Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Rowing club a big draw for curious, Oly medallist

Open house marks start of season

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When the Winnipeg Rowing Club holds an open house, visitors can find themselves standing next to an Olympian without even knowing it.

It's that kind of place, where part of the charm is that the elite athletes and novices can rub elbows and wipe down boats like equals.

The venerable club held an open house Saturday and Winnipegger Janine Hanson came to dip her oar in the Red. It's the first week that's been possible on the river.

Hanson is the Olympian who won silver in the 2012 London Games as part of Canada's women's eight rowing team. At 30, she's retired from competitive racing and has returned home to Winnipeg and back to the club to row for fun.

"Purely recreational," she said firmly.

The open house officially marked the beginning of the rowing season and a chance to drop by and find out if the sport is a good fit.

About every 15 minutes, somebody did just that, said rowers manning the table at the club's front doors on Lyndale Drive.

Meanwhile, athletes were busy getting out on the water again.

The attraction is the same whether you're an Olympian or a novice -- the feeling of bonding with the water. That doesn't change whether you're a novice or a champion, Hanson said.

"I came out Thursday morning and I felt like it was Christmas morning, I was so excited to get back out," she said. "It was my time since October."

Founded in 1881, the Winnipeg Rowing Club has a storied history of competitive racing, with a list of championship and Olympic rowers that includes Hanson and a host of others. Recently, the list has included Olympic rowers such as Jeff Powell (Athens 2004), Kevin Kowalyk (London 2012) and Sandy Kirby (Montreal 1976).

Champion rower Victor Bartel leaned on his push broom and took a break sweeping up dried mud on the launch pad to note the club is small (about 100 core members and maybe 300 in various programs every year), but it punches way above its weight.

In fact, said Bartel, the club is one of the top eight in North America for its ability to find and train talented rowers who are then named to national teams.

That's probably a gift of the Red River, a sheltered, wide course that is forgiving no matter which way the wind blows, giving athletes safety to practise.

"Look at this water -- it's Winnipeg's biggest sporting arena, and rowing is one of Winnipeg's biggest secrets," Bartel said.

He calls the sport a "Zen experience" for the feeling a rower gets once they master the basics and feel the sweet spot: where river currents, other rowers on a team and even the rower's heartbeat and breathing become synchronized.

"You can't go out there and just power through it. You have to learn how to row. It's a wonderful Zen kind of experience," Bartel said.

Winnipeg rowers pool their talent with Prairie clubs in Regina, Saskatoon, Edmonton and Calgary to regularly put "flatlanders" on the rowing map.

This year, hopefuls include junior rowers Jaime Wong, 17, and Hanika Nakagawa, 16, who are waiting to see if they've been named to the provincial team that will compete in the nationals in Sherbrooke, Que., this August.

Both teens have a history of participating in other sports -- rowing is known as a sport you age into from other sports -- which lends them agility and balance, both key components to success on the water.

"I love it in the crew boat when you all take a stroke at the same time and you send the boat away," said Nakagawa. Then she laughs: "You have to imagine we could do this every stroke."

The club's website is winnipegrowingclub.ca.

alexandra.paul@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 23, 2013 A5

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