Like so many sports, rowing exists under the radar of Americans except when it takes a moment in the spotlight every four years in the Olympics.
It’s then we’re reminded that one of the sport’s events, the Women’s 8, is ruled by the United States in much the same way as Michael Phelps dominates the pool. The U.S. team won its third straight Olympic gold in the event last week in London and hasn’t been beaten since 2006.
As that group of U.S. women are bringing a bit of attention to the sport internationally, so is a local club trying to grow rowing in Chicago’s LGBT community.
The Chicago Rowing Union, now in its sixth year, had a modest beginning, according to Craig Wu, the group’s director of marketing: “It started with a group of five guys that wanted to participate in the Chicago Gay Games.”
Those rowers learned the sport at the Lincoln Park Boat Club and eventually split off to form their own club. Now in its sixth year of competition, CRU has around 60 members – mostly but not exclusively from the LGBT community.
The numbers have been more or less steady, but efforts are underway to grow the organization. Among the initiatives are a learn to row program.
One focus, according to Wu, is getting more gender balance in what has been a predominantly male organization. “We have four women that are dedicated club members this year,” he said. “There’s a few alumni rowers that try to get to come back.”
CRU had its first women’s teams in the annual Chicago Sprints last month, taking eighth in the Women’s 4+ and sixth in the Women’s Masters 4+A divisions, respectively. In June, CRU’s Women’s Open 4+ team was second in the Grand Rapids, Mich. Regatta.
Other notable results from the Chicago Sprints included a third in Men’s Masters 4+A and fourths in Men’s Open 8+, Men’s Masters 4+B, Novice 8+ and Mixed 8+. At Grand Rapids, CRU took second in the Men’s Masters 8+, third and fifth in Men’s Masters 4A and second in Mixed Rec 8+.
The group is reaching out in other ways as well. It had a booth at Andersonville’s Midsommarfest for the first time and has had talks with the Center on Halsted about starting a youth program.
Through all this, CRU is trying to put a new face on a sport many Americans in general, and Chicagoans in particular, may not fully understand.
“We’re trying to combat the perception that it’s an East Coast, elitist sport,” Wu said. “We’re trying to to bring it back, make it more accessible to everybody in the Midwest. We always try to put a good foot forward.”
CRU is preparing for another first: a trip to the Canadian Masters Nationals Aug. 24-26 in Montreal, the group’s first major competition outside the U.S.
Competing for CRU in three races (men’s eight and two fours) will be Wu, Bill Moudry, Philip Hedrei, Zach Morrison, Randy Mitchell, Justin DiGiamberdine, Bill Atwell, Paulo Son, coxswain Ashley Salbeck and interim coach Anthony Chacon.
After Montreal, CRU shifts to the Head Season, made up of longer races, that will last till Halloween. The year-round schedule then goes to training mode for the winter before sprints come around again in 2013.
As usual, the spring season will begin with the Stonewall Ragatta in Washington, D.C., an event whose name reaffirms CRU’s origins.
“Every year, there’s people that have work obligations,” Wu said. “It’s a tough sport. It takes a lot of commitment.”
But the rewards are evident, both when the American women win another Olympic gold and when CRU offers another way for members of the local LGBT community to stay active and fit.