The average Winnipegger may not know it, but the little rowing club tucked away near the Norwood Bridge has a big-time international reputation.
That’s why Brent Figg jumped at the chance last fall to move his family here from Cincinnati to take over as the Winnipeg Rowing Club’s director of coaching.
"There’s a really strong tradition here," said Figg, who had been in charge of the rowing program at the University of Cincinnati, where he first got into the sport competitively while on a soccer scholarship.
"It’s been around since 1881. The club has a really incredible history of success, and there’s a great community surrounding the club, which is something you can’t buy."
Considering Winnipeg’s geographical location, Figg said the list of rowers who have gone on to international success from the WRC — Janine Hanson, Jeff Powell, Meghan Montgomery — is phenomenal.
One of his main focuses beginning this year — once the club has weathered any potential flooding problems — will be to develop a future crop of high-performance rowers while also ensuring that the club will always be welcoming to people more interested in rowing as a purely recreational pursuit.
Rowing is a rare sport in which the majority of elite athletes don’t begin competing until their late teens or early 20s. With that said, Figg is always looking for talented athletes from other sports who are looking for a change.
"Our club can offer opportunities to a lot of different types of people," said Figg, an Osborne Village resident. "Maybe they’ve suffered a concussion or another injury. We’re seeing a lot of recruitment of athletes who are saying there are no other opportunities for me in my sport, and rowing has a late-blooming period."
At the younger end of the spectrum, the club is planning two-week summer camps for kids in Grades 6 to 8 that will be as much about river awareness and safety as basic rowing skills.
Figg’s path from college in Cincinnati to coaching in Winnipeg was anything but a direct route.
In 2003, wanting to expand his knowledge of the sport, he phoned a boat manufacturer in Adelaide, Australia, and asked if he could intern to learn how shells are produced. In Australia he lived with a national team rower with high-level coaching experience.
Two years later, while studying German in Frankfurt, he made a few extra Euros by working at a local rowing club.
"To interact with the worldwide community of rowers is one of the amazing things about the sport," Figg said.
Rowing has even taken Figg to Asia, where he coached the U.S. boys’ quad team at the 2007 junior world championship in Beijing.
"You’re starting to see more and more diversity in the sport," he said. "Traditionally it’s been strong in Europe and North America, but I think we’re seeing it branch out to different places."
Now that Winnipeg is his home, Figg has big plans for the WRC. The club’s current membership is between 200 and 300, but he doesn’t see any reason why that can’t be much greater.
"Six hundred to 700 would be fantastic four or five years down the road," he said. "People should find out how good it is to experience Winnipeg from the water."