Skokie-based Chicago Rowing Union wants to diversify the sport of crew rowing

“Rotate, slide, recover slowly…we shoot all the way to the bottom of our ribcage. We don’t want to shoot in our hips or our stomachs. We want it nice and tall.

More than a dozen people listened to instructions from Chicago Rowing Union (CRU) head coach Mollie Halvorsen as they sat on Concept 2 ERG Rowers during a learning class rowing at the Dammrich Rowing Center in Skokie. Sequencing is important to learn, she reiterates.

“When you pivot or bend at the waist, we don’t want our hands dipping. We want them to look nice and flat. Arms out first, then body over it,” she said.

The mantra becomes “arms, body, body, arms…arms up, body overhead, body back, arms in” as the hum of ERGs tries to spin in unison. Repetitive, yes, but this crash course is supposed to help everyone learn the rudimentary lessons of crew rowing and what to expect when out on the water in the North Shore Channel of the Chicago River with seven of their classmates.

What started as a group created by members of the LGBTQ+ community in 2005 to row at the Gay Games in 2006, is now an inclusive competitive and recreational rowing club focused on promoting diversity in the sport of rowing , according to the president of CRU, Simone Azure. The sport is historically expensive and known to be predominantly white, per Azure – one of CRU’s eight-person boats cost $13,000, and it was used.

“It’s like a Mercedes to a Toyota to a Fiat,” Azure said. “Resolutes are more expensive boats, but they tend to last longer.”

Newer boats cost more and the prices of equipment, regatta fees and transport costs also add up, making the sport less accessible. Halvorsen said recognition of the accessibility and diversity gap is why CRU has partnered with the Skokie Park District to run its learn-to-row camps.

“We strive to create an inclusive community within sport rowing and provide access to members of the community who have never been exposed to the sport in the past,” she said.

Azure reminds rowing for another oar and paying annual dues in the range of $4,500. Skokie Park District charges $200 for people learning to row with CRU. Swept rowing is where each rower uses an oar in four or eight person boats. For a seven-month rowing season, CRU’s recreational rowing team rows twice a week and charges $108/month; CRU’s competitive team rows three times a week for $148/month. CRU also hosts fundraisers, has a scholarship program, and has reduced rates in the past for individuals to attract all kinds of people to the sport. The pandemic has impacted CRU membership numbers, but Azure recruitment has brought membership back to double digits.

“Our Learn to Row program is how we build our program,” said the Edgebrook resident. “Now there are more spaces for gay people and the LGBTQ+ community, my big push is to be as diverse as possible. It’s not just a gay team. I want to highlight the inclusivity of our team because we we’re focusing on that. We’ve got a lot of allies and we’re very happy to have all those guys as well.

Azure and Halvorsen pride themselves on ensuring camaraderie and friendly competition is a part of CRU. The rowing community is united. Azure, a member of the Turtle Mountain Ojibwe tribe who identifies as Two-Spirit, competed and won a medal at a recent regatta in Washington, DC, in support of the DC Strokes Rowing Club, an LGBTQ+ rowing club. They are protesting US Rowing’s decision to hold its National Masters Championships in Sarasota, Florida in August. DC Strokes is boycotting the event as long as the state’s “Don’t Say Gay” law remains in effect. CRU, a group of masters of adults aged 27 and over, has signed their petition of support.

“We try to really support each other,” Azure said. “The goal is to have a place where people of all genders, colors and others feel included and feel safe within this organization.”

At the learn-to-row class on June 11, a mother joined her daughter, a St. Ignatius student who is considering joining the school team. A young man participated in the same class because he is thinking of trying out for Loyola’s crew team. CRU members assisted participants throughout the hour-long session which started with rowing machines, moved on to indoor rowing tanks and ended with rowing a boat for eight people on the North channel with a coxswain, person in charge of navigation and the direction of the boat. The helmsman instructs when and how to move equipment, including the 200-pound boat, and when to board the boat. Assignments on where everyone will sit are given before launch, so you know if you’ll be port or starboard on the boat.

Things to remember:

  • Do not walk anywhere on the boat. You can drill a hole in it. Climb onto the strongest part of the boat to enter.
  • Boarding and disembarking the boat is done in unison with others, not as a single person, so the boat does not tip over.
  • And the shoes you put your feet in are anchored to the boat itself. In an emergency, pull the release cord to release your feet and swim.
  • Also, try not to catch a crab – i.e. make a faulty shot where the oar is underwater too long and gets stuck.

“A big part of the hit is the timing,” Halvorsen said. “When we are in the boat, we are linked to seven other people. We have to make sure we put the blades in the water together, out of the water together. We want to make sure we hit at the same time and finish at the same time. It seems like a super easy thing, but it trips people up when learning because of the sequencing. The tendency is to want to lift our knees before our hands come out. On the ERG, it’s easier to raise your hands above your knees, but when you’re on the water, you can’t raise your hands above your knees with the oar in front of you.

A team-building exercise, Azure explains, crew rowing is a sport where you can tell who’s doing the work, who’s not, and who’s distracted. On the launch boat – the one following the boats with the coxswains – Azure jokes, encourages and inspires those who row making the experience engaging while learning. The hardest part is remembering all the steps taught in class and translating them into the water in real time.

“I have met many people through rowing here in Chicago and around the world who have helped me grow and have been very generous with their time and energy while teaching me a new sport” , she said. You could tell she tries to do the same for those in every learning rowing class.

CRU members all have their own stories of how they came to rowing. Some picked it up in college when their friends were doing it and picked it up with CRU. Azure was walking around Andersonville when she was approached by a gentleman who is now one of her very good friends. He handed her a card and told her to come try learning to row. She said okay. And Halvorsen went to her first learn-to-row camp in college. She was hooked after her first time, she never looked back. This year marks 21 years in the sport for her. CRU member Fiona Nolan says the rowing crew action is the closest thing to heaven on Earth they’ve found when everyone is rowing at the same time.

Coxswain Merri Furlong said someone new to the rowing crew can be good in a year and great in two – something she has seen.

Morton Grove resident Jamie Edwards attended the June 11 class. In the end, she said she was excited to be back for part two on Sunday. A lover of water sports, she said her uncle is a competitive rower and she was curious to know what the sport involved.

“I was looking for where I could get involved and I came across Chicago Rowing Union,” she said. “It was harder than I expected having worked on a stationary exercise rower before, although it makes me want to do it even more, like a challenge.”

Edwards left knowing that getting better takes practice — something she’s willing to do with CRU.

“I’m sure it gets easier once you’re more in sync,” she said. “I really want to improve.”

With a smile on her face, Edwards left wondering what her app will have on her Apple Watch says after rowing.

“What I love about rowing is that it’s a low-impact, full-body workout, which is really enjoyable,” Edwards said. “There was this moment on the water where you’re just connected and it feels really good…there’s something about being on the water.”

Chicago Rowing Union the next Learn to Row session is scheduled for July 19. The group will also be at 42nd Annual Chicago Sprint at Lincoln Park Lagoon July 8-10.

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