The Brigham Young Rowing Club (BYRC) was active from 2001 to late 2004 at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. It received a remarkable amount of interest from students at the school, and an outstanding group of people got involved from its earliest stages. During the course of its history, there were several highly involved members who held regular practices and meetings and who competed against teams from other schools at the Boulder Sprints in Boulder, Colorado. Active members of the club ranged from students who wanted to learn to row to veteran competitive rowers that wanted to continue their experience from high school while at BYU. At its peak, about 60-70 students were on the club's mailing list, with regular Saturday morning practices being held. University administrators, however, were generally unreceptive to the club, citing risk and liability as reasons for not granting the club on-campus status (which would have allowed the club to use a nearby launch site on Utah Lake). The viability of the club was ultimately challenged by a handful of factors: commuting time and expense for practices; members leaving school for graduate programs or professional opportunities; inexperience of club leaders in managing an organization of the kind; and maintaining continuity from year to year. The organization ultimately dissolved in 2004.
Concept and Early Stages
I first had the idea to start a rowing club at BYU in early 2000, while I was working as a bike courier in Philadelphia. The thought may have been spurred when I read The Shell Game by Stephen Kiesling, or perhaps it was those occasional Saturday rides past Boathouse Row in Fairmount Park that inspired the notion. Regardless, rowing had been part of the background scenery in my life for some time: I had lived in South Jersey for nearly all of my growing up years, and my father was a former rower who had tried out for the U.S. Olympic rowing team in the early 1970s. And I guess that, for a variety of reasons, the idea of starting a rowing club at BYU was intriguing to me—partly, I'll admit, for the irony of a rowing club in the high mountain desert.
In January 2001, I moved to Provo to finish my undergraduate studies at BYU. While there, I linked up with Spencer Sessions, an old friend and acquaintance who I'd met years before. Spencer, who grew up in Northern Virginia, liked the idea, and together we started looking into how to actually start a club at the school. That winter, we researched whether anything like it had been done by other students before (it had, but on a very small and short-lived scale), what the process was for starting a university club, what our options were for gaining funding, and where we could operate from. From what we found, we were essentially starting from scratch with very little precedent.
When the Winter 2001 semester ended, I went back to New Jersey and spent the summer working on the beach patrol in Ocean City. While at the Jersey Shore, I got in a rowing shell for the first time and began training at the Viking Rowing Club in Ventnor. It was the same club that my father had rowed at over 25 years earlier.
Spencer and I stayed in touch over the summer and in early August he came into first contact with two people who soon became keystone supporters of the club. The first person was Wendy Whitney, a founder of the Great Salt Lake Rowing Club, director of Bonneville Rowing, and the one who can perhaps be credited with beginning the present-day rowing movement in the Salt Lake area. The other key person was Brad Houston, a former BYU student who became a champion rower while at the University of Cambridge as a graduate student. As the summer drew to a close, Spencer and I crossed paths in Provo when I returned from the East Coast to school and he headed to Washington, DC to begin an internship for the fall. We exchanged notes and contacts, Spencer put me in touch with Brad and Wendy, and thanks to his good work, the stage was set for a promising next few months.
During the initial weeks of the fall semester, a small group started to gel through chance acquaintances and word of mouth. Wendy put me in touch with two students that had contacted her looking for information about rowing while at BYU, and they met a freshman from Boston who had rowed for four years of high school at Belmont Hill, and he also got involved. By the end of September, there were about five of us who were working on the project. It was a small step from the nine months before, but things were actually growing.
Apart from the introductions that Wendy provided early on, the first and most significant forms of material assistance that the club received came from her, as well. Wendy lived in Salt Lake City and owned two four-person sweep shells, which she kept in storage in a small lot at the Great Salt Lake Marina near Salt Lake City. She was tremendously supportive of the prospect of a BYU club, and she offered extremely generous assistance in the form of allowing us to use her equipment and providing seed money to get the club on its feet. She also introduced us to Mike Spackman and other friends at the Great Salt Lake Rowing Club, a network of recreational scullers and rowers in Salt Lake City who provided further help and encouragement along the way. In short, we would have never gotten on the water that fall if it wasn't for Wendy.
In addition to the support that Wendy provided, Brad Houston also became a keystone member of the endeavor from the start, lending his time, experience, advice, and any other support that he could provide to helping the idea begin to take shape as a reality. Brad's enthusiasm, vision, rowing experience, and generous contribution of time was tremendously instrumental in getting the ball rolling.
In early October, as things started to come together and connections were made, we began rowing together in our first sessions in an old quad shell that Wendy loaned to us. It was a surreal experience to be in the middle of a glassy inland salt water sea, surrounded by silence (save for the gentle splashing of oar blades dipping into the water, the clanking of oars in oarlocks, the rolling of the seats on tracks, the rushing of water against the hull, and perhaps the distant sound of a freight train on the south shore). If there are a million things that are inconducive to rowing at the Great Salt Lake, the early-morning conditions there still lend it to the sublime; it is, perhaps, a rowing experience like no other.
By early November the weather began getting too cold and unpredictable to row out on the lake, so we began to turn our energy toward organizing an event to start the upcoming year. The goals would be to publicize the club on campus, formally create an organization, build membership, and lay the foundation for a stable and perpetually-functioning body of student rowers. I designed a flyer and there was a huge response in the days leading up to the meeting. One of the people that saw the flyer and got in touch with me beforehand was Liz King, who had rowed competitively while in high school in Washington, DC. Liz had an enormous enthusiasm for building the club and she became a central figure from that point on and over the next year.
About 70-80 people showed up to the 2002 organizational meeting on February 7. Brad Houston brought his championship trophy oar, and his video of the Cambridge regatta that he competed in was on loop before and after the meeting. Some experienced rowers came out of the woodwork to attend, as well as a large number of interested non-rowers. Beginning that evening and over the next few weeks, a substantial group of committed individuals joined in with the initial group from the season before. By the end of February, just as Salt Lake City was settling down from the 2002 Winter Olympics and the daytime temperatures were providing just a hint of the warmth that was to come in the next month or two, about fifteen of us began training together at the Great Salt Lake Marina.
The Boulder Sprints
Not too long after our first few rowing sessions, Liz found out about a regatta that was going to be held in Boulder, Colorado in early April, and we began to actively prepare to compete there. Practices picked up momentum as the weather slowly got warmer, and in the first week of April a group of us took a road trip to the event. Most everyone crashed on the floor at Brad's sister's house and the University of Colorado rowing team lent us a four and an eight to use in the men's and women's events, respectively. The men placed third in the novice 4+ division and the experience of going out there was a positive one.
About a week after the regatta was final exams, and shortly after that most everyone left town for the summer. The club inevitably changed gears. Wendy purchased a couple of used eights from the University of Colorado's team, which they had offered for sale at the race. I spent a good amount of time over the rest of the summer cleaning the disused shells, repairing fiberglass, changing out hardware, and generally restoring the old boats. With most of the formerly active members out of town, though, and most of the remaining ones coming and going, the club was effectively dormant; for the most part, any rowing that happened at that time was in a sculling shell.
Fall 2002 and Spring 2003
In the fall of 2002, with the start of the new semester, several of the members of the club got back together again, but there was a notably less ambitious approach to it. This was largely due to the fact that over the course of the spring and summer, a few things became apparent. Primarily, the distance from Provo to the Salt Lake Marina, where practices were held, was a considerable obstacle. The one-hour-plus of travel time each way, combined with the often unpredictable water conditions on the Great Salt Lake, presented a circumstance that eventually became tiring to a lot of people and made practices less frequent. Normally the club would practice on Saturdays, but that was about as far as it went with getting out on the water. Weeknight practices were attempted, but were usually out of the question due to the considerable travel time and resulting conflicts of interest with schoolwork for club members. When everything was said and done, even a relatively short practice would take about four or five hours, and that was often too much for most weeknights—especially with the shorter evenings later in the fall season.
It was during this fall and early winter that a few members of the club wrote a charter and applied to the university to get club status. This would have largely solved the distance problem with practices since, conceivably, the club could have operated from a little-used property that the university owned at Utah Lake (and which the property's managers at the university encouraged us to use assuming we could get official sanction from the student body adminstration). At the time, it seemed like this would have been an easy process. We believed that the club would have played a good role at the school: it added to the diversity of opportunites that the school would be able to offer for student life; it would operate financially independently from the univeristy; it carried its own insurance policy through a national rowing authority; and the startup issues with obtaining equipment had, for the most part, already been handled (i.e., we would not need funding from the university). In the end, however, the university administration was frankly closed to the idea, citing safety risks with water sports and the fact that the club would hold most of its activities off campus as the primary concerns. At the time this seemed like feigned reasoning, but we were, regardless, never able to break through. The outcome was confusing and represented a failed opportunity for the development of the organization.
In the early Spring of 2003, as I was starting to make graduate school plans, another organizational meeting was held to gather club members from the previous year, gauge new interest in the club, and maybe set a course for the year ahead. The meeting was small, but a strong core of committed and outstanding people continued to gather around the idea. In the next few weeks, the club elected new officers and, as the weather warmed up, we began getting out on the water again. A second full year effectively began. It was at about that time that I graduated and moved out of the picture.
Late 2003 and Beyond
The club was active through 2003 and into 2004 but eventually went dormant by the end of that year. In June 2004, a article appeared in the Deseret News featuring the club, but that was one of the last records of the club's activity.
Afterthoughts: Lessons Learned
The endeavor of starting a rowing club at BYU in 2001 was an ambitious one given its novelty and environmental circumstance. Despite the ultimate fading of the enterprise, there are a few take-away lessons. Here are some things that could be considered should it be done again:
- Stay local. The logistics of traveling from Provo to the Great Salt Lake eventually became a prohibitive factor in holding regular and frequent practices. A more accessible location, such as Utah Lake—or perhaps even Deer Creek Reservoir—would make things a lot easier from a logistics and feasibility standpoint.
- Build trust with the University admin. While the club attracted an impressive amount of interest from the student body, the nature of the club appeared to be unattractive to the university's administration. The university's position was that the club's activity posed too much risk, and ultimately it didn't fit into the overall picture for sanctionable student activities at the school. Getting the gatekeepers at the university on board was a hurdle that we just weren't able to cross at the time. I imagine it would take a lot of time, but do the hard work and build alliances in the offices that count.
- Tie in with the regional rowing community. There is a small network that a BYU club could associate with and participate in. This consists of an established rowing club in Salt Lake City, students from the University of Utah that row in Salt Lake (the school has offered a sculling class in the past), a Salt Lake-area high school rowing club, and greater-region organizations in Boulder, CO, the University of Colorado, Idaho, Eastern Washington, and Arizona. Although small and sparse, it seems that that the club could operate within a community of functioning rowing organizations in the Rocky Mountain region.
- It's possible to start small. BYU students looking to begin or continue involvement in rowing while at the university might do best to link up with an established organization, such as the Great Salt Lake Rowing Club. While not sustainable in the long run, just being able to set an on-water training schedule—even if only once a month—could provide what's needed to give the organization wings and get it off the ground.