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Rowers prepare for the return of regattas

$10,000 Canadian Tire Jumpstart grant used to buy single fluid boat for high schoolers
20210515 PURSUIT rowing
Members of a Brock University crew row during a University of Guelph Gryphons regatta co-hosted by the Guelph Rowing Club on Guelph Lake in the fall of 2018. GRC and the Gryphons are hopeful that they can host a regatta again this fall.

Team spirit and the friendships built through involvement with a team or club can be special and are some of the things that have been absent during the COVID-19 pandemic.

That’s true whether the team or club competes on land or on the water.

“With all the new regulations, we've really missed that camaraderie of team, of a sense of team, because you really have to abide by all of the public health protocols and so therefore you come down, you row, you go home,” said Jane McKinnon Wilson, president of the Guelph Rowing Club. “There's really no gathering and you also row in smaller boats – a lot of singles and there are doubles and some crew boats.”

“The university was able to do the crew boats because the students live together,” said Abby Smith, GRC’s communications director and a member of the University of Guelph Gryphons varsity rowing team. “It has changed that team camaraderie that can happen, but I do think we've tried to adjust to it as best we can and really support each other with all the cleaning and all the protocols. It's brought a different type of sense.”

“There's a lot of cleaning that goes on at the club. The boats and the dock have probably never been so clean,” McKinnon Wilson said.

The dock is on the shores of Guelph Lake, steps from its boathouse in the Guelph Lake Conservation Area. The rowers are appreciative of the efforts of the Grand River Conservation Authority that allowed the GRC to get some of its boats on the water last year, but there weren’t as many on at one time as usual and the larger boats remained in the boathouse.

Fewer boats on the water at one time led to a different feel for the club members.

“It's really a family-oriented type of club,” McKinnon Wilson said. “It took some getting used to. It felt very formal, very role oriented and very structured. You kind of get into the groove after a while, but it has lost a bit of that, but we have had a few new members.”

“I'm fairly new to the sport,” Smith said. She’d played rugby and wrestled at high school, but didn’t pursue either at university. Instead she switched sports.

“I've only been rowing about two, three years now,” she said. “My first year I did a Learn To Row (program) with Guelph Rowing Club and it really was that sense of community. I was 19, 20, and I was having conversations with people who had been rowing as long as I'd been alive, so it was great to get that insight and things like that.”

Last year the Gryphons kept up a practice schedule after all Ontario University Athletics sports seasons were cancelled. Those practices, though, were different from the ones they’d had a year earlier.

“Normally we would have a meeting or a debrief after about our row with our coaches, but that was limited,” she said. “Sometimes that was frustrating to not be able to get as much technical advice as you would like to progress in the sport.”

Except for a fun row at the end of the season, there were none of the university eights on the water and time on the lake was limited. At most, the university rowers got three on-water sessions per week and that’s half the normal total.

When the club does get its rowers back on the water this year, it hopes to have its new lightweight boat waiting for its younger members, one of the purchases the club is to make after receiving a Jumpstart Grant of $10,000 from The Canadian Tire Corporation. 

“The grant money is going to be going to a 2020 lightweight single fluid boat for our high school program mostly,” Smith said. “We don't have a ton of boats in the boathouse that allow for petite, lean, tall young athletes to pursue single rowing which provides a lot of learning experience in addition to COVID times where it's very accessible because we can follow physical distancing. Women in sport is also important and we're trying to promote that within our club so this will purchase that single and hopefully allow some of our young female athletes to continue pursuing the sport and show off their rowing abilities and keep learning and things like that.”

“I think what might happen, because they have a boat that will fit them, we might see these younger high school kids really excel,” McKinnon Wilson said. “Part of it is that if you're very petite and in a larger boat, that's hard to row – just the whole coordination and the size. Now we’ll have a boat that will fit the high school athlete.”

However, the club’s high schoolers are now in their second year without a competitive season. It’s held in the spring and both the 2020 and 2021 seasons were called off.

The normal club season is mainly a summer affair while the university season goes in the fall. No regatta has been held since the completion of the university’s 2019 season as all of the 2020 regattas at any level fell victim to the pandemic.

Club members did get to row on a controlled basis last summer and fall while the university team held limited practices.

“Some of our crews live together or three live together and one lives alone so they can row in a four or a quad and that's pretty safe and they can all be in the same carpool,” Smith said. “But eights, you start mixing households and things like that.”

The competition and the camaraderie of regattas were the things missed most last year.

“That's another big sports piece that brings people together because we work as a club together,” McKinnon Wilson said. “We have the food, the barbecue and everything. That was all cancelled and we lost part of that community spirit there as well.”

While this summer’s club regattas have been cancelled, there is a chance that an annual university meet co-hosted by the Gryphons and GRC in September could happen.

“There's hope that we could have that at the club, but again that will be very much dependent on the GRCA, public health (and Rowing Canada),” McKinnon Wilson said. “A lot of our protocols come from Rowing Canada.”

Getting back on the water will be a welcome change from time spent on the ergometer, the stationary boat mainly used indoor during rowing’s off-season.

“It's something that all rowers are used to, but we've done it that much more and that much longer,” Smith said. “Now I'm erging every day instead of out on the water every day. A lot of athletes have gotten more comfortable with the erg or overcome their fear or dislike for it. It's the closest thing we can get to rowing sometimes so now I look forward to it and just try and picture being out on Guelph Lake rather than beside my bed and my closet and erging.”

Returning to the way things were on the water before the pandemic hit is the desire of all rowers.

“I miss seeing people and I miss rowing every day,” Smith said. “I can't wait to wake up at 4 a.m. for six days a week. I just miss the consistency and seeing everyone.”

“The parking lot would be full and you just waited your turn to put your boat in from the dock and away you went,” McKinnon Wilson said. “The things we took for granted would be a privilege to have (now).”