When high school and junior crews are getting ready to load boat trailers for their various championship regattas, most lower boats, freshman crews, and middle school programs are done for the season. Very few of these athletes compete at either the SRAA or Youth National championships.
And when it comes to middle school programs, many spend the majority of their time erging, and what opportunities exist to actually be on the water rowing are limited. In some cases, young athletes get discouraged or bored, and don't stay in rowing. That does not leave a lot of room for growth in a sport hoping to draw in kids at a younger age, at least not when it comes to competition.
That is starting to change, and what began as a single day Junior B/C championship run by the Saratoga Rowing Association to increase on-water racing for the younger athletes has evolved into the first national championship specifically for those levels.
Scheduled for the first weekend in June on the Cooper River in Camden, NJ, and run by USRowing, the U15/U17 National Championship will begin as a two-day regatta offering 22 total events, with both sweep and sculling boat classes - and it is generating interest and conversations in boathouses across the country.
"We are all talking about that right now," said Marin Rowing Association Head Coach, Sandy Armstrong. "There are lots of emails going around, (asking) is anybody going, and who is going to trailer, and can we rally enough troops to make that happen," she said. "We're thinking about it."
While the new regatta was announced last June just after the conclusion of the 2018 USRowing Junior B/C Challenge - which moved to Philadelphia and was run as part of the one-day National Schools Championship Regatta on the Schuylkill River, - planning for the new national championship was jump started recently at the Saratoga Junior Coaches Conference, when coaches were asked if they were interested in participating.
According to Armstrong and PSRA president Leslie Pfeil, was there was a lot of genuine interest in attending.
"I think it's a great idea," Pfeil said. "If you want to get more kids into the sport at a younger age, you can't just have them erg all the time, and maybe have them go out in a boat occasionally. It's fun to have a race, because their friends, who are playing soccer or other sports, are playing games and things. It would be good to offer them some competitive opportunities and keep them interested."
PSRA's Leslie Pfeil
On a conceptual level, voicing support for competitive opportunities is the easy part, and is certainly easier for coaches and programs on the East Coast that can get to the Cooper River without too much additional stress on coaches and available equipment.
It's another thing for crews that will have to travel long distances, especially since the new championship will take place one week before the USRowing Youth Nationals in Sarasota Florida, and one week after the Scholastic Rowing Association of America (SRAA) runs their national championship on Dillon Lake in Nashport, Ohio.
Still, the regatta is on the 2019 schedule, and it is likely to stay a part of the annual circuit, and to grow. "There is really a lot of interest," said Saratoga Head coach Chris Chase. "And my feeling on this is, if you built it people will come."
According to USRowing Senior Director Brett Johnson, the event is the result of a three-year plan based on the growth of the Saratoga event. "Two years ago, Chris Chase approached us about us taking over the event he had been running, and he wanted to talk about nationalizing it because of the growth in middle school and younger age rowing.
"One of the questions, or issues, Chris and others have been seeing is how do you keep the kids interested. And one answer is an end of season goal," he said. "We went out (to Saratoga) to help and to look it over. Last year we took the event over and it was run in Philadelphia by (PSRA) because it was being held on the same weekend as Youth Nationals. From an organization standpoint, we couldn't run two national regattas on the same weekend.
"So this is the third year of the plan," he said. Johnson said the event is still developing and there are ongoing discussions about the best way to run the event, how to schedule it, and where to hold it to ensure it has the best chance for success.
A new national level championship, run during an already packed end of season regatta schedule for an age group that is largely underexperienced, requiring heightened levels of supervision and coaching, is loaded with challenges.
Some of the questions about distance and event class have been sorted out for this first year, Johnson said. Of the 22 events offered, 12 will be run for Under 17 athletes on a full 2000-meter course, and will include men's and women's singles, doubles, fours, coxed fours, eights and pairs.
Fours racing at the 2018 B/C Championship
For the Under 15 rowers, all but the pairs events are being offered, and will be run on a 1000-meter course. Johnson noted that, tTo generate interest and race experience, the 2019 USRowing regional championships will hold U15 and U17 events. Those events would not be offered as automatic qualification races for the national championships this first season.
Some of the more complicated questions are going to revolve around how to entice crews that will have to travel, in some cases across the country, to race when most programs will be racing their qualified club youth and high school crews in one or both of the existing national championships.
Johnson said plans are being made to contact clubs near enough to the Camden venue who would make any equipment not being used available for rental.
"West coast programs have indicated that they would send boats out, but we are trying to hook them up with crews that have additional equipment so they can race, but not have to worry about trailering there and then having to trailer down to Sarasota. We should be publishing information on those types of things as early as next week."
Other considerations may face programs that normally have ended their seasons, or are racing just crews that qualify for the youth and scholastic championships, will have to extend their seasons, get commitments from parents to spent the money to travel, and have coaches available to participate.
B/C Championship officials
Additional discussions include whether targeted competition for this level should be limited to local regattas, considering the associated additional costs of equipment, training, travel, and the issues that come up with inexperienced athletes.
"One of the things that came up is, do we really need a national championship for a freshman or a middle school kid?" Pfiel said. "When you are running a program for middle school kids, if you're a scholastic or a club coach, do you want to spend all that money taking kids to the other side of the country?
"So what has come up is that maybe we should have more regional events, with less emphasis on a national championship, and maybe more participation opportunity regattas in different parts of the country. It might be better for those younger kids to have a more relaxed, fun experience, rather than the long days of some of these larger, multi-day regattas.
"In other words, a day just for them that is more of a learning experience than a grueling competitive one," she said. "What could happen is that regional LOCs, or associations like the PSRA, might be willing to hold such a regatta specifically for the younger kids, with maybe some assistance or support from USRowing."
Pfeil said, however, there is interest in the event and support for the effort. Armstrong said her program also supports the idea, but has logistics to work out and questions to have answered before decided to send crews this year.
"Marin Rowing, and I, are supportive of the growth of rowing across all ages and communities, and the addition of racing for the younger athletes is growth. As an organization, we may not be ready to field crews for a U15/U17 Championship in June as it adds a month to our season and adds a level of training and development that is different than what we currently have as a system," she said.
"If we can send a crew, or crews, that will benefit from the experience, we will do that now and into the future."