Rowing against all odds
ASHLAND — At the Emigrant Lake boathouse, as sleet falls sideways on boats stacked outside, Sydney Bichsel sets her junior athletes to the ergometers and outlines the workout. Yesterday they tested 2,000-meter times, but today they’re focused on low and fast splits, all out. Sit up, ready all, attention, go.
Come COVID, weather or low water, these athletes will row.
With just 10 athletes, the space looks sparse compared to a packed boathouse of more than 50 Rogue Rowing Club junior team members two years ago. But the close-knit crew hasn’t lost determination.
Bichsel joined the club in 2019 to coach novices under former head coach Rick Brown and took over this fall as interim head coach, following Brown’s departure in July. Having worked with such dedicated athletes, leaving them without leadership would have been a “disservice” to their commitment, Bichsel said.
“Seeing what they do here and the general grit that the kids have — they’re blissfully in love with getting out on the water and learning how to be better,” she said.
After suffering dwindling team numbers throughout the pandemic, Bichsel launched a recruiting effort for the winter training season — an attempt to “rebuild” when the team had only begun to develop a competitive edge in the Northwest, she said.
Students from seventh to 12th grade at all fitness levels are welcome.
Mira Jacobs, in her second year on the team, said she was motivated to train through the winter because the pandemic halted basketball season. Compared to sports where she encountered a “who’s the best” mentality, Jacobs said rowing is uplifting. Mistakes can be corrected, and emphasis is placed on helping each teammate improve.
“Coming in the winter always makes the spring better,” said third-year rower Amelie Requejo. “It makes us win more and row faster, so I think it’s important to come improve. It challenges us mentally, which I think is really good not only in the spring but overall, in school too.”
When the first round of the pandemic hit, the juniors rowing team pivoted to training in single-person boats, distanced and separated into three practice times with small groups. Previously, the team could easily fill eight-person boats, which capture the collaborative element of the sport to which many athletes are drawn.
“The team had grown so much because we were able to do the big, fast boats … once you’re in there with a bunch of other people and you’re all moving at the same time, it makes it enjoyable,” Bichsel said. “A big aspect of that was lost for some of the kids, but we were really proud of the fact that we were able to host an athletic experience as well as a team experience.”
Outreach became increasingly difficult throughout the pandemic, she said. Recruiting took a dive without the ability to visit schools or reach students who started attending classes online.
Some athletes graduated, which affected team numbers, but the pandemic seemed to have the greatest impact, said three-year club member Elexie Applegate, who joined after the club visited her school’s physical education class.
Other sports hadn’t clicked, but Applegate said she quickly decided to dedicate the rest of her high school athletics career to rowing. A serious injury last January forced her to back off high-impact physical activities and modify participation with the club. Still, as she came to better understand her body’s limits, Applegate said coaching support was key.
“[Bichsel] is the first coach that I have really connected with through every sport I have been through,” Applegate said. “She was my motivation to keep going for a while.”
“Right now, it’s a really tight-knit community,” she said. “Because of COVID, everyone is trying to lean on each other.”
Bichsel describes rowing as the “ultimate team sport,” with opportunities for all skill levels bolstered by the constant unity of working toward a common goal.
In 2019, the Rogue Rowing Club sent boats to Florida to compete in the U.S. Rowing Youth National Championship, and in the fall one women’s youth boat raced at Head of the Charles, the most prestigious head race in the U.S. — a “huge first for the club,” Bichsel said.
This past fall, a small group of dedicated rowers trudged through muddy Emigrant Lake shorelines to continue their training, leading up to races at Head of the Lagoon in Foster City, California — the first time racing the course since before the pandemic, Bichsel said.
“When you go to a race and you haven't been to one in so many years, it provides a spark and it’s a reminder: This is why we do it, this is why we’re here, this is why we show up every day,” she said. “They were able to race with people, which I think is the game changer, because last year it was primarily singles and we were only racing against South Eugene.”
Jake Read, in his fifth year, prioritizes strength in his commitment to rowing, for body and mind. Despite enduring the challenges of coaching changes and the loss of dozens of teammates, Read said his dedication has only grown this year, as he strives to improve his own performance and “set an example” for the team that they can still compete and place well in races.
When Emigrant Lake water levels dropped to record lows this summer and fall, the team moved the dock a few hundred feet at a time, until the lake dropped low enough to move it to the Emigrant Lake campground. Athletes plodded through inches of mud in rain boots to launch boats — “it’s a slog and it’s a grind,” Bichsel said.
Occasionally, the team comes across a paddleboarder or fisherman willing to drag their equipment down, but typically it’s just the committed rowers out on the low water, she said.
“For them to still be here, I think, is a true testament to not only their dedication to the sport and their love for the sport, but to their dedication to each other,” Bichsel said. “They show up for each other every day.”
Whether spring races will go forward depends on the pandemic and a decision by Northwest coaches. Regardless of opportunities to race, Bichsel said her team’s diligence and support for each other fuels them with a purpose greater than themselves.
“These kids deserve teammates and they deserve to see the club grow,” Bichsel said. “Some of them were here when it was at its peak, and now they’re here when it’s at its most grassroots level.”
The Rogue Rowing Club will host an open house Jan. 12 from 4:30-6 p.m. at the boathouse for members of the public to meet the team and try a learn-to-row session. Inquiries about the program and permanent head coach candidacy can be directed to Bichsel at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The club “is a place to form new friendships, get stronger and participate in a sport we love,” athletes wrote on water-soaked inspirational boathouse posters. “It is a place to grow and a place to forget everything outside the boat and focus on the stroke and each other.”
Reach reporter Allayana Darrow at email@example.com or 541-776-4497.