Boat bug bites Ryerson rowers

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Reading Time: 5 minutes

By Alison Northcott

Every morning during the winter months when Lake Ontario is more of a skating rink than a rowing course, Ryerson’s rowing team gathers at 6 a.m. in front of the entrance to Kerr Hall East.

I’ve seen them practice before at the Ryerson Athletic Centre. I used to watch them — mesmerized by their rhythmic pulls and pushes on the rowing machines — from the treadmill in the cardio room while I puffed and panted my way throughout my workout.

I decided to find out what it is about the sport of rowing that gets these athletes out of bed every morning to trudge through snow and slush and into the grasp of a tough two-hour training session. It couldn’t be the beauty of the open water around them or the fresh air filling their lungs; they train on rowing machines under the fluorescent lights of a school gym.

I got in touch with the team’s head coach, Dominic Kahn. Kahn has been rowing for 26 years and has coached the Ryerson team since its inception last September. I presented him with my idea: I wanted to train with his team, as a writer, for one week, to experience some of the rigours and rewards of rowing. He accepted.

This would, however, happen to be the week leading up to the Canadian Indoor Rowing Championships, in which the team will be competing. For me, it would be the week I caught a hint of, what Kahn calls, “the rowing bug.”

Before I am even fully conscious Monday morning, I find myself at the designated meeting place. when Kahn arrives he is vibrant and enthusiastic, seemingly oblivious to the fact that it’s barely past 6 a.m. on a Monday morning in the middle of February. He scans the group to make sure everyone has arrived. In rowing, Kahn tells me, dedication to the team is crucial.

“[Rowing] is the ultimate team sport,” he says. “If someone’s missing, you can’t practice. Your team and your friends are depending on you.”

Kahn says many towers incorporate this team philosophy into their everyday lives.

“No sports prepares a person for life better than rowing because of that very acute dependence on each other and that reliance on each other — because you can’t compete if someone is missing.”

As we head towards the RAC, Kahn teases and jokes with the team members. It’s early, but he’s pumped, and his enthusiasm is infectious.

Practice starts with a warmup jog. I follow the others, looking around self-consciously, trying to blend in and look alert and confident. On the rowing machines, or the “ergs” as they call them, I try my blending-in tactics again. It’s a little tougher here because, while I’ve certainly jogged around in circles before, I’ve never used an erg. I adopt a watch-and-learn tactic and mimic the rowers around me. I mimic the rowers around me. I strap my feet in, grab on to the handle bar, and start pulling.

“So far so good…” I tell myself. But this is just the warmup, and it’s only day one…

throughout the week, I get the chance to chat with most of the team members about their rowing experiences. Almost everyone I talk to can boil it down to one simple phrase: “I love it.”

They all mention how fun and rewarding rowing can be and tell me that, once you get out on the water, it makes all of the hard work worthwhile. I hear stories of freezing hands during cold, early-morning, outdoor practices in April. But I also hear of gorgeous sunrises over the stillness of Lake Ontario, and the thrill of gliding across the surface of the water in a boat with your teammates.

“Up off your seat! Pull hard! Come on, elbows up, shoulders back! Hold your catch angle!”

It’s day two and Kahn is calling out instructions that I don’t quite understand. I didn’t realize how much focus and concentration it takes to be a good rower. Kahn’s coaching technique stresses the importance of learning, listening and focusing, rather than just memorizing movements and performing them unconsciously. As a coach, Kahn is friendly, encouraging and fun — but he’s also tough.

“A good coach believes in an athlete,” he says. “A good coach will push their athletes because we know that they can do it.”

The mood on Wednesday is less energetic. Everyone is a bit quieter and their feet drag slightly through the halls as we head to the RAC — it’s midweek.

The most enthusiastic and energetic person this morning is women’s team captain, Peggy Hyslop.

In the change room, Hyslop, 24, laughs and jokes with her teammates.

“Most people are cranky in the morning,” Hyslop says. “But me, I get my crank on at, like, 9 p.m. because that’s my bed time.”

Hyslop embodies the qualities that Kahn says make up an ideal athlete.

“An athlete has goals and likes pushing themselves. They’re strong in body and strong in mind. They have a positive attitude and they enjoy themselves,” says Kahn.

By Friday, I’m starting to get used to the early mornings. As soon as I wake up, I’m excited to get on that erg for my last day with the tea. And I’m a little sad that it’s all coming to an end.

While we warm up, I talk with the men’s team captain, Andy Guiry, who’s rowing beside me. The first-year architect student has been nursing a hamstring injury for the past year that keeps him from training as intensely as he would like to. This means he won’t be rowing in the championships on the weekend. Regardless, Guiry still makes it to every practice, training as hard as he can so he can rehabilitate and get back in the boat as soon as possbiel. His dedication and hard work demonstrate his love for the sport.

“When I first got injured, I almost went into a sort of depression,” he says.

But, with Kahn’s help, Guiry says he has kept a positive attitude — one that he works into other parts of his life as well.

“I’ve probably learned more from rowing than I have in school — about the attitude, and determination and hard work,” he says.

After Friday’s practice, I chat with Kahn in his tiny office in the RAC. He asks me how my week of training has been. I sum it up for him: “I love it.” I tell him I’m interested in training with the team regularly. Kahn smiles and says, “You would be a coxie.”

Well, it’s certainly a start. The coxie, Kahn explains, is the eyes and ears of the team: they’re the little ones sitting at the end of the boat who keep everyone in synch.

Kahn and I talk about his experience rowing, the Ryerson team and the upcoming championships. I ask him how he maintains such a dedicated and enthusiastic team of rowers. That’s when he tells me about “the rowing bug.”

“It’s contagious,” he says. “There’s no cure, and once you’ve been bitten by the rowing bug, that’s it.”

At the Canadian Indoor Rowing Championships on Feb. 8, the team’s hard work paid off. Almost every rower pulled a personal best and Hyslop once again demonstrated her incredible strength, winning the gold medal in the Open Women’s category. Despite the fact that he wasn’t competing, Guiry attended the championship to support his team and snap some photos.

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