It was one of those mornings, and there are plenty of them these days, when Dodd Wragg was truly in his element.
As the sun peeped over the horizon, he and his crew were rowing for the sheer enjoyment of being out on the water, making a boat move smoothly under its own power across San Diego’s Mission Bay.
The sight of Wragg and Co. savoring the moment impressed Susan Francia, a double Olympic gold medalist (2008 and 2012 in the women’s eight) and coach at the San Diego Rowing Club. But not as much as the men’s ages: Wragg is 83, and his sidekicks are pushing 70.
“Seeing men who picked up rowing in their 60s out on the water is so awesome,” she said. “It’s very inspirational.”
Francia hopes to see a new wave of rowers at the 14th annual National Learn To Row Day on Saturday, June 6. Over the years, the program has introduced thousands of Americans to the sport, from teenagers and collegians to middle-aged females and graybeards like Wragg.
“USRowing has been doing a phenomenal job of promoting rowing as a universal sport and making it more accessible to youth and adults of all backgrounds,” Francia, 32, said.
“It’s a very attractive sport once people start hearing about it. There are so many opportunities. It can open so many doors.”
Jamie Schroeder realized that in 2001, when he joined the Northwestern rowing team. Like Francia, he was a mediocre high school athlete. But once he picked up an oar, he started winning medals. Within a few months, he was training at a national class level. Within a few years, the 6-foot-8 Schroeder found himself on a four-man boat at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games.
“In so many sports you have to start at such a young age to be competitive,” said Schroeder, who will be participating at a Learn to Row event in Baltimore. “I wasn’t a natural athlete as a kid. I was kind of uncoordinated. Rowing was the perfect sport for me coming in late. It’s one of a handful of sports where you can come in late and be on the national team.
“The benefit of Learn to Row day is that kids will be learning a new sport. The drive today is to tell kids to do one sport year-round. But I think the exposure to different sports and different activities is definitely the best way to grow up, regardless of what your ambitions are.”
Although he quit racing to attend Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Schroeder remains an eager salesman for the sport, sharing his experiences and emphasizing its health benefits, especially for the growing senior market.
“People can row well into their 80s without any problems, because it’s a very low impact sport,” Schroeder said. “And if you use the proper technique, it’s actually very good for the health of your spine.”
At a recent Learn to Row event in Florida, Joe Incorvia underscored Schroeder’s point when he made his maiden voyage with the Tampa Athletic Club. He’s 94.
“Being able to row in unison with a group of fellow rowers was a wonderful feeling,” he told USRowing.
Camaraderie is a big part of rowing. The art of propelling a boat over water requires unparalleled teamwork as well as the precision of a Swiss timepiece.
“You have to trust and rely and really know each other,” Francia said. “On the first day of practice (at the University of Pennsylvania), the coach said, ‘Look around you. You’re going to be friends with these girls the rest of your life. You’re going to go to each other’s weddings and your kids are going to play with each other.’
“His words were so true. Naturally, I’ll (bring that up Saturday).”
While each club organizes its own Learn to Row event, common elements include a tour of the boathouse, a crash course in indoor rowing (erging), a brief overview of rowing techniques and equipment, and an on-the-water rowing experience.
The Tulsa Youth Rowing Association plans on adding a new wrinkle to the clinic. Two-time Olympic weightlifter Shane Hamman, representing Okie CrossFit, will offer training tips as part of CrossFit’s ongoing partnership with the club.
“There is a real rowing community here in Oklahoma,” he said. “I help ‘em get where they want to be.”
Learn to Row Day is a project of USRowing, recognized by the United States Olympic Committee as the governing body for the sport in the country, and by Concept 2, an oar and rowing machine manufacturer.
Clay Latimer is a Denver-based writer who covered four Olympic Games, in addition to other sports, over 28 years with the Rocky Mountain News. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.