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Speed Boats

The Chicago Rowing Foundation ensures the invigorating sport isn’t just for college kids.

The WMS Boathouse at Clark Park, designed by Studio Gang Architects

Life is but a dream, and sometimes the dream includes skimming across the water, just inches from the surface, in a 65-foot carbon fiber racing shell. Long a sport associated with New England (and old England), rowing, aka crew, gains momentum in Chicago every year, due in part to its health benefits and the escape it offers in the middle of the city on our other great waterway, the Chicago River.

The sport’s latest infusion of local energy came recently, when the Chicago Rowing Foundation (3400 N. Rockwell St.) took up residence in the new WMS Boathouse at Clark Park on the northwest side. Designed by Studio Gang Architects, the Chicago Park District facility is one of four new boathouses scheduled to be built in coming years. It routinely hosts 150 to 250 rowers per day. Most of them are high-school-age, but CRF recreational and competitive rowing teams have members in their 60s.

“It’s a low-impact sport,” says Betsy Trevarthen, the CRF’s executive director. “Unlike running, or even walking, you’re pushing with your muscles and not impacting your joints. It’s a total-body workout.”

Whether you rowed at Yale or have never touched an oar in your life, there is something for everyone at the CRF. The organization offers everything from beginner rowing lessons—on ergometers, in an indoor rowing tank, and eventually on the Chicago River in Olympic-style boats—to spots on competitive traveling teams.
In the three-week beginner’s course, Learn to Row, the CRF teaches newbies both technique and terminology—you need to know your backstay from your backstop, and your blade from your bow ball.

Inside the WMS boathouse

How far you take that skill and knowledge is up to you. Robert Gottschalk learned to row at the CRF when he was 51. Now, eight years later, he is the captain of the CRF’s men’s competitive squad, and last fall his team rowed in Boston’s Head of the Charles, the country’s most prestigious rowing regatta. He’s also in the best shape of his life.

“Exercise gives different things to different people,” says Gottschalk. “When I’m rowing I just zone out and forget about everything. It’s kind of like meditation. It’s been extremely beneficial for my mind as well as my body.”

For anyone interested in getting into peak physical shape but not interested in competing or even sitting in a boat, the boathouse can serve as a year-round fitness facility. Four dozen ergometer rowing machines, or ergs, are available to anyone who has been qualified on them first, and water in the Dynamic Propulsion tank is always ready to roll. Once rowers have gripped an oar and pulled it through moving water, though, they might be drawn to the river.

“The first time I got in the boat and on the water, I was hooked,” says Gottschalk.

Of course, rowing isn’t just for guys, but a sport couples and families can enjoy. Shannon Dillender-Jones is 41 and has been rowing for three years. Back in graduate school in Pittsburgh, she tried joining the rowing team but was the only one showing up for 5:30am practice. It’s impossible to row an eight-person boat alone, so her rowing dream, along with the Chatham University women’s crew team, died right there on the banks of the Allegheny.

The dream was relaunched a decade later in Chicago. Today she is a member of the CRF’s women’s recreational team, but just a few years ago, health issues made it difficult for her to get out of bed in the morning.

“Before, I was just doing the best I could,” she says. “I was existing and surviving. Now, my life rocks. Also, I can pretty much eat whatever I want. I eat like a teenage boy.”

Mike Springer is 46, and when the new facility opened he looked into rowing for his two kids, ages 10 and 12. “I went to the open house to check it out for them and I was like, ‘This is for me,’” says Springer.

He rowed for the first time in October and has already competed in an indoor competition. He hopes that rowing will keep him healthy for the rest of his life.

“I’ve run 15 marathons in the past 20 years,” he says. “I’ll run Chicago and New York this year, but this is just a matter of looking ahead. You can row well into your senior years. I don’t see a reason why you’d ever have to stop, quite frankly.”