer distances, they’d get chafed with their clothing, or just plain wear out, but for some reason it seemed like I could row these distances,” he said.
On further examination, there are some clues.
When Palmer was growing up, for example, “it was a family joke that I could split wood for 8 to 10 hours straight,” he recalled.
Palmer is also the fourth-generation owner of Smedley Crane and Rigging in Branford.
“We’re moving heavy machinery, big pieces of manufacturing equipment,” he said. “Sometimes we’re on long physical jobs for 40 hours or so.”
He’s been doing those kinds of physical jobs through prep school and college, and full-time for 45 years.
Then there were his exploits reeling in giant bluefin tuna out of Block Island and Montauk for many years.
“I would be the designated angler,” he said. “They would put me in a chair for four or more hours just because of my build, the tuna would be pulling as hard as it could.”
The motion, it turns out, of pushing, then sliding backward on the footrest, and then reeling on the way down, is similar to rowing. In fact, fishermen routinely do off-season training on rowers.
Whatever explains his rare gift for endurance rowing, there was Palmer at the Crew Rowing studio on Friday, July 5. He’d told few of his quest — his co-owner Joe Criscuolo and a few of the trainers at Pull Rowing, including his wife April.
At the beginning, he “lacked energy and initiative,” he said.
Then, with the flamenco music of Latin string guitarist Jesse Cook pulsating through the space, he gradually he got into a groove. He took breaks every 7,000 meters, drinking water and eating bites of banana. As in any endurance contest, there were mental struggles. There were mind games.
“At a certain point in the middle I just wasn’t feeling it and then I said to myself, just get to 21K, make an evaluation, and then I was at 28K and I started thinking I can do this,” he said.
That was when Criscuolo dropped in. Palmer was going faster, in strokes per minute, than when Criscuolo pushed himself in a class. “It was crazy,” he said.
Though Palmer, upon finishing, once again “felt great,” there were some very real dangers he faced in its aftermath.
According to a Massachusetts General Hospital study, there is an effect of “too much exercise” on heart health, including “plaque build-up and scar tissue in the heart, even in patients who have no other objective risk factors for heart disease,” it reads.
In other words, “this isn’t something that people should try at home,” Holeva said.
Still, what Palmer did “is definitely a unique accomplishment,” he said. “Anyone who knows our sport of rowing will tell you that.”
Palmer’s message is simple. “You can surprise yourself on how much you can do. If you stay committed, you can get to physical levels that you never imagined.
Fair enough, but especially, it seems, if you’re uniquely built for it.