July 10, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This article appeared in July/August 2015 Omaha Magazine.

The waters of Lake Manawa are dead still. It’s 5:30 a.m. and nearly 50 young women are about to disturb the pristine, glass-like surface. They are the Creighton University rowing team and part of a small but active rowing community in Omaha.

Ray Griggs serves as boatman for the Creighton team and is a master rower with Omaha Rowing Association (ORA), which boasts about 40 members. He talks about rowing as though born with an oar in hand, yet he never rowed before age 18. Griggs’ introduction came in 1976 upon joining the Naval Academy, where participating in sports is required.

“I got a postcard from the rowing coach,” Griggs says. “I tried to walk on to the football team. After two weeks, I was cut, at which point I immediately ran to the boathouse. I ran up to whoever looked like he was in charge and he says, ‘OK, get in a boat.’”

Rowers frequently exude that same “join us,” attitude.

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“Are you coming to see us Saturday?” asks Creighton assistant coach Catherine Saarela-Irvin with a grin. The team was hosting a regional competition at Carter Lake that coming weekend. It was a rare chance to see rowing locally. The Creighton team travels as far away as Dallas to compete.

Saarela-Irvin also rows at a master’s level with ORA, where she coaches kids age 12 to 18. The ORA often competes in the Master’s National, which this year will be held in Camden, New Jersey.

The welcoming spirit comes from a total team sport that creates lifelong bonds. Ninety percent of the Creighton team never participated in the sport before college. Many plan to row as long as they can, joining club teams such as ORA.

“I’ve picked it up anywhere I go,” says Saarela-Irvin. “I’ve rowed in New Hampshire, San Diego, and now Omaha.”

“It isn’t a sport for someone who wants to stand out,” Griggs explains. “You have to do exactly what everyone else does, when everyone else does.”

Rowing involves synchronous movement of the arms, legs, and cores of the body. Rowers cannot see where they are headed. In eight-person boats, and sometimes in four-person boats, a coxswain (pronounced cox-sin) sits at the stern and calls commands; without a coxswain, the rower at the bow steers and commands so the boat glides in the proper direction.

It’s a quiet, serene sport, even though the physicality of it demands a grueling combination of strength and endurance. Only the person steering speaks, and the silent rowers enter their own private worlds as they pull and push the boat through the water in a zen-like cadence.

They collectively hope for “swing”, that precise moment when perfect synchronicity is achieved and the group moves as one.

“We call it the magical row,” Griggs says.

“You’ve got this simpatico thing happening,” adds Saarela-Irvin. “It’s really neat…kind of like flying on the water.”

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