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Oregon Rowing Unlimited, adapting to pandemic, stages competition on Willamette

COURTESY PHOTO: KYM MCCORNACK - Will Hathaway, a junior at Cleveland High, rows to first place in a special sculling race staged on Oct. 3 by Oregon Rowing Unlimited on the Willamette River.Oregon Rowing Unlimited was riding a wave of momentum in early March.

A much-anticipated spring season was off to a strong start at a regatta in British Columbia, several of its junior rowers were eyeing a return trip to the national championships, and its membership was nearing a point where a waiting list was considered.

We all know the next twist.

Instead of putting in five hard workouts a week on the water, Will Hathaway, Lauren Garrett and their teammates spent the spring trying to stay in shape with home workouts and cross training. Modified training on the Willamette River resumed in May, which was nice.

But it wasn't until Oct. 3 that they could experience competition again.

Dubbed the Scullers Head of the Willamette, an invitation-only competition staged by ORU included 58 rowers representing six clubs.

Each participant rowed a single scull over a 4-kilometer course. Hathaway, a junior at Cleveland High, and Garrett, a sophomore at West Linn High, each had the fastest time for their division.

"It was really exciting," Garrett said. "We've been training so long and had nothing to race for."

COURTESY PHOTO: REBECCA GARRETT - Lauren Garrett, a sophomore at West Linn High, was the fastest female finisher in an Oct. 3 sculling race staged by Oregon Rowing Unlimited.In March, the ORU program shut down. For two months, rowers used to training on the water five or six days a week were stuck at home. ORU responded by loaning out rowing machines, known as ergs, so its members could train safely at home. Team captains organized video training sessions to help the team remain connected and engaged.

In mid-May, rowers returned to training on the water. But it was far from routine. Junior rowing competition usually involves doubles, fours and eights, so training alone in sculls was a new experience.

The Scullers Head of the Willamette only came together in September.

"Having a race gave training a more tangible purpose," Hathaway said.

To make it happen, Richard Edwards enlisted a crew of club parents to stage the day of racing. He said the club had thought about hosting a regatta in past years but worried it would distract from training. Given the situation — and with the dark winter months on the horizon — an early-October event made sense.

But pulling it off with a team of volunteers who hadn't done it was challenging and rewarding, Edwards said. He noted that a big challenge was getting 58 individual sculls in and out of the water while maintaining social distance.

Rowers started the 4-kilometer race off of Milwaukie's Elk Rock Island and finished just north of the Sellwood Bridge, not far from the ORU boathouse at Oaks Park.

The Oct. 3 regatta was unique, too, because single-scull racing doesn't happen in America, where U.S. Rowing sanctions racing for two-person, fours and eights.

Edwards, who started rowing at age 8 in Britain, noted that a single scull can be more challenging than in larger boat, because "if you make a mistake, you tend to get feedback more quickly. If you make too big a mistake, you're swimming."

The event was a "huge boost to morale" not only for rowers but for parents who had not seen each other in months, according to Brad Hathaway, Will's father and the ORU treasurer.

COURTESY PHOTO: WILL HATHAWAY - Will HathawayThe cancelation of the spring 2020 season was especially disappointing for Will Hathaway. In 2019, he and Ivan Beremski took fifth place in lightweight doubles at the U.S. Rowing Junior Nationals. A top-three finish was realistic in 2020. Beremski was a senior in the spring.

If there is a season in spring of 2021, Will Hathaway will team with fellow Cleveland High junior Max Zimmerman in an attempt to return to nationals.

Hathaway's goal for the Scullers Head of the Willamette "was just to win it."

His time of 16:18 was fastest among all youth rowers, with three adult rowers posting faster times led by Bill Bird from Willamette Rowing Club in 14:14.

"I'm happy with the race," Hathaway said. "The line I took probably wasn't perfect, but I had a good stroke rate."

Like many sports organizations, ORU had to adjust quickly when the pandemic restrictions hit.

Garrett, who took up rowing at age 12, said the hardest part of the two months off the water was missing time with teammates. Zoom calls were better than nothing, and helped them hold one another accountable, but that wasn't quite the same.

"Now, I really appreciate being able to see them," she said.

The other lesson was that Garrett can show up and stay disciplined even when the social aspect of the sport is missing.

As she aims to lower her 2-kilometer time — a key metric in the college recruiting process — Garrett said she actually became faster between March and October. It showed on Oct. 3, when she finished the 4-kilometer course in 17 minutes, 11 seconds. She had the eighth fastest time among the 58 participants, and the fastest for a female.

COURTESY PHOTO: KYM MCCORNACK - Family members gathered on at Waverley Country Club to watch the Oct. 3 Scullers Head of the Willamette, an invitational race staged by Oregon Rowing Unlimited.The ORU event included participants from Lake Oswego Community Rowing, South Eugene Rowing Club, and Portland's Station L rowing club. Among eight rowing clubs along the Willamette in the Portland area, Oregon Rowing Unlimited and Rose City Rowing Club are established youth-focused programs.

The Oct. 3 race was a positive step, and an example of how the club pulled together to manage challenges during the pandemic. But ORU treasurer Brad Hathaway noted that, like so many aspects of life, it is difficult to imagine the club operating indefinitely on a scaled-back level.

"We celebrate that through significant efforts by resourceful coaches and parents, we have managed to get youths back on the water" and host a scaled down form of competition, he said.

"We remain hungry for an even fuller recovery, both for the program's economics and (for) ease of operation."

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