Grand Rapids in National Rowing Spotlight with Masters Nationals

In just a few days, the first boats will be off the line speeding down the course at the 2014 USRowing Masters Nationals, the national championship regatta for adults that row in the United States.

Rowing is the fastest growing amateur sport in the country, and there are more amateur rowers in the United States than in all other countries combined. I might be biased, but I understand why so many get hooked. Rowing is the ultimate teamwork sport. Figuring out how to stay perfectly in sync with your crewmates can sometimes be a challenge – but when things work, there’s no feeling like it in the world. And that almost 2,000 of them are going to be here Aug. 14-17 to race on our Grand River (and 5,000 more to watch) is pretty amazing.


When we bid on the event with West Michigan Sports Commission more than a year ago, we knew it could be a long shot. Even though we had teamed up in the past to host rowing events (the MACRA college championship regatta in 2012), our course at Riverside Park was relatively unknown in the national elite rowing community, and a rowing event of the scale of Nationals had never been in Michigan.

When the site selection team came to our rowing event of the Meijer State Games to see our course and resources, they were impressed with our proximity to downtown and destinations further out like Lake Michigan. Having the “Beer City USA” designation also didn’t hurt. A month later, we learned we were finalist, competing against more tried-and-true rowing venues plus big contenders such as San Diego and Oklahoma City. So when word came that Grand Rapids had been selected, we were overjoyed – and a little overwhelmed. A visit to the $30 million-plus rowing stadium of Benderson Park in Sarasota to watch the 2013 Masters Nationals gave us a hint of what the event is about – solid, high-intensity racing, with competitors from around the country converging on one city for several days for a shot at a national title. Suddenly, Grand Rapids was on the national rowing map – and we knew we had a great amount of work ahead of us.

This is an exciting time for rowing in Grand Rapids, and a turning point in our rowing history that dates to 1890. Our first boathouse was constructed in 1910, and our oarsmen had a strong showing at national-level regattas in Philadelphia and Boston. The rowing club’s strength and membership began to wane in the 1960s when the boathouse burned down. As the club looked at a giant new boathouse on the books and no plan to keep the club afloat (couldn’t resist the pun!), we shifted gears by expanding our regatta lineup to attract bigger regattas. We have hosted our own summer Grand Regatta now for 27 years – and in 2010, we tied it into the Meijer State Games of Michigan – Summer Games as its rowing event. It was a good decision. Our partnership with the West Michigan Sports Commission on that event led to winning the bid for the 2012 regional collegiate championship regatta (attracting 1,500 athletes), which we leveraged for the bid for the Masters Nationals. The club itself has gotten bigger too – our membership has grown tenfold, and our Learn to Row programs have attracted 500 students over the last five years.

While the growth and stability of rowing in Grand Rapids is exciting, nothing is more thrilling than what’s coming with the Masters Nationals. Thousands will gather at Riverside Park for four days of awesome racing, with a 1000m race starting every four minutes. It will be intense! Viewers will see six different kinds of rowing “shell” (official rowing term for boat) – one-person; two-person that sometimes have a “coxed” version where a third person called a coxswain (pronounced “COX-in”) is in the boat coaching the rowers; four-person; and eight-person, with eight rowers and a coxswain. At about 60 feet long and 250 pounds, moving an “eight” down a river is an amazing experience and a great workout.

Check out the regatta at Riverside Park to see an experience unlike anything you’ve witnessed in Grand Rapids. Racing days of the US Rowing Masters Nationals are Thursday, Aug. 14 through Sunday, Aug. 17, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Spectator parking will be at DASH lots downtown, with free shuttles that will take you right to the regatta where a hospitality tent plus a beer garden with viewing screens await your enjoyment! Information is at 

A great way to get a front-row seat of the action is as a volunteer, which are needed daily Aug. 14-17 to help with all aspects of the event.  You'll not only receive free lunch and a t-shirt, but you will be invited to attend the private Rowers' Reception Friday evening.  Register as a volunteer here:

See you at the regatta!

Landon Bartley
Guest Blogger
Landon Bartley is president of the Grand Rapids Rowing Association (GRRA) and an avid rower and instructor. He was the varsity men's head coach for GRRA's junior program from 2007 to 2011, plus a varsity rower for Michigan State University Men's Rowing for the 2002 - 2005 seasons.

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