A morning on the river

An inside look at what Queen's rowers do while other students sleep

The men’s varsity lightweight eight-men crew trains on the Cataraqui River Wednesday morning.
The men’s varsity lightweight eight-men crew trains on the Cataraqui River Wednesday morning.
Varsity rowers have to devote their entire fall semester to the sport, says assistant coach Stu Robinson.
Varsity rowers have to devote their entire fall semester to the sport, says assistant coach Stu Robinson.

Just after 5:30 a.m. on Wednesday, crowds of Queen’s rowers carried boats from the Kingston Rowing Club headquarters down to the docks on the shores of the Cataraqui River. They hit the water clad in toques and fleeces, using spotlights to navigate through the darkness.

“At the end of today’s row, you shouldn’t be able to move,” assistant coach Stu Robinson told rowers Wednesday morning. “You shouldn’t be able to row back to the dock.”

The rowing team moved in to the Kingston Rowing Club on Aug. 15 and will remain there until early November. Head coach John Armitage oversees a team of 112 student-athletes who row in varsity, junior varsity and novice crews. The varsity crews compete in Ontario University Athletics (OUA) competitions while the others participate in unofficial regattas.

I spent the morning in the coaches’ motorboat with Robinson, who coaches the men’s varsity eight-man lightweight and heavyweight crews. Since the OUA system awards the most points to eight-man boats during regattas, Robinson’s crews are the most important boats on the men’s team.

“You’re lucky you came today,” he told me. “It was pouring out here yesterday.”

Every Wednesday, Robinson puts his crews through time trials on a two-kilometre course to simulate OUA race conditions. Robinson said training is designed to have athletes at their physical peak at the OUA championships in late October.

“Really, we’re peaking for one week of the year.”

Before we started, Robinson made sure to guide his crews through the course with his spotlight.

“Our biggest challenge in the morning is that it’s so dark that you can’t see all the marker buoys,” he said. “We’ve broken lots of expensive oars that way.”

Last year, Rowing Canada received additional funding from the Canadian Olympic Committee to identify potential Olympic rowers. It named the Queen’s and Kingston rowing programs as a Training Development Centre for identification and development of future rowing talent. This season, coaches who work for the national program determined which athletes would row for the men’s and women’s varsity crews.

Robinson said athletes have to devote their fall semester to the program.

“You have to actually take two months off your life,” he said. “If you want to go have a night on the town, you’re not going to be a good rower.”

Crews will compete for the first time tomorrow on Sunday at the Head of the Rideau regatta in Ottawa. Robinson said practices are still focused on improving technical cohesion amongst crew mates.

“The biggest thing is getting that unison, that connection between all the guys in the boat,” he said. “It takes time to get that.”

Rowing differs from other team sports because all members play the same position. Robinson, a former Queen’s rower, said the eight men who spend every morning pulling water for each other become special friends.

“It’s the morning atmosphere that does it,” he said. “It’s like a family. You spend so much time together at five in the morning, there’s no way you’re not going to be extremely close.”

It was easy to see what he meant. Robinson’s two crews rowed side by side for almost two hours, performing four different two-kilometre races. They were panting after the first one. Many collapsed after the fourth.

“Always look at the guys when they’re done and see who’s hurting,” Robinson said. “You can look down the boat and you can tell if guys aren’t pulling.”

After inspecting the boats, Robinson said he was impressed with both crews.

“They’re hurting bad right now,” he said. “That was a good session.”

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