On a cold and cloudy April afternoon back in 1996, eleven brave Rockford High School students took turns venturing into a shell for the first time. (This shell is now in the TGIFriday’s at Rivertown Crossing Mall!) Most had never heard of crew until a few weeks before when signs were posted about the school announcing the formation of a crew team. Yet, they came out of either a sense of adventure or curiosity. Images of rowing portray the sport as fluid and graceful; what they found was a demanding sport that made them feel awkward and taxed their physical limits. Undaunted, they were hooked by the challenge and camaraderie.
Grand Rapids Rowing Club member Rick Anderson thought rowing would be a great sport for high school students. Rick had learned to row at the University of Rhode Island from 1968-1972 and later sculled for the Narragansett Boat Club. 10 years after moving to Michigan, he met up with several GVSU students and they formed the Grand Rapids Rowing Club in 1985.
Fellow GRRC rower and Rockford resident, Kathleen Siegfried joined Rick to share the coaching duties. While she was fairly new to rowing, her teaching skills developed from years in the classroom helped speed the new rowers along their learning curves.
The first season was spent learning how to function as a high school crew team. They had to deal with a lack of equipment – the few boats available were older than the rowers and were subject to frequent breakage – which had to be shared with another school. Nevertheless, the students managed to learn the basics of rowing. Eventually, they traveled to a regatta in Toledo to test their new skills. The boys launched their four and rowed to the starting line in rough water. The rough water became very rough water as the wind picked up and the regatta was canceled before their race was started – so much for the team’s first season.
That fall the Grand Rapids Rowing Club’s Board of Directors debated the merits of high school rowing and how to integrate the students into the club. The directors looked favorably upon the student rowers and voted to commit club resources to high school rowing and took out a $10,000 loan to purchase boats for Rockford and Forest Hills’ use. Knowing they would have boats for the students, Rick and Kathleen urged the small team to spread the word about rowing. Over 50 students showed up at the organizational meeting and eventually 21 girls and 11 boys joined the 1997 team and established rowing as a viable high school sport.
In 1998, over 50 students participated. Fortunately, Sheila Fleming joined Rick and Kathleen to coach. The team also added the Western Ontario Scholastic Championship Regatta to their schedule. An informal parent organization developed to support the team at the regattas and help with fund raising. Well established now, the coaches tracked down and purchased (on credit) a used eight, oars, a trailer, and a new four in the fall of ’98.
Since then, the team has continued to grow – adding more students, coaches, equipment, and a new boathouse! This growth has been accompanied by many successes and Rockford Crew is a highly regarded competitor in regattas.
The team’s successes lead Rockford Public Schools to grant Crew status as a varsity sport in 2001. Qualifying rowers are eligible to receive athletic letters.
Crew is primarily self-funded, receiving only some financial support from the school district. For its operational and capital expenses, the team relies mostly on dues, donations, parental support, and funds received from the Rockford High School Crew Boosters and friends in the community.