2023 World Rowing Indoor Championships, Mississauga, Toronto, Canada
2023 World Rowing Indoor Championships, Mississauga, Toronto, Canada

Fresh from recent successes in the World Indoor Rowing Championships, World Rowing caught up with Finnish rower Joel Naukkarinen to explore his mindset and his next plans.  

Joel Naukkarinen is well known as a top rower with enormous indoor scores. He started strong when he first participated in an informal 500m indoor race with his senior high school rowing team. Despite falling off his seat mid-race, he still managed to finish with a time of 1:30, the fastest time of the day. His teammates quickly encouraged him to continue rowing.

Naukkarinen has since set numerous world and Finnish records in indoor rowing, including eight world best times in just ten days on sliders after returning triumphant as the first ever men’s Versa Champion from the World Rowing Indoor Championships (WRICH) in Mississauga, Canada. The records varied from 1 minute to an hour to a full marathon.

When asked which distance he favoured the most, he says, “I like everything between 100m and 100k. The different distances require very different abilities and techniques, but if I needed to pick one, the marathon would be my favourite. In racing, there is a fine balance between good preparation and mental toughness, and for the marathon, I was already tired from the previous rows and I was going (relatively) easy with a 1:44 split. I then found a special mental state and a real beast mode kicked in, and I finished with an average of 1:40,5/500m.”

Joel Naukkarinen, Men’s Single Sculls, Finland, 2022 World Rowing Championships, Racice, Czech Republic / World Rowing/Benedict Tufnell

Hailing from Finland, the brisk weather likely helped hone Naukkarinen’s indoor rowing prowess.  Throughout winter, it is dark, just six hours in southern Finland and Lapland, in the north, there could be fifty days without any sunlight at all, “it is best to dig in your cave and ergo”, he says matter-of-factly. It is also cold, as despite Finland being home to thousands of lakes, they are frozen for half the year. However, Naukkarinen believes it is not just the climate that gives Finns an edge, but their attitude, “Finns have their own word ”sisu”. It is described as willpower, persistence, and determination regardless of cost. Indoor rowing fits that mentality well.”

Reflecting on what it takes to be such a force on the erg, Naukkarinen says, “It is mostly mental. I am able to push deep. Indoor rowing is the toughest sport I know, not just during the racing but also tolerating training the long miles, the hurting intervals, disappointing results and hard times. I am not the tallest rower, and I do not see my physical abilities as exceptional, but rather, my number one ability is that I enjoy doing this. I have been willing to do it day after day with all of those ups and downs. Not despite them but because of them.”

Building on this theme, he adds, “I would encourage anyone looking to improve their performance to work with their mind. Start by listening to your values. What is that you want? What is the commitment required? How are those related to the expectations of people around you? It can be easy to skip or be negligent with it, but doing it carefully pays off. After that, the rest will follow.”

While indoor rowing has been his main focus, Naukkarinen also has ample experience in both coastal and flat-water rowing. He says, “these types of rowing are so different, and that is the beauty of rowing for me. Coastal rowing requires exceptional ability to react to the environment given the changing conditions and the other crews. It involves various skills and cognitive performances under physical strain, which makes it difficult. In contrast for indoor rowing, “the raw physical performance allows the athlete to find the limits of physiology.”

Naukkarinen’s focus will now be on flat-water rowing. “I really respect the aim for perfection and the fine-tuning of technique and equipment on the water, with strong athletes doing sensitive work with such precision and repeating that stroke cycle millions of times to make it better,” he gushes.

His biggest goal is to compete in the Olympics. Naukkarinen recently announced his retirement from indoor rowing on social media to focus on flat-water rowing. This includes intense preparation for the flat-water season with a training camp in Gavirate, Italy.  “Indoor rowing is a sport that I can return to later, possibly, but the time for that other goal is now,” concludes Naukkarinen with his trademark determination.

You can follow Naukkarinen’s rowing journey on his Instagram @rowingfinn