It’s relatively quiet around Port Moody’s Inlet Rowing Club. Fair-weather members emerge like daffodils in spring when the skies are blue and vanish when it’s grey. However, a recent initiative could see the club transformed into a year-round hub for elite athletes.

The club is waiting to see if the Old Mill Boathouse at Rocky Point Park will be selected for Rowing BC’s new NextGen Training Centre, an intensive program designed to help young athletes reach the Olympic podium.

After Rowing BC announced the request for proposals earlier this year, Emily Seto and Wendy Chan, members of the club’s executive, approached local businesses with their proposal and armed their application with letters of support. Through the advocacy, they introduced many community members to the club.

With minimal signage, the average park visitor wouldn’t know a rowing club was there. Though the park is often busy, you’d be forgiven if you didn’t notice the pilgrimage of boat racks full of shells and oars advancing between the boathouse and the water, or the launch of the motorized coaching boat.

Port Moody’s Old Mill Boathouse, home to the Inlet Rowing Club, is pictured on April 12, 2021. Photo by Marissa Tiel

The regional NextGen training centres are part Rowing Canada’s efforts to support younger athletes with their training in order to cultivate a high-quality pool of eligible athletes to choose from for the national team. Training centres, like the one proposed here are being founded in Ontario and Quebec; provinces where the majority of rowers seem to be produced.

But in B.C., the provincial sport organization isn’t necessarily OK with plopping a centre down in an already popular rowing locale. They want to spread resources into spots that aren’t necessarily associated with rowing. A rubric distributed to the five communities vying for the program centres largely on the body of water available to athletes. “We’ve got a great body of water,” says Seto. “It’s a nice still look there and a well-kept secret.”

Historical currents

The secret of the Burrard Inlet was discovered by rowers at the turn of the 20th century and has been seemingly underutilized until now. Rowing shells have long had a history on the Inlet and before that in the coastal waters around Victoria. Competitions were held by the Royal Navy: “for the training and entertainment of the fleet and the pleasure of the community,” writes Derek Anthony Swain in his 1977 UBC thesis exploring the history of sport in B.C. until 1885. According to Swain, the big event of the time was the single sculls (a solo rower using two oars to propel themselves across the water). In 1898, Vancouver residents raised a prize purse of $2,500 (no small sum in those days) for the race between R.N. Johnston, fresh off a win at the Vancouver Rowing Club regatta and Orillia, Ont.’s Jacob Gaudaur, the reigning world champion.

The race was quite the spectacle and a rare event between two Canadians (titles were more common for Australians and Brits.) “A log boom was utilized to make a rectangular course on the harbour and the Canadian Pacific liners had to skirt the course for over a quarter of a mile to dock at their berths,” wrote Frank Adams in a 1933 Maclean’s piece. Gaudaur won by two lengths. At the time, rowing titles were challenged and fought for like boxing titles. When Bert Barry faced Major Goodsell for his title in Vancouver in 1927, it was The Event. “Newspapers all over the world featured it,” wrote Adams. “The finish of the three-mile course was lined for half a mile on both sides by launches, while behind the slim cedar racing shells steamed two ocean liners packed with spectators, whose throats matched the roar from the crowds that lined the mountainous slopes on either side.”

Going farther to go further

These days, rowers share the waters of the Burrard Inlet with many others: small, self-propelled crafts like SUP, canoe and kayak, and pleasure crafts. It’s also a working waterway with container ships lining the inlet. The water is unlike most that host rowing clubs in the province. A typical rowing race is two-kilometres long. On the Inlet, rowers can glide across the surface of the water for seven kilometres before having to turn around. For a sport that requires endurance and the tolerance for pain, the ability to go longer is the exact ingredient that young athletes need to further their training. Officials from Rowing BC as well as Chan and Seto hope the centre improves rowing’s visibility in Port Moody while also giving B.C. athletes a competitive advantage against other rowers in Canada who will also eventually be vying for spots on the national team.

Junior members of the Inlet Rowing Club practise outside the boathouse on a windy day in Port Moody, B.C. on April 12, 2021. Photo by Marissa Tiel

It’s a competitive environment that David Calder knows well. The four-time Olympian was a member of Canada’s National Rowing Team for more than 10 years. He now heads up Rowing BC.

The time spent being a high-performance athlete is unlike any other time in their life, he says. Athletes train multiple times a day and are supported by coaches and other professionals.

“There are very few things that can prepare an athlete to be in an Olympic or Paralympic training camp for a senior national team,” says Calder. The goal of the NextGen Training Centre is to emulate as close as possible the training environment athletes would be in at a national team training camp. “The more we can prepare our developing athletes in a real life kind of way for the pressures, the training loads, the expectations – both on performance, but also how you act and how you carry yourself amongst your peers and amongst the coaches,” says Calder. “That’s what we want to create. So it is a very important stage and if we do it well, which we have every intention of doing, it’s going to give our B.C.-based athletes an upper hand on athletes across the country.”

Members of the Inlet Rowing Club wash down their boats following a practice on the salt water of the Burrard Inlet in Port Moody, B.C. on April 11, 2021. Photo by Marissa Tiel

The athletes that are part of the training centre would be in their late teens to early 20s and about five to 8 years out of an Olympics in their sport development timeline. To be part of the centre, they’ll have to meet rigorous fitness requirements. At the centre, their training will be overseen by coaches, they’ll have access to sport science and medicine experts, physiotherapists and athletic testing; they’ll have support. The athletes will train hard, about nine to 14 hours a week with the bulk of it on the water, but they’re also encouraged to train off the water in environments that aren’t competitive.

“You can only get so far on your own,” says former Team Canada rower Joel Finlay. Selected athletes will also compete at races like the Can-Am-Mex regatta, Junior World Rowing Championships and Canada Summer Games.

It’s beneficial for a young athlete to join a training centre to have increased competition, especially if their goal is to compete wearing the maple leaf one day. But the pipeline that funnels into the national teams gets really small, really fast.

Members of the Inlet Rowing Club return to the dock following practice on the Burrard Inlet in Port Moody, B.C. on April 11, 2021. Photo by Marissa Tiel

“You’re going to get more better athletes in a national training centre than you will in your own club,” says Finlay. He offers an example: in a club with maybe 200 athletes of all ages and abilities, you’ll get a handful that will rise to the top. Now you’re at a national training centre with 30 other athletes and they’re all at the top.

“The better the competition, the better you’re going to develop and the quicker you’re going to develop.”

It’s not the first time that the area has been looked at for a rowing training site. In 2018, Rowing Canada was looking to relocate its national training centre from London, Ont. A bid was put forward to consider Buntzen Lake as a site. Critics argued that having a rowing centre at Buntzen would only benefit a select few, while detracting from the peace and tranquility of the lake for others. Many others objected to the relocation and, in the end, it never happened.

The Buntzen Lake proposal differs greatly from the Inlet proposal. Firstly, rowing already takes place on the Inlet and the waterway is much larger than Buntzen. After rowers leave the dock at Old Mill Boathouse they look like specks on the water.

Rowing BC knows there’s little use to athletes in development training in a silo, especially when they are also trying to raise the sport’s profile in the province. Calder says they specifically put a call for bids to all of Rowing BC’s 42 members.

“We didn’t want to just go to the typical rowing communities where we would typically see training for this type of team competition happening,” he says. “We very intentionally put out an open call for proposals to the entire province.”

A seven-person committee will review applications. While they’re still a ways out, work is being done now to review the applications.

The Inlet Rowing Club’s application will be buoyed with letters of support from local businesses and organizations. Seto, the club’s president, says she was happy with the positive support they gathered from the community and the relationships they’ve developed.

They reached out to fitness gyms for off-the-water training and to out to local physio businesses, as part of the bid requires suggesting where athletes can get their muscles recalibrated after a tough training block on the water.

In February, Seto and Chan also gave a presentation to City Council where they received unanimous support for the proposal.

Mayor Rob Vagramov was particularly supportive of the proposal. He knows the challenges young athletes face. Vagramov’s sister is a tennis player who played Div. 1 in the U.S.

He says it really “opened my eyes to the challenges that folks face when their kids are doing really well in sports and sort of what it takes to give them every opportunity that they can have to excel. Any way that government can lower those barriers I think that’s great.”

The centre – wherever it ends up – is slated to open in just four months.

Members of the Inlet Rowing Club move their equipment from the water onto land on April 11, 2021. Photo by Marissa Tiel

There’s still lots of work ahead for Rowing BC, says Calder, without committing to just exactly when a decision may be announced. He wants the committee to be able to do their due diligence and will be visiting each of the communities to see how the centre would fit.

“We don’t want to just show up in a community and try to duplicate the way something’s done in another community,” he says, “because that might not work wherever we end up.”

If all goes to plan for the Inlet Rowing Club, this fall, when you head down to Rocky Point Park for that final ice cream cone of the season, you’ll see a group of future Olympians wheeling their boats down to the launch.