Whatcom Rowing Association is capturing youth's attention

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJuly 30, 2013 

A bitter war wages within every rower between the brute and the ballerina.

The brute thrashes the oar through the water, exploding it forward and propelling the shell through the water.

The ballerina is a picture of reserve and control, removing the oar from the water with a gentle touch while simultaneously sliding back in the seat.

"When the rowers are all creeping up toward the stern to take another catch, you have to sneak up on the boat and not let it know that these bodies are moving in the opposite direction that the boat is trying to go," said Whatcom Rowing Association Programs Director Shelley Bennett in a phone interview. "You have to gently and very eloquently sneak up on to it, plop your oar in the water, and then you get to be the brute."

Bennett knows all too well this contrast in disciplines. Rowing is her life. It consumes her thoughts from the moment she wakes to the moment she goes to bed, losing no opportunity in between to preach its gospels.

"Rowing created such a unique and valuable experience for me, all I want to do is give it to other people," she said. "That's all I want to do... That's my mentality when I watch my kids. That's my mentality when I grocery shop or when I'm out in the community."

As the program director and junior instructor for the Whatcom Rowing Association, she knows how important it is to spread the word of rowing following the programs creation two years ago.

But she's not alone in that endeavor.

In June 2011, Bob Diehl, the man who brought rowing to WWU in 1970, sought to fill a long-standing void in the rowing community in Whatcom County just as he did four decades ago.

Although he had no intention of running the program in its day-to-day operations, he knew he could at least spark a discussion that could potentially lead to the creation of a rowing program.

"I just thought it was time for Bellingham to get on the map," he said in a phone interview. "Bellingham was the last major community that didn't have a rowing program. ... We were just a whole waiting for something to happen."

The program now boasts 110 or so registered participants, with about 58 in the masters program (18-75 years of age), and 42 in juniors program (13-17). Under Bennett are seven other coaches - all on a volunteer basis - and most of the equipment has been donated from people in the community. All practices are on Lake Whatcom.

"It's unbelievable to look at the list of supporters," Diehl said.

The WRA offers a range of options for those interested in the sport, starting with courses that teach the most basic fundamentals of simply being in the water to the more advanced rowers.

With the program still in its infancy, challenges have come by way of the younger generation of rowers learning a sport that was at one time foreign to them. Bennett, who coaches both the novice and experience juniors, has seen this first-hand since joining the WRA in June 2012.

One particular instance stood out following a disappointing showing at a regatta by one of her groups.

"When you sit down with a group that is a little defeated, and you look at the first they say," she said. "It was very telling to me when they said, 'Shelley, we have to do a lot more work. We have to work a lot harder.'

"The fact that they owned it, and said, 'We,' meant a lot to me. They had bought it."

Diehl, who works mostly from behind the scenes, knew it wouldn't take long to capture the attention of the kids.

"Rowing is addictive," he said, recalling his 50-plus years of experience. "They would row in a thunderstorm."

He and Bennett have keyed in on trying to bring more children into the sport, even getting sponsored by the Bellingham School District. Now, he said, children earn varsity letters for participating in rowing.

The Bellingham community wasn't always this interested, though.

Diehl had made efforts in the '80s to start a similar-type rowing program in Bellingham, but the support just wasn't there.

"The time and place just wasn't right," he said. "People weren't receptive."

For whatever reason, he wasn't sure, but it never gained any real footing.

The difference now, he said, has been the explosion of support and recognition for rowing following the recent successes of WWU's rowing program.

The women's crew team won the NCAA Division II National Championship seven consecutive times between 2005-2011, and the men's program, while not a varsity sport, has been equally as impressive.

With its success came added attention by both adults and kids alike, he said, spurring on the need to fill the glaring vacancy in Whatcom County.

Future developments are already in the works to create a boathouse to prevent the boats from weather damage, which sparks encouragement when forecasting the future of the WRA.

So, too, Bennett said, is the fact that the programs enrollment has grown 20 to 30 percent each of its first two years.

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