By Martin Cleary
The long, narrow boats and their accompanying oars have been safely stored in the boathouse.
The shoreline is quiet as winter has stolen the opportunity for rowers to glide smoothly and quickly up and down the Ottawa River as their coaches watch from motorized boats.
While it may be quiet outside the Ottawa Rowing Club, the heart of the oldest rowing club in Canada is beating strong as it celebrates the completion of a decades-old renovation and enthusiastically reaches out into the community to bring the sport to everyone.
Club members recently completed a 40-year project by transforming the second floor of its two-level clubhouse into a Winter Training Facility to help centralize its athletes in the off-season.
ORC head coach Zak Lewis, the leader behind the successful women’s senior and U23 programs, was part of that work team, whether it was putting down the rubberized floor tiles, moving the ergometer training machines or doing whatever needed to be done.
Not only is Lewis, 30, a full-time, paid coach at the ORC, but also he has played an important role in almost every avenue at the club, especially when it involves reaching out and bringing new people into the sport and welcoming citizens from all backgrounds.
His work is enthusiastically appreciated at the ORC and hasn’t gone unnoticed at the national level as well.
At the recent Excellence Awards night at the end of Rowing Canada’s national conference in Victoria, Lewis won the President’s Award for his significant contributions to rowing.
The award was presented by Rowing Canada president Carol Purcer.
“I was very honoured,” Lewis said in a phone interview this week about receiving the prestigious honour. “I was a little bit surprised by this, especially how early it is in my career. I’m honoured and humbled.”
Lewis is in his fourth year as ORC head coach, which is a multi-pronged job. When he’s not coaching his high-performance athletes or dealing with his talented team of coaches, he’s involved with bringing newcomers into the rowing community, reaching out to make the sport inclusive for all people and presenting fresh ideas.
He is big on inclusivity and diversity, bringing the ORC’s free Everybody Rows Ottawa program to under-served and underprivileged communities in a safe and supportive environment in the Ottawa area. In its first two years (2020 and 2021), the ERO program exposed almost 80 participants to rowing.
“The target is 250 youth this year,” said Lewis, who saw more than 150 participants in the program in 2022. “We want to bring out our sport to the communities. It’s not one week and you’re done. If you want to keep going, we’ll make it happen.”
Lewis added the ORC wants to work with community organizations to grow the ERO program and promote social change.
When masters rower Melanie Ecklund noticed on social media that a Ukrainian mother and her two sons had fled their worn-torn country to Italy, her message also mentioned one of her boys was interested in continuing his rowing career.
The ORC reached out, he came to Canada and became part of the club’s boys’ junior program last summer. Nikita Zakharchenko has become a leader in the rowing program, is attending high school in Gatineau and is billeted by a family, while his mother and brother continue to live in a church in Italy.
“Melanie Ecklund saw it online and we kept talking and found a placement (for Nikita),” Lewis explained. “The mom had posted that he (Nikita) wanted to row. She was worried he was going to be drafted (into fighting for Ukraine).”
Grant writing also has consumed a lot of time for Lewis and club administration, but it has paid huge dividends.
In April, 2021, the ORC received a grant of $149,900 from the Ontario Trillium Foundation to restart and complete the renovation of the clubhouse’s second floor to make it a year-round operation.
The project started in 1983, but was only half completed before the contractors went bankrupt. Forty years later, the club has a winterized second-floor training area with the required exercise equipment, change rooms, conference room, office space and washrooms.
“It’s like being a homeowner,” Lewis said about doing projects at the non-profit, volunteer-driven club. “If you want something done, you do it. Let’s get going.”
The ORC also received two Canadian Tire Jumpstart grants in December. The Community Development grant will assist in buying more ergometer machines for the Everyone Rows Ottawa program, and an Operational grant to help install an elevator in the boathouse to assist people with limited or impaired mobility.
In 2019, the ORC started its first-ever Pride Paddle “to celebrate our diversity,” Lewis added. The ORC worked with the Ottawa New Edinburgh Club and a stand-up paddling club on the Ottawa River to show their support for the LGBTQ+ community.
The ORC also has seen a dramatic increase in its membership to almost a record 900 members from 620 in the pre-COVID-19 pandemic years.
“There has been a big shift to increase activity. We are not in your face. Everyone is welcome here,” Lewis continued.
“A benefit has been a lot of coaches have stayed around. All the coaches are volunteers. They’ve created such a passion for it.”
Lewis explained the increase in membership is because the club is a place where like-minded people can enjoy a sense of well-being and rowing was an opportunity for people to get out of the basement during the pandemic and try an outdoor activity.
While the pandemic severely affected racing programs for 2020 and 2021, the ORC created the Masquerade race and the CHAOS regatta to put the rowers back on the water for some different, but fun racing.
“We want to drive home community building,” Lewis said. “If you don’t have fun, why do sport?”
On the water, the 2022 season was one to remember for the ORC.
At the Royal Canadian Henley championships, the ORC had 15 top-three results and 10 of those podium finishes were recorded by athletes in Lewis’s senior women’s program.
That group of senior women’s medallists included national gold-medal performances in three lightweight races – pair, four and quad.
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 50 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the High Achievers “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com and on Twitter @martincleary.
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