Behind the Oar: A conversation with Soupergirl

Leanne Yenush

A story about rowing workouts, gallons of gazpacho, and giving back.

The injury was sudden, unexpected, and quietly catastrophic. For Sara Polon, a lifelong athlete and business owner of twelve years, the diagnosis of severe plantar fasciitis meant she was unable to run. Her go-to cardio of choice, the news was disheartening.

“The only way for me to not completely lose it is to exercise and get those endorphins,” Polon says. She’s the founder of Soupergirl (also her Hydrow screen name), a Washington D.C.-based soup company specialising in plant-based cuisine. (BTW, their all-natural soups feature ingredients you can actually pronounce and ship nationwide.) 

In 2018, after ten years in business, Polon and her co-founder went on Shark Tank in an effort to drum up more national exposure. While no shark craved soup in that afternoon’s taping, guest shark and RSE Ventures CEO Matt Higgins had a post-production change of heart and offered to mentor the founders. 

Operations were cranking up. Soupergirl snagged other big media features, including a spot on The TODAY Show last year. Then COVID hit.

Between months in quarantine, isolation from friends and family, and divisive rhetoric across social media, people worldwide have a heightened sense of tension. For Polon, COVID has also meant an added layer of responsibility in ensuring her employees and suppliers were both safe and taken care of at a wild time.

“As a small business owner, especially during COVID, there has never been a lonelier time,” Polon says. “We are on our own here in terms of keeping our people safe, there's no guidance, we're just figuring this out as we go along.”

The ability to decompress with a quick workout was more essential than ever. So it was devastating for Polon to receive this injury diagnosis, especially during this time. Running and most plyometric work were out of the question for the foreseeable future.

“There were basically three options,” Polon says. “Swim, which was not really an option since all the pools are closed; bike, which I do a lot of to commute to and from work anyway; or rowing workouts. Or just lift weights, which I already do, but that's not getting me the cardio.”

So for her main outlet of exercise, she chose to go with Regina. 

Who’s Regina, you ask? The name of Polon’s new Hydrow, of course.

“I definitely named her!” she exclaimed.

After about six weeks of rowing workouts with Hydrow, Polon sat down with Lead Athlete Dani Hansen (a.k.a. “Dani Hani”) to discuss her initial experience with Hydrow, the workouts, and the community.

“A high standard for exercise”

“I was skeptical because I have the attention span of a two year old,” Polon says. “How was I going to be entertained for 20, 30, eventually 45 minutes just doing the same thing over and over again?" 

Newbies to rowing workouts sometimes question its variety, but when done correctly, Hydrow is a total body burn. From calorie-torching leg drives to core, back, and arm engagement, rowing recruits energy from across the entire body simultaneously, making it more effective than cycling and leaving you gassed at first if you’re not used to it.

“Nothing was getting my heart rate up. Nothing was giving me that level that I needed. I have a high standard for exercise,” Polon says.

"(With Hydrow) I’m working my way up, and I cannot believe how quickly the workouts go. You're not just sitting there doing the same thing; there's so much to pay attention to, your split and your technique, and it is so not boring.”

Not surprisingly, Polon’s favourite time of day to hop on Hydrow involves… you guessed it... vegetables.

“I throw some veggies in the oven, run up to Regina, and can get my entire workout done for the day while they cook - it’s perfect!” she exclaims.

“Hop on and zone out”

“The coaches are everything,” Polon says. “I like having something to focus on throughout the rowing workout, and the coaches’ instruction is spot on. My boyfriend on the other hand prefers quiet; he loves to hop on, upload one of the journeys, and zone out.”

The desire to ‘zone out’ during a workout is pretty common amongst cardio lovers. Ever have a “runner’s high”? We prefer the phrase “rower’s high.” Our bodies are wired to enter a bliss-filled zone, even during challenging exercise; this high is called ‘flow state’, and has been studied in pro athletes for decades.

The phrase was first coined in the mid-1970s by Claremont Graduate University psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. In flow state, our minds relax and our brain waves slow down; surprisingly, people often experience this drift into hyper-focused bliss while engaging in vigorous physical activity. 

To tap into your flow state as you exercise, it’s important to create an environment that feels challenging, but within your reach. A Greek study of 220 athletes across seven sports found that when an athlete feels their level of fitness matches or is near the challenge at hand, their sense of control and overall experience is more positive. According to Csikszentmihalyi, “The best moments (of flow) usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult or worthwhile.”

For Polon, Hydrow is a stress reliever. “It’s a game-changer. I’ll be freaking out, I’ll be on very stressful phone calls or connecting with investors, the world will feel like it’s falling apart, and I’ll literally just run up the stairs and hang out with Regina and everything calms down. So it’s more than a workout.”

“Encouragement I’ve never seen before in an exercise community”

Polon found the community of fellow online athletes to be a pleasant surprise. 

“People are so encouraging and I've never seen anything like that in my life from an exercise community. I’ll row sometimes at 11:30pm on a Saturday night and there are other athletes online with me.”

She also loves the donation milestones the company sets for its users. 

“When COVID hit, one of the first things we did was figure out how to give back to the community and be a part of the solution. Our outlook was that If we’re one of the businesses still standing, what can we do to help out our community members? What can we do to just help keep the world afloat? We’ve been working with frontline workers, nonprofits who are nourishing people experiencing food insecurity, and  local farmers to just help as many people as we can.

“Hydrow gives back to its community, too; it’s a good company. As a business owner, I can see when a team cares and its members are doing more than just clocking in and clocking out.”

When it comes to getting out of her head, alleviating stress, and staying injury-free, Polon has made her decision.

“I don't see myself going back to the gym anymore. The convenience is astounding. Because of the live rows and the videos, and because you get to know the different coaches and the community members, it doesn't feel like an online sterile experience. It feels like you're logging onto a community.”

  • Sara Polon (Soupergirl), her Hydrow Regina, and Dani Hani