Jan 08, 2024

Rowing clubs in Niagara continue to play a waiting game on the water

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COVID-19's impact on sports throughout Niagara over the past 14 months has been remarkably consistent in its inconsistency: for every step forward, it's forced eight steps back.

Just before word came down from the Ontario government in April, rowing clubs in the region were planning for the spring season.

Niagara Falls Rowing Club was in the process of launching an introduction-to rowing program for novices and elementary school students. South Niagara Rowing Club (SNRC) coaches were preparing experienced rowers for outdoor training and, with no high school rowing, St. Catharines Rowing Club opened early and was in discussions with Rowing Canada about the possibility of Ontario clubs holding "try-it" days to encourage non-rowers to learn the sport.

All those all plans came to a standstill for the foreseeable future. Instead of getting back on the water, the clubs closed their doors as the coronavirus pandemic prompted a third provincewide lockdown.

"It's terribly hard, but we’re all in the same boat, whether it's a rowing club or a soccer club or a hockey club," said St. Catharines Rowing Club president Rick Crooker. "It's horrible for the number of young people who have both been restricted from experiencing the sport and the number of young people who would have been turning out for the first time.

"I don't know anybody who has escaped the disappointment that the athletes are suffering."

Last summer clubs were able to bring back their athletes in a limited capacity, either in a single sculling shell or same-household doubles and pairs. Once the weather turned colder, all three clubs made the necessary adjustments to offer winter training programs in the hopes that by spring they could be back on the water, possibly in fours and eights.

The St. Catharines club worked with its alumni association and Niagara Region Public Health to convert the clubhouse into a training facility, with ergometers spread apart at a safe distance. SNRC prepared its large boathouse in Welland for indoor training to give experienced athletes, who typically train at a fitness club or high school, an opportunity to stay together in a COVID-19-complaint facility. Online workouts and detailed training plans were made available at both SNRC and Niagara Falls for those rowers who felt uneasy attending in-person training.

But when the province went into its second lockdown in December, SNRC decided to go completely virtual until the club gets a clearer picture. Virtual training has been challenging, as interest has fluctuated throughout the winter months.

"We definitely saw more attendance I would say at the sessions when they were in person at the boathouse," said club president Kevin Fuller. "But generally speaking, I think it's worked out well and we’ve learned a few things along the way as to the content and mixing it up a little bit, with not just erging, but also some cross-training and different types of circuits."

To ease the transition, SNRC members could borrow a club ergometers during the lockdown, enabling them to continue training when in-person sessions were no longer an option.

The Niagara Falls club has developed Zoom workouts during the lockdown, with two coaches supervising each online session. Tony Arcuri, coach and past-president of the club, said like SNRC, the club's in-person winter training switched to virtual in December.

Most of the online training has been set up for established rowers, but a few coaches are figuring out if they can open the workouts to newcomers.

"(Novices) don't know the sport yet … so to get them to participate in some online training is difficult," said Arcuri. "There are equipment issues — they have to have some cardio equipment at home to do it — but it is an option that may be coming up."

SNRC said its beginner rowers, many who joined through the club's sculling development program last summer, were allowed to train online but were not interested.

"We found they’re just new to the sport, unsure of things. Until you get used to what goes on, some people are a little hesitant," said Fuller. "We will do everything we can to re-engage that group from last year and allow them to continue rowing with the appropriate program as soon as we can."

In addition to cancelling the Canadian high school championships and the Royal Canadian Henley Regatta for the second time in as many years, the pandemic has changed the scope of how clubs develop their young and inexperienced rowers. Arcuri said most clubs tend to start their youngest rowers off in eights, fours and quads because the larger group provides a safer, more stable rowing situation.

To accommodate the new regulations, both Niagara Falls and SNRC have purchased some training and safety boats for the upcoming season. Fuller said the increase will provide more versatility and will be "a game-changer for the learn-to-row side of things."

"It’ll give people a much more secure way to get introduced to the sport and the nice thing about the training singles is that their weight classes are quite wide so they can handle everything from very young participants through to adults."

SNRC also increased its fleet of singles.

Fuller said despite everything, the club has learned a few valuable lessons from COVID-19 that will be a major component moving forward.

"We’re definitely going to have singles as more of a significant part of the program earlier for the athletes because we found the athlete development has been substantially quicker than in crew boats," he said. "We’ve been able to focus on developing the individual skills better in singles rather than crews."

But not every club is in a position to go out and buy new boats. St. Catharines is trying to keep membership fees down, particularly for community members struggling to get through this pandemic.

"We would love to have more (single boats) and love to have more safety boats and more coach boats … but not the time right now," said Crooker.

The St. Catharines club plans to offer a "try-it" day once the province reopens, hopefully organizing a few over the summer. The club has volunteers prepared to get involved once "this horrible black curtain gets lifted" said Crooker. "We want to create interest, but we also want to create follow through."

Arcuri said he has received several inquiries from potential rowers wanting to get involved and eager to join the club's beginner program whenever it begins. It's just a waiting game.

"There's a lot of people still interested and want to get out and do their thing. We just have to do it according to the regulations and safely," he said.

Fuller is hopeful South Niagara will get have a summer session available as soon as the stay-at-home order is lifted. He expects rules and regulations will be similar to last summer.

That doesn't have to be a bad thing, however.

"Last year, surprisingly, turned out better than we anticipated due to a lot of people pitching in and doing some great things to promote the club and promote the programming," he said. "Despite the challenges, we’re looking forward to having, hopefully, another successful summer and fall and building on what we started last year."

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