Different strokes: Youth rowing clubs teach teamwork

Alex Cox used to be a three-sport student-athlete. But that was before the 18-year-old Middleton High School senior joined the Mendota Rowing Club's juniors program two years ago: "I dropped all of those sports to row," she explains, before a two-hour Saturday morning indoor workout at Bernard's Boathouse in James Madison Park.

Her story echoes those of many teenage participants in junior rowing programs at the long-established Mendota Rowing Club and the upstart Camp Randall Rowing Club -- which occupy opposite sides of the isthmus but strive to make kids better athletes, better teammates and better people.

"Rowing is a team sport that's very, very demanding, physically and mentally," says MB Blanding, head coach of the CRRC juniors program and a UW rowing alum who coached the women's crew team at Columbia University for five years. "There's something about being part of a group of people and going through the highs and lows and everything that it takes to reach a certain goal together that is very powerful -- and empowering."

"I absolutely hated this sport my first week," says Georgia Curry, 18 and a CRRC captain. She's just finished a two-hour-and-15-minute practice session on Lake Monona one cool weeknight in April. "Muscles I didn't even know I had hurt, there was new vocabulary that was almost like learning a new language, and I felt like I was doing everything wrong. The hardest work I've ever done physically has happened here. But I stuck with it, and I'm so glad I did."

Unfamiliar with how to even hold an oar just a few years ago, let alone what phrases like "shooting a slide" and "catching a crab" mean -- the 80 or so junior members of the MRC and CRRC compete against each other and teams throughout the Midwest. Some of the older kids have been courted by crew coaches at the UW, the University of Texas, Harvard and Dartmouth.

"I don't want to promise a ninth-grader that he or she is going to get a college scholarship," says Hal Menendez, coach of the MRC's junior boys' team and, like Blanding, a former Wisconsin rower. "But we do let kids know that there are opportunities in college that could come to them as a result of rowing -- if not a scholarship, then possibly an edge in admission to an exclusive school."

The MRC and the CRRC (which is in partnership with Madison School & Community Recreation) are composed of kids from high schools in and around Madison. Among only a few organizations in the state to offer youths the opportunity to row, their mission statements vary slightly. The CRRC emphasizes competition a bit more than the MRC, but both spend summers seeking new members for their fall and spring seasons.

The CRRC will host an open house on Sunday, May 7, from 7:30 a.m. to noon at the recently expanded and renovated Brittingham Boathouse on Lake Monona. Both clubs also offer two learn-to-row sessions in June and July for high school students. Participants in the June learn-to-row programs will have the opportunity to taste competition June 24 at the Badger State Games on Lake Wingra.

Because neither club receives financial support from area high schools or other organizations, membership fees and travel costs add up quickly. In fact, it's not uncommon for annual expenses to reach $2,500. Both organizations offer financial assistance to rowers in need, but Menendez and Blanding say they'd like to develop more opportunities for a greater variety of kids.

The high price of rowing makes junior rowers take their responsibilities seriously. "You have to have the will to work," says MRC member Griffin Petersen, a sophomore at Madison West whose older brother, Justin, rowed for the U.S. Junior National Team and now rows for Syracuse University. "I didn't have that. I was pretty lazy before I started rowing."

Mendota Rowing Club
608-257-2739
Boathouse: 622 E. Gorham St.

Camp Randall Rowing Club
608-220-5406
Brittingham Boathouse: 601 North Shore Dr.

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