This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.
Grant Davis worried about the blister that formed under his calloused palm as he rowed through the calm water at Cherry Creek Reservoir. His team of four had just missed a mark, adding some time and distance to the 5,000-meter long slog around the lake, and that worried him, too. His body screamed with protest against the 25 years since he had raced in a regatta.
“We were cooked for sure,” he said at the end.
It was the most fun he’d had all month.
The racing, after all, was the best part of all the work he and other members of the Rocky Mountain Rowing Club put into hosting their first-ever regatta Oct. 9. The 5280 Regatta was the first in Colorado sanctioned by USRowing, the governing body of the sport. There are probably 100 sanctioned races, but it was still a big first step for the club and for rowing in Colorado. Before it, the club had occasionally hosted a spring sprint called Row the Rockies, effectively akin to a local 5K, until COVID-19 killed it.
The sanctioned race drew 99 entries and more than 200 rowers, including from Arizona, Salt Lake City, Kansas and a few overseas. Plus the official race had more bite than fall’s frosty morning, as it offers a chance to qualify for bigger races.
Lauren Steavpack, 31, of Denver, who rowed for the University of Wisconsin, coaches the club’s novice rowers and just got back from the world championships in France, smiled Sunday even more than she usually does (which, according to other club members, is basically “always”).
“This has the energy of a bigger regatta,” Steavpack said.
Many, including Davis, put in part-time hours to get it ready. Pete Gozar, 5280’s race director, worked on it for a year and a half. Getting sanctioned isn’t too hard, Gozar said — you just need to pay some dues and get close to a dozen safety officials and refs — but a sanctioned race draws more people who expect a quality event, and that takes a lot of time and energy.
On Sunday they had little time to enjoy their success, acting like wedding coordinators checking off a detailed agenda. Davis, for instance, had been at the state park since 5 a.m., directing participants into limited parking for three hours, in fall conditions that left him shaking even after clutching a hot cup of coffee when his shift was up. Racing was a relief, as it warmed him up: He looked forward to another one that day despite knowing that it would leave him a bit too well done.
Colorado does have some rowing history. The high school program at Cherry Creek, introduced three Olympians to the sport, and the CU men’s rowing club competes against some of the top clubs in the country in the loaded Pac-12.
And Colorado is known for its outdoor athletes: The Rocky Mountain club alone has former world champions, an Olympian, former college stars and current medal-winning Masters to go along with its novices, age-groupers and serious competitors. There’s also a waiting list of more than 100 who want to take the club’s introductory course and use the boats and other resources to get on the water.
But there’s also considerable room to expand, and Colorado faces challenges that states back East and even its neighbors in the West don’t necessarily face. There’s no ideal location, for instance: Cherry Creek Reservoir is one of the few in the state large enough to offer a 5,000-meter lap, and that’s important, as it’s the common distance for a fall race, what rowers call a “head race.” Spring races are sprints and are outright races, like the kind you see in the Olympics, but fall head races are 5,000-meter time trials, like the kind you occasionally see in the Tour de France.
Cherry Creek’s proximity to Denver makes it convenient but rife with conflict with powerboats and anglers. Cherry Creek is a state park, so it’s not like Rocky Mountain could close it even for a sanctioned event. Some rowers from northern Colorado call Cherry Creek “The Wake Bowl” as a result.
Even the weather can be an issue, as our winters bleed into spring, the wind here can make the water choppy, and there’s always the drought: The reservoir was lower than club members had ever seen, leaving them to scramble and change their route so boats didn’t get grounded. There’s not really a great place to start, either, leaving competitors forced to wade into the cold reservoir for a beach launch.
Davis isn’t a fan of beach launches: “They suck,” he said, growling at the waist-deep ice bath they had to take before getting in their boat and rowing to the start.
Gozar pushed the club to put on the fall regatta after Row the Rockies only seemed to magnify those problems. Fall is better than spring for rowing: Oct. 9 was a gorgeous, calm day, even when a few powerboats showed up at the very end.
Still, even while Davis was trying to warm up, he grinned through his coffee. The event was small compared to some of the premier regattas, with more participants than spectators. But it was lively. Participants, especially the college and high school kids, were loud, almost too loud as they screamed for their teammates, startling the more serene club rowers. Music blasted through the crisp air.
“This is a lot more successful than we thought it would be,” Davis said. “We had a big contingent from Salt Lake City, for instance. That was a nice surprise.”
As Aretha Franklin called across the beach for Respect — “just a little bit” — the club members seemed pleased that the larger group of competitors was answering her call.
“I mean, compared to others this is one of the smaller races,” said Clara Griffey, a Fort Collins High School senior who hopes to row in college and a member of the NoCo Junior Crew and the Fort Collins Rowing Association out of Horsetooth Reservoir. “But it’s so nice to have an event like this in our backyard.”
The Rocky Mountain Rowing Club knew they weren’t going to put on something like Head of the Charles in Boston, one of the premier races in the world that draws hundreds of thousands spectators and participants. But they did use it as a model.
“It’s a showcase for us,” said Tom Murphy, the president of the Rocky Mountain club. “For us to put on this kind of race, it puts Colorado on the map as a place where people can race on that level.”
Organizers of the 5280 Regatta picked Oct. 9 because of the fall weather and colors, but it’s also two weeks before Head of the Charles. They hope they will be viewed as a tuneup race and a chance to train at elevation, which could offer an advantage.
The club started in 1985 and moved to Cherry Creek in the early 1990s. The club maintains a massive shed at the state park for all their equipment and has helped other rowing clubs get their start in places such as Gunnison, Fort Collins and Frisco, Murphy said. It now has 130 members.
“We want to show the Colorado community what a great sport rowing can be in this state,” Murphy said.
The regatta is pivotal to keeping the club’s premier status in Colorado.
“We’ve always had a contingent of people who raced worldwide,” Murphy said. “What we are trying to do is get the sport to be more inclusive here and get more people involved. We want to have more of a community.”
Murphy acknowledges the challenges Colorado presents, but there’s not much he can do about the reservoirs. Horsetooth Reservoir may be a better lake for rowing, perhaps, but it’s all the way up beyond Fort Collins. The state may eventually allow them to reserve a part of the park, at least for future regattas, but for now, he thinks the conflicts between rowers and motorboats are minor. Most of the time, club members start at 5 a.m. because the water is calm, a time when many motorboat operators are snoring instead of roaring.
“We are early morning rowers,” Murphy said. “When the sun is coming up, that’s when we go out for a nice row. Everything works out for everyone.”
The sport is primed to launch in Colorado, Murphy said. More remote workers are moving to Colorado from San Francisco and the East Coast and bringing interest in the sport with them. And more women than ever are rowing, he said, another success story resulting from Title IX, as colleges use rowing as a way to even out all those football players. Murphy’s wife, Gail Saxton, also enjoys the sport.
“That’s really exciting,” Murphy said. “It brings a whole new energy to rowing.”
Murphy, 69, also promotes the sport as a lifetime activity, much like swimming or running or hiking, sports that have well-established places in Colorado’s lore. He has rowers in their 80s in the club, and there are many high school kids, especially girls, who don’t like team sports but enjoy rowing.
“I just got back from the world championships,” Murphy said. “I had a lot of fun.”
Barb Gueldner waded into the water and prepared to start her first race ever with her team of four. But before she could be a badass boater, she had to be a mom.
“Put your shoes on!” Gueldner yelled to her child, as she shivered in the cold morning. “Geez, aren’t your feet cold?”
The scene was quite a contrast with May, when Gueldner and Dan Oltersdorf, both of Denver, attended a beginners’ orientation at the reservoir. Gueldner’s husband, Brian Paul, remembers the day well.
“It was FREEZING,” Paul said. “But she loved it.”
Gueldner had wanted to row most of her life after growing up in Wisconsin, where water people are as common as mountain people are here.
“I don’t care for water things,” Paul said, but he brought their child and Augie, their lab puppy, who is liable to knock you over if you call his name. “But I’m really happy for her. You have to like it a lot to get up at 5 a.m. for practice. She really does.”
Gueldner and Oltersdorf had rowed for a month in their crew of four, but they didn’t want to miss out on the fun and kind of horrified Coach Steavpack, who though she is decades younger than some of her novice rowers, calls them her “babies,” when they said they wanted to race.
The team — Steavpack named them The Fall Guys — is a good example of how the club’s promotions are working, perhaps a little too well. The team has a waiting list of more than 100 people eager to use the club’s equipment and expertise.
“They are seeking us out now,” Steavpack said of the novice rowers.
Oltersdorf turned to rowing after running for many years in a club and doing his workouts on an indoor rowing machine. Rowing is tough to learn, he said, and at first he was utterly lost. He felt a lot of connection with his daughter, he said, who is learning how to drive.
“You have to learn how to do so many things at once just to get to a point where you can be semi-competent,” he said. “Body position, mechanics of the stroke, hand movement, blades squared, looking back. All the things that are just now starting to come together.”
The first-class competition is important, but Steavpack loves seeing the newbies the most. It’s why she coaches them, even though she could offer expert advice to much more advanced rowers. She joined in 2015 and quickly became a coach in addition to one of the top rowers.
“The novices are all rowing for a reason,” she said. “To see them going in and racing after knowing almost nothing about the sport is so gratifying.”
Race day is indeed more difficult, even if it is more exciting, than all those 5 a.m. practices. The club, as a token of sportsmanship, rowed clockwise instead of their usual counterclockwise. This meant giving up all their usual sightlines and cues that they were, in fact, going in the right direction. Rowers pull their oars with their backs turned: Imagine running a 5K backward.
“You should be on the other side of the candy corn buoy!” Gozar yelled through his megaphone at a wayward boat. The wrong side means penalty seconds added to their time in addition to rowing an inefficient route. The fact that so many boats missed their buoys showed both the newness of the event and the inexperience of many competitors, Gozar later said.
“I’ve never seen so many missed buoys in a race,” he said and laughed.
When it was over, the four beginners returned to the beach and carried their boat back to the shed, where club members volleyed questions about how it went for them. When they got the boat settled, Gueldner couldn’t help herself.
“Omigosh,” she said while drawing her team into a hug. “We did it! WE DID IT.”
The club hopes to host their second regatta next year. The work didn’t seem so bad after watching others race across the reservoir.
“The first one is always the hardest,” Murphy said. “Next year it’ll be a bit more familiar.”
Gozar hopes the 5280 Regatta will turn into a legacy event — they may adjust the date a tad, as it conflicted with the Head of the Oklahoma, a huge event — and that can lead to other things. Gozar fell in love with the sport in the ’80s in Cleveland, participating in things like a summer rowing league similar to a softball league (down to the beers they drank at the end), and eventually founded the Cleveland Rowing Foundation. More races are possible on other reservoirs.
“There’s a million things we learned from this race,” Gozar said.
The club itself wants to expand. They want more and better boats and a bigger storage shed and ways to get more beginners in classes, such as offering eight-person boats.
Sunday’s regatta can get them all that, too, especially if it grows next year. It’s huge, Steavpack said, for other clubs to see their name attached to a sanctioned event as well as their jackets at events all over the world.
It seems crazy, but maybe one day, they could host Colorado’s version of Head of the Charles, with spectators and hundreds or maybe even a few thousand rowers.
Appropriately enough, while club members think about what could be, the sun starts cooking their backs, and Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” blasts over the beach.