Getting to Know the Canadian Indoor Rowing Association
Club Profile/ Jan 28

Getting to Know the Canadian Indoor Rowing Association

To honour the history, dedication and current initiatives of each rowing community, Row Ontario will be producing a series of profiles on member clubs across Ontario. Today we get to know more about the Canadian Indoor Rowing Association!

Canadian Indoor Rowing Association
Established 1986, incorporated 2005

The Canadian Indoor Rowing Association has a well-earned reputation for hosting world class indoor rowing events every year at the Canadian Indoor Rowing Championships (CIRC). CIRC has become a staple on the Canadian winter rowing calendar ever since the first edition of the event in 1986. That inaugural event took place before the creation of the Canadian Indoor Rowing Association and was organized by members of the Argonaut Rowing Club.

“For the first few years, CIRC was organized by Argonauts as a fundraiser for the club,” said Susan Kitchen, a long-time member of the Argonaut Rowing Club and current President of the Canadian Indoor Rowing Association. “Concept2, manufacturer of the ergometer based in Vermont approached the club manager at Argonauts and then the University of Victoria with an idea to add two Canadian satellite races, East and West, to a growing number of indoor rowing races. Those first few years of CIRC were hosted in the Banquet Hall at the Argonaut Rowing Club.”

While it started out as a club-run event, CIRC was always open to rowers from other clubs to attend. As the event grew, more and more rowers from clubs across Ontario began to attend until it became a regular stop for rowers from upstate New York, Pennsylvania, Quebec and other Canadian rowing centres attempting to qualify for the CRASH b’s, which was the de facto pinnacle race in Boston for ergometer racing. The annual championships became a unique opportunity for aspiring young athletes to sit side by side and compete in full view, pacing rising rowing legends like Silken Laumann, Marnie McBean and Derek Porter.

After a few years in operation, CIRC outgrew the Argonaut Banquet Hall and found bigger gymnasiums at schools such as Upper Canada College and George Brown College in downtown Toronto. The event also enjoyed a multi-year run at the CBC Atrium on Front Street, a unique venue which rowers really enjoyed. By that point in time other Toronto-area clubs such as the Don Rowing Club, Hanlan Boat Club and Upper Canada College had gotten involved and were helping to organize and volunteer on race day. To maintain the focus and experience of organizing CIRC itself, the Canadian Indoor Rowing Association was officially formed as an independent organization in 2005 and applied for membership standing with Row Ontario.

In the ensuing years, the Canadian Indoor Rowing Association moved around to different venues and added new categories of racing to the program to keep interest up. From the CBC Atrium, it moved to the U of T Fieldhouse inside the track and field centre with a rubber mat floor was an ideal home for a few years, until a labour strike at U of T forced race organizers to find an alternative venue. York University’s Rexall Centre, now called the Aviva Centre, a venue primarily used for hosting tennis events including the Roger’s Cup, hosted CIRC in 2007. The next year in 2008, CIRC moved to its current home at the Paramount Fine Foods Centre in Mississauga, where it’s run for the last 12 years.

Over the years there have been many key contributors to the Canadian Indoor Rowing Association, who have been instrumental in helping grow the profile of indoor rowing in Canada. One of those people is Peter Cookson, who co-chaired the event with Kitchen in the early years. Cookson’s passion ensured the focus was always athlete-centred and helped raise the brand and profile of CIRC among indoor races. Cookson added a new logo (which is still in use 20 years later) and convinced all race organizers in the Concept2 family to drop the 2500m distance to match the on-water distance of 2000m. These changes helped CIRC grow into one of the largest satellite indoor races on the North America circuit. Another key contributor is Lynda Dundas, a former Row Ontario President and long-time member of the Don Rowing Club. Dundas has been CIRC’s chief umpire for a number of years and has always been influential figure in recruiting participants and volunteers to help run the event. Dave Cole, formerly from Upper Canada College, has become the event’s official ‘Tech Guru’, a title he’s held for many years. Cole has been an important figure with race control, and although he now resides in New Brunswick he’s still very much involved as part of the race control team. Coaches across Ontario rowing clubs know too well, the friendly email exchanges in the lead up to race day with Barbara Schneider, another key figure who is in charge of registration and the all important lane draw and seeding.

“There’s been so many people over the years who volunteered, and clubs and individuals who bought ergs and supported the race with contributions of their time and creativity,” said Kitchen. “We’ve had the success we’ve had because we have such a dedicated team. We have approximately 70-75 volunteers each year on race day, and 12 people on the organizing committee that meet regularly with different portfolios. In addition to the local GTA clubs we have volunteers from clubs like Ridley College, Leander, and recently the Georgian Bay Rowing Club. It takes a true team effort.”

Another key contributor throughout the history of CIRC has been Concept2, who has been providing ergometers for the event since the beginning. They’ve also provided the CIRC organizers with a ton of support on the technical side and have been instrumental in reaching out to clubs across the globe to build indoor rowing as an activity and a racing community, which has been of great long-term benefit for CIRC and other indoor rowing events. The participation levels for CIRC have grown from around 400-500 throughout the 1990’s and 2000’s to approximately 700-800 competitors for the last decade in a typical year.

CIRC has evolved over the years. In addition to introducing new racing categories like the parent-offspring double and crew events, perhaps the biggest changes throughout the history of the event have been seen through the advances in technology.

“Technology has been a good partner for us,” said Kitchen, when asked what the biggest differences from an event in the 1980’s compared to today would be. “Although its common practice now, we were one of the very first Canadian rowing events to eliminate paper entry forms and use a completely online registration system. We rented a bunch of heavy old CRT TVs, that would be vintage today connecting one TV to each erg. It was pretty high tech for the time, but obviously pushing the race display out on screens is now much easier with live streaming and the Time-Team race platform. At the 2020 CIRC, over 3000 mobile devices were connected and watched the race tracker in real time. Sending results out to smartphones in real time, is a big improvement and much greener. The technology to connect all the ergs and get the data has also gotten better each year. Technology can be tricky to use in the middle of a hockey arena, but for the most part has been an enabler to help us reach a bigger audience for the sport.”

With 36 years of history, CIRC and the Canadian Indoor Rowing Association have had quite a few highlights since its humble beginnings. During an Olympic year, the women’s national team would regularly compete at CIRC as part of their winter training which was always exciting to see for the crowd in attendance. There have also been many exciting races, and quite a few world records have been produced at the event. Just last year, with McBean playing in-arena host of the half-time show CIRC reached new heights, this time into outer space. Canadian Space Agency astronaut David Saint-Jacques, an avid rower, dialed in on the big screen and demonstrated his commitment to indoor rowing on his redesigned ergometer on the International Space Station, where he spent 204 days. In addition to those spectacular highlights, each year CIRC serves as a de facto winter reunion for the rowing community, with friends from different clubs reuniting and cheering each other on as they strive to reach their personal bests.

For the Canadian Indoor Rowing Association, planning CIRC always seems daunting at the beginning.

“Improving on old ideas and introducing new ideas keeps us from getting old,” said Lynda Dundas. “It’s a challenge, but with an experienced and dedicated team the event comes together and, in the end, manages to run quite smoothly and on time.”

The experience the organizing committee has gained has led them to be sought after for other high profile indoor rowing events. In past years they’ve been invited to lend their expertise and help at the CRASH-b Sprints as well as recent World Rowing Indoor Championships. In 2017, they took on a new challenge to organize the indoor rowing competition for the Invictus Games in Toronto, one of the most challenging and rewarding events they’ve produced.

“Typically, our main focus is putting on CIRC, but in 2016 we were invited by Patrick Okens, who at the time was the Sport Lead at the Invictus Games Toronto, to organize the indoor rowing competition in September of 2017,” said Kitchen. “This was a meaningful highlight for all the volunteers. We basically had the same core organizing committee, but this time with quite a bit of international oversight who had no idea what to expect from rows of connected ergometers and how we were going to make it enjoyable to watch. The race was held at Mattamy Centre in Toronto and looked more like a rock concert in appearance than a typical CIRC with Marnie McBean roaming around centre ice calling the races to a sold-out crowd with cameras everywhere. The broadcast feed was going out live to 11 different networks from the UK to Australia. Working closely with television producers while staying true to our focus on ‘athletes first’, even if that meant standing on the feet of the erg so it wouldn’t bounce across the floor in the 1 Minute races, was easy for us given the many years organizing CIRC. We were challenged, have a few stories to tell and happily finished 17 seconds ahead of schedule much to the delight of the TV networks. Invictus was a great experience and it was amazing to play a part.”

This year’s edition of the event (Feb. 6-7) will be another new challenge for the organizing committee as it will be held virtually for the first time. CIRC 2021 has been designated as one of the five Continental Qualifying events for the 2021 World Indoor Rowing Championships for the first time in history. Being designated as a qualifying event by World Rowing is a testament to the commitment and success of the volunteers who put a high quality of indoor racing each year. The virtual set-up in 2021 opens up CIRC to international competitors from all over the world in every time zone. It will be unique from a competitive standpoint with rowers all connecting remotely with others in their age category.

In just two years, even more international competitors will get a chance to compete in an event organized by the Canadian Indoor Rowing Association. Earlier this year the organizing committee submitted a successful bid to host the 2023 World Rowing Indoor Championships at the Paramount Fine Foods Centre in Mississauga, Ont. Hosting the World Championships is a new and exciting challenge for the Canadian Indoor Rowing Association and if history is any indication, they will no doubt be up for the task.

The Deadline to Register for CIRC 2021 is Monday, Feb. 1!

Register Today!

Thank you to Susan Kitchen and Lynda Dundas for their generous contributions and help in completing this profile. Photo’s are property of the Canadian Indoor Rowing Association.