Twelve years ago, a rowing team was estabished at Ryerson University. The team has since been relegated to club status due to a lack of interest from the student body and the resignation of their coach, Associate Photo Editor Marissa Dederer reports
Clad in spandex, Ben Murphy carefully lowers the 26 foot long fiberglass boat into the water. He attaches the oars and climbs into the boat. He puts his hand on the wooden dock, careful to avoid the puddles of goose feces and shoves away, into open water. His strokes are short and unbalanced. He wants to stay upright. Finally, he extends his arms and crouches, knees to chest, the oars hover slightly off the water before plunging down. He doesn’t even get to finish his first stroke before he tips into the chilly waters of Lake Ontario. Murphy swims back to shore ready to call it quits but his coach, Dominic Kahn tells him he’s “gotta get back in”. He takes longer and longer strokes until he’s balanced and fast, gliding across the water accompanied by the click-swish of the seat as it slides in rhythm.
Murphy’s first time in a rowing shell parallels the journey of Ryerson’s rowing team. The program first came to the school in 1996 as a trial sport for two years. But in ’98, there was no school interest to continue, so rowing left Ryerson. It came back in 2001 and David Dubois, who was the athletic director at the time, was very supportive. Rowing went through the same two year probation and in 2003, started its firstever varsity season.
But over the past few years, the 12-year old varsity team has been on a downward slide. In the 2010 rowing season, only one athlete made it into the Ontario University Athletics Championships (OUA) finals. This result, following an OUA gold medal in 2009 and silver and bronze medals in previous seasons was an obvious step backwards, even for a team going through a developmental year. In 2010, over half the team consisted of athletes who had never been in a rowing shell before.
“We had a program [that] seemed to be on the decline at that point from where it had been,” said associate athletics director Stephanie White. “It felt like we were having some struggles in terms of producing some strong results, growing the program.”
In the fall of 2011, Kahn, who had spearheaded the rowing program, sent in his letter of resignation. Kahn wrote in the letter that he could not manage both his parental responsibilities and coaching responsibilities for the team.
“This was not an easy decision to make. I am grateful for the rewarding experience I’ve had with Ryerson University,” wrote Kahn. “I’m very proud of what we’ve been able to do here in my 12 years as head coach, both on and off the water.”
But Kahn’s resignation was unexpected for some of his athletes, Murphy included. “It kind of took me by surprise,” said the third-year architecture student.
“Not so much surprised that he was resigning, but surprised as, okay, what can I do now to further rowing at Ryerson?”
Murphy had been recruited to the team during his first week at Ryerson in 2009. As in previous years, he took to the streets in hopes of recruiting rowers for the upcoming season.
A meeting was held in September but many unknowns remained.
By late September, it was already too late to start a program. The university’s on-water season only runs until the end of October. So with no hope of training with a team at Ryerson, Murphy began rowing at the Argonaut Rowing Club, still hoping to represent Ryerson at the OUA championships in late October. But he found the training was difficult to do on his own.
“Doing any sport without a coach is very hard,” he said. “They serve as motivation, guidance, a manager, a lot of things that an athlete on his or her own can’t do.”
Things got even more difficult for him when he ran into a roadblock with the Ryerson athletics administration just before OUAs.
“That was a bit of a trouble because the administration at Ryerson felt that I had not received the level of support necessary to compete at a provincial level. However this was not the truth and I was able to perform,” he said.
The school did support him, allowing him to represent Ryerson at the OUAs and paying the $1,000 entry fee. Murphy finished in sixth place in the final, improving on his previous year’s performance. In 2010 he didn’t make the finals.
After the OUAs, Murphy took a short break to focus on his school. Now, he and rowing veteran Rob Kania have started training with a group of four novices. Murphy and Kania receive workout plans from former national team member Arden Beddoes who acts as a mentor for the pair. They in turn alter the workouts for the novices.
The training is open to anyone with a Ryerson Athletic Centre (RAC) membership.
Two weeks ago the team raced at the Canadian Indoor Rowing Championships in Mississauga.
Murphy finished third in the senior B men’s category, while two novices competed and both raced to best times in the two kilometer event. Matt Buie, a Ryerson rowing alum won the senior men’s competition. The last indoor rowing competition is the Ontario Indoor Championships at Ridley College this Saturday.
The newer members of the rowing club would like to see the team grow over the coming year. Murphy would like to see the club back as an established varsity team with a coach although he is skeptical about the status of the rowing team changing at all.
White said that Ryerson athletics is hoping to put something forward soon. She said they will work towards a bigger rowing club but the size will depend on leadership at that level.
Without a coach or the necessary facilities to train at, it’s unlikely that rowing will become a varsity sport again.
*Correction: in the print version of this article, the pull quote is wrongly attributed to Dominic Kahn. Ben Murphy actually said it.