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A Wake and Aweigh: The History and Future of Grand Rapids Rowing Association

Landon Bartley, President of Grand Rapids Rowing Association

Students bring a shell to the Grand River to practice rowing.

Students get into a shell on the Grand River to practice rowing.

Students get into a shell on the Grand River to practice rowing.

Students row on the Grand River.

Landon Bartley gets kids in the water.

"People may have seen us on the river now and then, or at regattas in the park, but just may not know the extent and the history," says Landon Bartley, president of Grand Rapids Rowing Association (GRRA). "Rowing has been around in Grand Rapids a lot longer than people think."

In fact, the first records of rowing in Grand Rapids are from the 1880s, and the first boathouse for the city's rowing club was built in 1910 at North Park NE and Monroe. That boathouse was destroyed in a fire in 1960, and the popularity of the sport on the Grand River waned.

"The Boat Club sort of limped along for a while there until they reorganized in 1986 in various forms," says Bartley.

Starting with adults-only and then adding high school programs in the 1990s, rowers continued to paddle out of the basement of the devastated boathouse until it flooded in 2002 and was ultimately demolished in 2005. For three years, the boat club and its programs operated out of a fenced-in area just south of Fifth Third Ballpark, until the new boathouse (291 North Park NW) was finally constructed to a usable condition in 2008. Funds are still being raised to complete the boathouse, which does not have power, permanent plumbing, or a hard-surfaced floor.

Even after building the facility and hoping for the extra exposure that the new location -- on the White Pine Trail, off US-131, with the ballpark to the north, and I-96 to the south -- might bring, the GRRA knew they had to make some major changes to their programs and image to stay afloat. When Bartley became president in 2009, the association had just five paying members, so he made "the wild expansion of the club's members and programs" his mission. The club now has about 70 full members, with even more potential to expand greatly.

"Besides the 70 (adult) members, we have and about 30 kids right now. The total number of rowers in Grand Rapids is really quite large," says Bartley. "We probably have on the order of 700 or 800 rowers in the metro area, and that's growing pretty quickly."

GRRA has reached out to rowers and would-be-rowers with a variety of new programs including corporate teambuilding, junior and adult recreational and competitive teams, and "Learn-to-Row" classes for beginners. The junior and adult teams compete in large regattas (rowing competitions). GRRA also  hosted the 26th Annual Grand Regatta (State Games) at Riverside Park on June 22.

Often described as "the ultimate team sport," rowing is one of the few non-weight bearing activities that exercises all of the major muscle groups, while improving cardiovascular endurance. The oars on a rowing boat, or "shell," are held in place at a pivot. There are two different types of rowing and specific boats for each: Sweeping, when the rower holds one oar on one side of the shell; and Sculling, when the rower holds an oar on each side of the shell. If you've ever used a rowing machine at the gym, that experience is most like sculling. (Tip: The water on the river rarely, if ever, gives resistance at more than a level 5 on a rowing machine. So, instead of cranking the resistance level to 10, keep it at 4 or 5 and work on your form, speed, and consistency.)

 With new technologies and more exposure, gone are the days when rowing should be thought of as an exclusive, Ivy League sport. Bartley doesn't say "anyone can do it" lightly. He really wants everyone to do it. In fact, he even is working with Mary Free Bed on an adaptive rowing program for people with disabilities.

"There is a whole group of people who don't have access to sports, rowing for sure," he says. "We can help them access the river."

This program will take time and money to start -- rowing boats in general and adaptive boats in particular are very expensive -- but it is a legacy Bartley is determined to leave.

He is also passionate about GRRA's youth program and the possibilities it brings. "Kids come to us because we run a year-round program, essentially, and we also care a lot about collegiate recruiting," he explains. "Kids, especially women, can get into college on rowing scholarships."

Finally, Bartley is interested in expanding the boathouse to include kayaks, canoes, and dragon boats.

"There are a finite number of people that will come to rowing for rowing," he says. "I think there are a lot of people that might not be aware of rowing, but are aware of kayaking and canoeing."

He wants to help those people get out on The Grand, too; however, he does maintain the opinion that rowing is the best way to experience the river.

"You're six inches above the water," he explains. "There's something special about seeing your wake -- and seeing how you've been going down the river."

J. Rae Young lives in Grand Rapids. She is a passionate promoter of her city and an advocate of cultural understanding. She teaches English as a Second Language and treasures personal growth through travel.

Photography by Adam Bird

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