The Broad River flows effortlessly, quietly through the city of Columbia. It is where Bald Eagles stoically perch on docks, seeking respite and waiting for their daily meal to peak its head out of the shimmery water and where silvery striped bass silently make their way through the calm waters. Formidable pines and beautiful plants line the windy riverside, where men and women take to the river for one of the most strenuous workouts of their lives.
Rowing is a fun, peaceful, extremely challenging, and for some in the Columbia community, addicting sport. While the sport may be unfamiliar to many, to a core group, it’s a way of life. As members of the Columbia Rowing Club, these rowers can take to the waters at any time. Some prefer a quiet Sunday afternoon; yet others are part of competitive rowing teams and can be found training on the river every day. Most, however, are looking for a serious workout in a serene setting. A full body workout, rowing can use 80 to 85 percent of the muscles in the body during a session. A typical rowing session is approximately 8,000 meters and can take around 45 minutes to complete.
The Broad River is an ideal location for rowers, thanks to its temperate climate allowing people to row just about everyday of the year. The low head, or diversion, dam creates a 3-mile stretch of water that is 8 to 10 feet deep and approximately 200 meters wide. Because of the dam’s location in a river valley, the prevailing winds go over the top of the dam and do not affect the water. Quiet waters and a lack of wind make for the most exceptional rowing environment. This stretch of calm water on the Broad River allows for limited access for motorboats and jet skis, which can be extremely dangerous for a rower going backward. Wakes and waves are not a rower’s friend.
To be more technically accurate, the act of rowing with two oars is actually called sculling and is the sport in which the majority of members at the Columbia Rowing Club take part. The oars are called sculls and the boat a shell. While the Rowing Club does offer sweep boats, in which the rower has one oar, more members seem to enjoy sculling, and they can scull alone, as doubles or as quadruples. In doubles and quadruples, rowers row in tandem, a sometimes difficult process, as it is extremely important that each person row in perfect synchrony with his or her partner. Having the oars go in and out of the water with the same pattern and timing is critical to success.
In the sport of rowing, age is but a number. Just ask George Park, treasurer of the Rowing Club, head coach of the Youth Rowing Program and a club member since 1999. At 68 years old, George is still competing and is shooting for 94 before he quits!
“Rowing is a sport that is accessible to anyone, regardless of age or athletic ability,” says George. “Competitions are for fun. You race for pride, for a medal, and sometimes for a monetary prize.” The peak age for serious competitive rowers falls in the late 20s to early 30s range for it is extremely demanding. “To compete at the highest level, it takes training six days a week with one day of rest in order to be the most competitive,” adds George. “You can be competitive at different levels. Some people who compete in the regatta races just do it for the fellowship, the good time and the sheer joy of being on the water.”
There are two kinds of competition in sculling. In sprint races, all boats line up at the same time — up to seven or eight boats per race — and race down the 2,000-meter course that has buoyed lanes, similar to swimming lanes. The first to cross the line is the winner. In head races, everyone is racing against the clock. Boats in each category start one at a time and race 5,000 meters. At the end of the individual timed races, times are compared and the best time wins the competition. Most sprint races are completed in six-and-a-half to nine minutes; most head races, in 20 to 22 minutes. Rowing competitions go all the way up to world championship and Olympic levels.
The Columbia Rowing Club supports the competitive side of the sport, sponsoring the Youth Rowing Club and the University of South Carolina Crew. The youth program is open to young people in the Midlands ages 13 to 18. No experience is necessary to join the program, as the members undergo extensive training. Rowing provides an excellent lesson in persistence and determination. The coaches work hard to teach the children the fundamentals of rowing, as well as the appropriate techniques that prevent injuries. They also take care to help children master the strokes to enhance their ability and competiveness. “I really like the approach the coaches take, as learning technique provides the foundation for life-long rowing,” says Susan Junker, whose family members are rowers at the club.
Because of the mental focus and concentration required from rowing, it often provides a welcome relief for children; they can put schoolwork and other activities aside and just focus on the task at hand. Plus, being a member of a team creates a sense of responsibility and reliance. If a member riding in a quad boat doesn’t show, the team isn’t able to compete, creating a sense of dependability that all children and young adults need.
“Rowing is great cardio with low impact. You don’t have to be the most muscular, the strongest, the biggest,” adds Susan. “As long as you learn to focus and get the strokes down, you can be competitive.”
There is also opportunity to extend rowing into the college level. “Many schools across the country have rowing programs, and the possibility of a scholarship for our youth members is a huge motivator,” adds George.
The Rowing Club plays host to many of these schools across the country that come to Columbia to train, such as Georgetown University, Vassar College and Vanderbilt among others. The influx of these schools is also a boon to the economy, as the schools often bring in as many as 100 people to the Midlands: people who stay in Columbia hotels, eat in the restaurants and visit the shops.
While competition plays a part for many members of the Columbia Rowing Club, for the majority, it’s about recreation. Martin Shaffer coordinates the Club’s Learn to Row program, which provides three free lessons to anyone interested in learning about rowing and potentially joining the club. “The most important thing with rowing is to keep at it,” says Martin. “If people think they aren’t good at it, they drop it. But you have to stick with it. It’s trickier than you think.” But for Martin, it is ideal. After he went through his first lesson, he knew he would be hooked. As someone who gets tired of the gym and loves being outside, rowing was the perfect solution. “There is always something different to see — birds and wildlife,” he says.
And it’s a killer workout. Brenda, Martin’s wife, also fell in love with rowing. In fact, she decided to compete, and in the process, lost 30 pounds. “When I first learned about rowing, I thought, ‘There is no way I can do this,’” says Brenda. “I always considered myself a coordinated person. I was a cheerleader, I swam, played volleyball, but when I got in that boat for the first time, I felt like the biggest klutz. It’s a complicated sport, but everyone says, ‘The second time you are on the river, it’s easier; the third time, it’s even easier.’ And they were right.”
Now Brenda and Martin take to the water on the weekends, if not more often. “You can row peacefully, or you can row as fast and as hard as you want to,” she says. “Casual or competing, there is plenty of water to row.”
For Brenda, being a part of the Columbia Rowing Club is sometimes akin to being a member of a social club. “You row, you go out to eat with other members; it’s great camaraderie,” she says. It’s also a unique sport, which helps to motivate those who may be in a workout rut.
While the time on the river can be intense, it can also be a time to table worries and focus only on the task at hand. “When you are rowing, you can’t really daydream,” says Martin. “You have to stay focused on what you are doing right at that moment; you have to pay attention. Not a lot can intrude on that. If you miss a stroke or don’t pay attention, you are falling in.” It’s been said that rowing is like sitting on a telephone pole and going backward. Lack of attention is not an option.
Most importantly, rowers must be able to pass a swim test, as adults are not required to wear life jackets. The club recommends rowers take a life jacket with them if rowing alone, but they are exempted by the Coast Guard since they impede progress for the rower. For young rowers, the club has additional safety procedures in place.
To be sure, rowing brings a sense of exhilaration that many sports often cannot. “Rowing is a bit like golf, where you are trying to get that perfect swing. The thrill of getting the boat up and accomplishing that perfect stroke is immensely satisfying — there is no other sport like it,” says Martin. “When you get in a boat and are rowing well together, you feel that synchronicity, and it’s like a well-oiled machine, everyone is working together toward the same goal.”
It’s a challenge for the body, a hiatus from the day’s stressors and a moment in time that won’t soon be forgotten.
For more information on rowing in Columbia, visit www.columbiarowingclub.com.