July 31, 2014 at 1:00 am

Metro Detroit rowers compete for minimal recognition but maximum satisfaction

Detroit — It’s 4 a.m.

Most of the city is sleeping.

But on Grosse Ile, it’s time to wake up and get ready for practice. The drive isn’t a short one.

In Melvindale, it’s time, too.

You, too, Mom. Your daughter, Ranielle, can’t get there by herself.

Rise and shine, New Baltimore. But you’re probably working out already.

As for you, Grosse Pointe and Detroit, you’re closer to the river. One hit of the snooze is allowed.

So my morning of finally discovering “why” began at 4:10 a.m.

Why do athletes of all ages, representing 43 rowing clubs in Michigan, get up in the middle of the night to get on on the water at dawn?

For years, my wife, Lisa, has been out of the house by 5 a.m. to row with the Detroit Women’s Rowing Association, which isn’t just for women.

For years, she has said, “You don’t know what you are missing.”

For years, she was right. I didn’t.

The time never had been right. Recently, though, it was, and the result was one of the most serene mornings I’ve known.

The sun, as it rose, brilliantly illuminated the Belle Isle Bridge.

The Detroit River was like glass, hardly a ripple.

And no other watercraft were seen for 90 minutes. Not a kayak. Not a bass boat. Not a freighter.

Off in the distance was a steady plume of dark smoke from a house fire on the east side, a reminder that sadness and reality never sleep.

But on the water, there was only beauty, stillness and peace — fingers of dawn extending as if from the hand of heaven.

No superstars

I’ve been to rowing regattas. I was at Michigan Club Invitational in Ann Arbor recently where the DWRA won eight medals — five gold, one silver, two bronze.

I had a rudimentary knowledge of the sport. But a far deeper appreciation was what I took from Ann Arbor.

As I watched clubs from all over Michigan and Ohio compete on Argo Pond — from the time-honored Detroit Boat Club to the Bomber Rowing Club in Ypsilanti — the levels of dedication to this sport, and the obvious level of love for it, struck me as its driving force.

As individuals, rowers never become famous. There is no LeBron. There is no Miggy.

There are no superstars of sculling and sweeping.

If rowing gets mentioned on television, it must be an Olympics race and an American has just won a medal.

Then the sport disappears for four years.

But those who row don’t do it to get noticed. They do it because it never lets go of them.

“I love rowing because there are no stars,” said DWRA member Kate Montgomery, an event planner from Birmingham who rowed at Grand Valley State and who recently has returned to the sport from the demands of a busy life, never doubting she would.

“With most team sports, you think of a central figure they revolve around — a quarterback, a cleanup hitter, a leading scorer. There’s nothing like that in rowing when you’re in a boat with others. It’s the ultimate team sport because you’re all the same — and because of the harmony that’s required, the unity.

“I use rowing as an example of teamwork in all aspects of my life.”

Rowers row to remain fit, as well. Make no mistake, it’s a workout, not a pony ride. But strength without technique, and endurance without discipline, won’t cut it.

Pursuit of the perfect stroke can be addictive, though.

At an evening “skills and drills” session on a canal off the Detroit River, DWRA coach Costas Ciungan was in the launch, putting his rowers through a wiggle-waggle drill.

There were teenagers on the water wiggle-waggling. It turned out to be an exercise with their oars.

The club’s dynamo from New Baltimore was also in a boat after a full day of climbing ladders at her full-time job — a painting contractor.

“Rowing can be very emotional,” said Roseann Kirchhoff, a 55-year-old who always has felt the need to be physically fit, and has installed a punching bag in the club’s boathouse to work on when she’s not rowing.

“I’ve never done anything like this. The idea of competing I knew nothing about. I’ve never been part of a team and I’m not a spectator sports fan. But I love this more than anything I’ve ever done, more than anything in the world. I wish I’d found it when I was 10.

“When I’m out on the water, and the sun is coming up, it’s an unbelievable feeling. It’s ethereal. It’s spiritual.”

Kirchhoff discovered rowing two years ago. Rather, that’s when Renee Adams Schulte, one of the founders of the DWRA, coaxed her into a boat.

Now in her second season of competition, Kirchhoff not only has won multiple gold medals in her age bracket, she’s won Open Class races against rowers much younger.

“She’s fast, and the more technique I teach her, the faster she goes,” Ciungan said. “She’s very strong, but still pretty new to the sport, so she needs to be teamed with an experienced partner.”

All-ages club

Only 22, but a rower who’s competed in the Henley Royal Regatta in England, Ciungan commands respect as a coach, making sure he pays attention to rowers of all ages at every practice.

“That’s one of the hallmarks of this club,” Schulte said. “All rowers, no matter their age, are coached.”

It’s one of the reasons students such as Ranielle Daniels and Rose Jackson, 16 and 15 years old, respectively, have joined the program — and are among those whose alarm goes off well before sunrise.

“I know I have a lot to learn, but I am learning a lot,” Daniels said. “I don’t turn the alarm off. I’m loving this.”

Eric Jackson drives daughter Rose, a Cass Tech student, to practice. He’s a sailor, a lover of the water, who often accompanies Ciungan on the outboard launch from which the coach shouts instructions to his crew through a megaphone.

“We’re on a major waterway here in Detroit,” Jackson said. “I’ve always wanted Rose to have an appreciation of its beauty, but also to have a command of it.

“That’s why she is also a strong swimmer.”

Daniels and Jackson row with the support of BUF, the Black United Fund that partners with the DWRA to teach student-athletes the fundamentals of rowing and help develop their skills.

Kelly Farrell and Donny Jensen, both 18, medaled at the Ann Arbor event. They are two of the four junior rowers who make the drive from Grosse Ile on a regular basis to row with the DWRA.

“I was a basketball player looking for something to do in the spring to stay in shape,” Farrell said. “But I hated running, so I joined rowing and it became my favorite sport.

“I think I’ve missed only two practices this summer. I even made it after a Bruno Mars concert that went real late. A lot of people think you’re crazy for getting up at 4 a.m. and driving 45 minutes to practice, but it’s a good way to wake up.”

To Jensen, it is the “combined elegance and strength factor of rowing that I love. You have to be really focused on how you’re rowing while knowing there are no short cuts. You need to work hard and put in a lot of hours to get better.”

Dedication

From ages 15 to 60, more than a dozen rowers were on the water for the morning workout. At dawn, Detroit has seldom looked more beautiful.

But in three days of observing, equally as appealing as that memorable morning on the Detroit River was the exposure to dedicated teens such as Kelly, Donny, Ranielle, Rose, Jared Ellis (Grosse Pointe), Paige Krohn and Olivia Flessland (Grosse Ile), the latter of whom rowed in the morning but left quickly because she holds down two jobs (at a hospital in Wyandotte and as a waitress).

Ellis will be a senior at Grosse Pointe South, and he plans to attend the United States Military Academy.

Good kids who represent their generation with the discipline and drive that sometimes is thought to be missing in today’s youth.

Would I have rolled out of bed to go rowing at 4 a.m. when I was their age?

I barely could this time, just to watch it.

tom.gage@detroitnews.com
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