Getting to Know the Guelph Rowing Club
Club Profile/ Jan 14

Getting to Know the Guelph Rowing Club

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 Guelph Rowing Club!

Guelph Rowing Club
Established: 1999
Location: Guelph, Ont. 

Falling within the boundaries of the Guelph River Conservation Authority (GRCA) on Guelph Lake, the Guelph Rowing Club is located on a pristine waterway for rowing. Due to restrictions imposed by the GRCA, only boats with trolling motors are permitted on the lake (except for coach boats, a gracious exemption from the GRCA), leaving the members of the club to row in a quiet and calm waterway, where the only wakes they have to navigate around are their own.

The GRC has been rowing in its pristine waterway since 1999 when the club was founded, thanks in large part to Walter Kehm who is considered to be the club’s ‘founding father’. Kehm was a landscape architect by trade and a rowing enthusiast in his free time, who had previously been a member of the Argonaut Rowing Club in Toronto. Always a visionary, he had moved to Guelph and saw an opportunity to start up a club on Guelph Lake. He helped to pull together a group of rowers who would form the initial membership group and establish the location of the club. Kehm still visits regularly throughout the Summer and was awarded a ‘lifetime membership’ thanks his dedication and commitment in founding the club.

Some of the early members, many of whom are still active at the club to this day, include Vlad Zulinov, Pat Zulinov, Nicole Bellefleur, Jane McKinnon Wilson, Joanne Rykes, Peter German, Dan Larson, James White, Pat Weir, Pia Muchaal, Brian Sulley, Dave Leger, Rita Harris, Fiona McCrea, Tanya Lonsdale, Jack Willhelm, Jana Pollard and Scott Pollard. Over the years, this group has volunteered countless hours at the club, either as members of the GRC’s Board of Directors or for other club initiatives. From the beginning, they set the tone for a collaborative and welcoming club culture that has been passed on as new generations of members joined the club.

“What makes many of us so proud of our club is that it truly is an open and friendly place to be,” said Jo-Anne Costello, current President of the Guelph Rowing Club. “I think that’s best demonstrated when we have our workdays for opening and closing. We’ve had many comments from new members who can’t believe the volunteerism in our club and how many people show up to help out. We’re just really proud of that, how friendly everybody is and willing to cooperate and participate in different club initiatives.”

The GRC typically has around 100 members per year and is full-service club, offering programming for all segments of the rowing population. While most of the members come from the city of Guelph, they do draw some from the surrounding area, including a few from Cambridge and Kitchener. The club offers a popular high school program, which also features indoor winter training throughout the off-season, as well as a varsity program associated with the University of Guelph, a competitive masters program and a recreational/learn to row program for beginners of all ages.

“I wouldn’t say that we have a focus on any one program,” said Costello. “We work hard to ensure that each program is treated with equal respect in terms of access to coaching, boat access, space, and funding. We’ve tried pretty hard over the years to be a community club that values the competitive nature of our competitive programs but not at the cost of ensuring there’s opportunities for recreational rowers. We value the recreational base we have and their volunteerism every bit as much as we do the competitive programs, and we try to support both groups equally.”

With regards to the competitive side of the club, one of the constants of Guelph’s programming from the beginning has been the varsity program with the University of Guelph. Brian Sulley helped found the program and submitted the first application to grant the rowing program varsity status within the university. Sulley was head coach of the program for the first ten years before stepping down in 2009. Dave Leger, one of Guelph’s most long-tenured members, replaced Sulley as head coach and has been a constant presence over the last 12 years. He has helped ensure that the relationship with the University of Guelph has remained in good standing and also went above and beyond over the last year to work closely with the university to ensure the safety of the rowing participants as they trained through the pandemic. Both Sulley and Leger’s leadership has helped develop the Gryphons into a strong university program, particularly the women’s team recent years. While many Gryphon rowers have medaled at the OUA Championships and Canadian University Rowing Championships (CURC’s) since their first season in 2001, the women’s program has been particularly strong as of late, finishing third overall at both OUA Championships in 2018 and the CURC’s in 2019. Women’s team head coach Mike Alcorn was also named CURC Women’s Coach of the Year in 2019.

Several of the GRC’s rowers have also gone on to make their mark at the elite level following their time at the club. Mark Henry, a former captain of the Gryphon’s varsity team, went on to compete on the national team and finished in fifth place in the men’s lightweight double sculls at the 2015 Pan Am Games. Spencer Kielar, another lightweight from the Guelph Rowing Club, is a current national team member who had a big year in 2019, competing both the U23 World Championships and 2019 Pan Am Games. He placed 12th in the single at the Worlds and sixth in the lightweight double at the Pan Am Games. Kristina Harris, a current high school student at the club who got her start in one of the club’s learn to row programs, also has a bright future in rowing ahead of her. Late last year Harris committed to the University of Tulsa on an athletic scholarship and will begin her career as an NCAA athlete in September of 2021. Stephen Harris is another young rower with Guelph Rowing Club roots who is loaded with potential. He’s currently rows at Brock University and is a member of the RCA’s NextGen Team. Harris placed tenth at the 2019 Word Junior Rowing Championships along with his crew mates in the junior men’s quadruple sculls.

In addition to running programs for all segments of its membership base, the GRC has also welcomed other members of the Ontario rowing community to Guelph Lake for a number of inter-club regattas over the years. They have hosted several CORA regattas since their inception as well as smaller regattas against neighbouring clubs in Cambridge and Kitchener-Waterloo. The club also alternates hosting the Guelph-Mac Challenge each year with the McMaster Marauders rowing team.

Off the water, the varsity program hosts a banquet each year which functions as a fundraiser for the program. Keeping with the feeling of community within the club and the tradition of giving back, the entire club is celebrated at the banquet and its open for everyone to attend even though it’s a varsity program initiative.

The Guelph Rowing Club was planning a 20th anniversary celebration last year which unfortunately needed to be postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The celebration will be rescheduled to a later date. When it does take place, the club has a lot to celebrate as they have been operating successfully for over two decades and created a strong culture that has led to the members becoming a tight-knit community. The GRC has a lot to be proud of and will look to continue its strong presence in the Ontario rowing community for the next 20 years and beyond.

Thank you to Jo-Anne Costello for her generous contributions and help in completing this profile. Some photos are property of the Guelph Rowing Club.