Excerpts from a chat with Katie Irwin: new to the Hudson Valley in 2019 and newly elected president of the Rondout Rowing Club. – By Sandy Fiechtner, new rower in 2019 who met Katie in a boat!
“Rowing is a sport you can do into your 80’s. I hope to be rowing till then.”
Texas born Katie Irwin was tall among her peers in high school and perfect for basketball. She found the combination of competition, teamwork and a common goal irresistible. A dislocated shoulder injury put her on the bench. “My mom sensed my depression and searched out the Dallas Rowing Club. ‘Why not this?’ she asked, and handed me a learn to row brochure.” That led to six novice pubic school teenagers starting a youth program and going on to compete across multiple states.
A local attorney, Ashley Branan, rowed on the women’s team at Georgetown and stepped up to the plate to be their coach. Pretty soon Katie was fast and winning. She and her sister competed at the prestigious Youth Nationals along side private schools and elite clubs.
Grit and determination.
Post high school, another of life’s intersections magically transpires. “My dad had a passion for the water,” recalls Katie. He sailed for many years out of a yacht club in San Diego and family vacations were spent sailing in California. A seed planted, Katie heads west to San Diego State University as a recruit for the Women’s Rowing Teams and begins rowing in an 8+ for the first time. Her freshman team would go on to win the Western Intercollegiate Association Championship.
Hours upon hours of grueling 5:30 a.m. rows, weight and erg training, travel and competition make these women stand out among athletes. Is it possible that collegiate rowing gives women an X factor that propels them the rest of their lives?
Katie has a flash back: “When you are in an 8+ and really hit it together you achieve an amazing speed as one big machine. And then there’s the famous pain cave, lactic acid throughout… hearing a coxswain call the last 250 meters of a race is absolutely exhilarating.”
After one exhausting practice, Katie loads her plate at breakfast and sits down beside a waffle eating male rowing team member. Andrew will become her husband. His military career as a Marine C130 pilot has sent the duo to 4 states in 8 years, landing in the Hudson Valley in 2019.
“Where else but the Hudson Valley can you walk out your back yard and have access to 26 miles of rail trail and a straight shot to the renowned Mohonk Preserve? It’s my favorite so far and I have been everywhere. The beauty is being so close to nature.”
Landing in a new place once again, Katie got to work. “Every time we move, I ask myself what team can I be part of and how can I tap into the community and meet people?” She was over the moon to discover the Rondout Rowing Club, situated on a glorious creek uniquely allowing rowing nearly every day of the season yet with access to the mighty Hudson, steeped in history and legendary rowing. Complete with bald eagles. She was back in the boat after 10 years.
The club was formed by a proud rag tag group of locals from the Kingston area in 1999. Boats were frugally purchased, often second hand from local high school clubs and rebuilt by largely self-taught club artisans. Membership swelled to over 50 adults by 2019.
As spring landed on the Rondout Creek in 2020, there was optimism that a normal season would emerge by early summer. The US Rowing Federation guidelines put the kibosh on ‘normal’ in May. No group sculling was considered safe. Regattas, camps and events across the country were cancelled. The forward motion of sculling on the Hudson screeched to a Covid stop.
But, not for long…
Rowing single was the only way rowing was possible and the club had access to a whopping two singles. One was faded orange, rarely used and rather dodgy. Determined not to waste the season, the search was on for used single boats. They were getting snatched up as fast as toilet paper and Hudson Valley real estate.
The Hudson River Maritime Museum saved the day with custom-built boat racks courtesy of the Rondout Wooden Boat School (offering beginning and advanced woodworking skills) and rental space a stone’s throw from the creek docks. Katie bought her first very own single.
The club was able to survive and reinvent during Covid, implement new safety and skill certifications to a smaller group, and weather the membership drop to below 20 adults. They feel well positioned for a brave new 2021 season with enhanced coaching and technique development options for seasoned and new rowers.
Club leadership is new, too. “Someone saw something in me that I did not see in myself,” said Katie as she was nominated and elected president of the club in February. Her goals are 2000 meters long and an ambitious 40 strokes per minute in rower’s parlance. “When we put our minds to it, we make it happen”.
Grit and determination will rule the creek and the little club that could.
Tax deductible donations to keep us afloat can be made by check to Rondout Rowing Club and sent to P.O. Box 1192, Kingston, NY 12402.