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Rowing is a sport at least as old as ancient Egypt, whose funerary inscriptions date as far back as 1430 B.C. that hail a certain warrior’s prowess with an oar. The legendary poet Virgil wrote of rowing competitions in ancient Greece around 50 B.C.

In the 1300s, residents of Venice sought reprieve from the horrors of the Middle Ages in the form of regattas, their term for rowboat races down the city’s canals.

Shortly thereafter, rowing found its way to England, where it was refined into something very near to what we have today. Rowing, or crew as it’s sometimes called, was on the program for the very first Olympic Games in 1896 and has remained there since.

In Arizona, however, the sport’s history is far younger.  

Crew is more popular in the Eastern U.S. and is often associated with Ivy League schools, but the sport is on the rise in Arizona. It was the construction of Tempe Town Lake in 2000 that has largely enabled its local boom.

According to USRowing, there are nine active rowing clubs in Arizona, including Brophy College Prep Crew, Xavier Prep Crew, Tempe Junior Crew, ASU Rowing and Rio Salado Rowing Club.

Brophy and Xavier’s clubs are reserved for students of their respective schools, while Tempe Junior Crew is open to 13 to 18-year-olds Valley wide. Each of these three clubs were established sometime shortly after Tempe Town Lake was built. In their relatively short history, they have seen numerous alumni go on to earn collegiate rowing scholarships.

Owing to the dearth of lakes and rival crews locally, these clubs regularly travel across the country to compete in regattas (the ancient Venetian term stuck).

A typical regatta features both long (5K) and short distance (1-2K) races with crews of varying sizes. The “standard” crew is one with eight rowers and one coxswain. The coxswain is the quarterback crew, responsible for steering the ship and barking motivational commands to the rowers. Four and two-person boats are also popular, and within them variations exist where each crew member has one or two oars.

The Rio Salado Rowing Club (RSRC) offers “recreational and competitive rowing opportunities for adults of all experience levels.” It even offers three-day “Discover Rowing” classes on a regular basis that are designed to introduce those to the sport who have never touched an oar.  

Pam Neuharth, the president of the Board of Directors of RSRC, has been rowing since 1985, when she competed collegiately for Loyola Marymount and UC Berkeley. She says that in addition to the “finely tuned blend of strength and cardio” that rowing offers, its greatest benefit may be in the friendships it forms.

“People are so hungry for community,” Neuharth said. “We support each other. Whether you want to compete or not, we’re happy to share this thing that we love with other people.”

Members of RSRC say that part of the beauty of the sport is its non-impact nature and relatively short learning curve. Mindy Covelli started rowing less than two years ago at the age of 46. She fell in love with the sport instantly and has already earned herself a spot on the club’s competitive crew.

“[Regattas] are so rewarding. Just the excitement of it and to be around others as they’re competing; it’s so fun as a team. It’s really inspiring,” Covelli said.

Covelli has her sights set on continuing to improve and traveling to national and international competitions; and she has plenty of time. Like golf, rowing is a sport you can enjoy into your 70s.

“It’s fantastic. It doesn’t matter what age you are you can get out there and you can try it,” Covelli said.

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