Washtenaw Rowing Center offers an introduction to rowing with an experienced captain at the helm

Kit Bennett rowed across the pond from England with a passion of expanding and growing a sport he grew up with and fell in love with in London – a sport that offers a combination of teamwork, improved fitness, goal-setting, competition and comradery.

In the fall of 2012, three years after starting the Skyline High School Crew Program, Bennett launched the Washtenaw Rowing Center in hopes of introducing the sport to a younger group of athletes.

“I had spoken with the community club Ann Arbor Rowing Club, about our center focusing on ‘juniors’ which would be middle school (all year round) through high school (summer only) and U23s as needed,” Bennett says. “Ann Arbor Rowing Club would then continue to focus on “masters” which is for adults post-college. The ‘age’ separation between the two clubs allowed each one to better focus on the product for their preferred age group. It has been well received by both groups.”

WRC regularly sponsors AARC’s summer regatta and directs interested parties to each other’s clubs.

“We are lucky to have such a supportive community, as this is not always the case when new clubs come onto the scene,” Bennett says.

Even before the WRC left the dock, Bennett admits he was “curious” about the interest level. They had a strong group of eight middle school rowers show up for the first class and within just three years had grown to sessions with anywhere from between 20 and 50 kids.

Kit Bennett, founder of the Washtenaw Rowing Center

“While those numbers sound great, the continued challenge is letting the Ann Arbor area know we even have rowing as an option for the middle school age group,” Bennett says. “It is clear that we are an unknown entity for a number of people in town.”

WRC is in the very capable hands, legs and vision of Bennett, who began coaching in 2000 in London where he served as Head Coach at Hatfield College, part of Durham University (UK).

In 2009, Bennett founded the Skyline High School Crew, a program which in its first five years established itself among the region’s best, producing Midwest Regionals medal-winning crews as well as US Scholastic and Canadian National Champions. The team has grown from 25 athletes to over 80.

Bennett also was part of the coaching staff for the US Junior National Team sculling section for three years and coached athletes at the Junior World Championships in Trakai Lithuania in 2013. In 2012, he led the US squad to multiple golds at the 2012 CanAmMex Regatta in Mexico City.

Bennett also spent four years as an assistant for the varsity men’s program at the University of Michigan, where his athletes have won multiple ACRA National Championships, as well a Dad Vail title.

While those accomplishments are impressive, Bennett says one of his greatest “accomplishments” is helping grow the sport through WRC. And it starts with exploring the joy of the sport that he experienced when he first jumped in a boat.

“With younger students, I think we have found a great balance between rowing being safe, fun and rewarding without pushing competition at that age,” he says. “We want WRC to get kids excited about the sport so they look forward to rowing in high school. I am fortunate to have an exceptional group of coaches, who know how to engage with the rowers at their level and develop them at the same time in a challenging, but fun environment.”

Part of the focus at WRC is Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD), a concept that has come out of Canada.

“The idea being, that you don’t need to specialize so early to be good at the sport,” Bennett says. “It is better to look at all skills and make it fun in the younger age groups, to allow developmentally appropriate progression. Our coaches do a great job of implementing this and tweaking it each session, to keep it fresh.

“For example, every week there will be at least one land session to work on agility and hand-eye coordination to keep the students well rounded and not just rowing focused.”

WRC also offers financial aid for anyone who needs assistance.
“We don’t want finances stopping a child from trying out the sport,” Bennett says. “Rowing has a ‘country club’ stigma, that we are trying to do our small part of lessening. The sport should be available to anyone. Especially considering the college scholarship opportunities it can offer people in high school.”

WRC’s biggest accomplishment has been partnering with the Ann Arbor Public School system and winning the highly sought after George Pocock Foundation “Erg Ed” grant, which brought rowing education officially into the AAPS district 6th-12th grade PE curriculum.

“This was a $40,000 grant that gave 20 ergs or rowing machines to the center, which can then be taken to every middle and high school in the district to teach children how to row,” Bennett said. “We want AAPS students to all have new experiences even if rowing might not have been considered originally.”

WRC feeds all high schools in Washtenaw County, including Skyline, Pioneer, Huron, Saline and Northville. “It is wonderful to see these kids at regattas in high school, as they all have a common bond from the middle school program,” Bennett says. “I feel it only has made the community closer, which I love.”

All three Ann Arbor high schools have had great success at the Midwest Regional Championships (eight states compete each year in May), winning numerous titles and medals over the last 20 years. All three teams have also seen success at SRAAs (US Scholastic Nationals) and CSSRAs (Canadian Scholastic Nationals).

“Winning is a by-product of hard work, but is never guaranteed or expected,” Bennett says. “Your athletes have to be invested in the process, not the result to benefit completely from their crew experience.”

Skyline has garnered 51 Midwest titles, 7 National Titles, and a number of National Team representations.

In this day and especially in this country of increasing obesity numbers, the physical and health benefits of rowing are numerous. Rowing jump-starts your cardiovascular system and burns calories like a furnace – roughly 600 an hour – and, as it is non-weight-bearing, there is a low injury risk. It’s also great for improving leg, back and arm strength.

It also promotes teamwork and creates lifelong friendships.   

“I think rowing in the US has started to move more towards the European method of teaching children how to scull more than sweep,” Bennett says. “Sculling is two smaller oars, one in each hand. Sweep is one large oar in two hands. Sculling is a focus for the center and better teaches boat-moving skills in the long term. Sculling is also more developmentally appropriate for younger children as it is symmetrically compared to sweeping which is asymmetrical. WRC and Skyline have always done both, to keep the children and student athletes well prepared in the long run.

“I also think as each year goes by, at the high school level, it gets more and more competitive. Teams are popping up at a quicker rate than when we first started, which is a good thing for the sport. I am excited to see where we will be 10 years from now.”

To find out more about WRC’s all year round middle school and summer high school programs row HERE