Getting to Know the Sudbury 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 Sudbury Rowing Club!
Sudbury Rowing Club
Location: Sudbury, Ont.
“Sudbury is full of trees, and rocks, and lakes,” said current Sudbury Rowing Club President Susan Bruce endearingly, when asked to describe the location of the club.
Sudbury is the largest city in Northern Ontario with a population of 161,000. It is also the largest city in Ontario by landmass and has over 330 lakes within its boundaries. Not surprisingly, local residents have a fondness for all water sports. The city’s connection to rowing started in 1990 when a few enthusiasts, including Steve Ruttan, Corrine Wilde-Ruttan, Patricia Hennessy and Mary Milligan, thought that it would be an ideal place for the sport.
“The first executive committee was formed in 1990 and we officially became a club in 1991,” said Barbara Courtin, a long-time club member, former President, and Row Ontario Umpire. “The club started modestly with a few members, a Wintario Grant, and a couple of wooden eights – probably from the 1930’s. The City of Sudbury allowed us to park our boats on a rack on the shores of beautiful Ramsey Lake. There were no walls and no roof; the boats were simply outside surrounded by a chain link fence.”
“The boats weighed a ton,” recalled Bruce, who became a member in the club’s first year. “In order to launch we had to pick up the boat, walk about 30 or 40 feet towards the shoreline, take our shoes off, walk into the water, turn the boat over and jump in. There were some pretty cold mornings wading into that water, but the fun we had made it all worthwhile.”
The club eventually got a tarp to cover their boats and the grey canvas of the tarp coordinated nicely with the colour of the chain link fence. Membership grew quickly over the first couple of years and in the clubs’ fourth year the City offered to help out in finding a more suitable facility. The rowing club ended up partnering with the local canoe club and both clubs moved down the lake. The place had once housed ‘Sudbury Boat and Canoe’, a local business, and because it had actually functioned as a boat business there was a building suitable for boat storage and a dock. While this facility was a big step forward, within ten years there was not enough room to continue to grow. In addition, it was not fully accessible to persons with disabilities.
The rowing club and the canoe club got together again and decided to find a new location where we could construct a more appropriate facility,” recalled Courtin. “We brought the City into the idea right away and once again they were very supportive. A site they owned on the same lake was selected and the project began in earnest. It was a long process. It took 12 years and a lot of fundraising. We were lucky to have the support of all three levels of government and local businesses and individuals also got behind us. Xstrata, a large mining company in the area, donated a million dollars to get our fundraising efforts started and they didn’t even want any publicity out of it! They just thought that this was the kind of thing they wanted to support. We ended up building this amazing, fully accessible facility and we opened up there in 2016.”
The new facility is known as the Northern Water Sports Centre and it houses the Sudbury Rowing Club and the Sudbury Canoe Club. It’s a very attractive facility sitting on a couple of acres on the north shore of Ramsey Lake. The property is owned and maintained by the City, with the operational expenses being shared by the two clubs and the City.
“Looking back, it took a lot of people for our club to get to this level,” said Bruce. “Two people who deserve special mention are Bob Moulton and Mary Milligan. They already knew a lot about rowing when we started our Club. Bob had rowed at the Brockville Rowing Club and Mary had rowed at the Argonaut Rowing Club. They became our first coaches.”
Also of note are the husband and wife team of Shannon Hengen and Karl Skierszkan, who were terrific volunteers and board members for decades.
“They were like the energizer bunnies of the club; always recruiting, always coaching and always encouraging members to go to regattas,” said Bruce. “Because Shannon happened to be an English Professor at Laurentian University some of her recruits came from there. This was the start of what was to become a more formalized program in 2006 when Amanda Schweinbenz joined the staff at Laurentian. Because Amanda had such a strong background in rowing and coaching she took on the fledgling Laurentian rowing program.”
Under Schweinbenz’ leadership the Laurentian Voyageurs have fostered several elite athletes including Carling Zeeman; a 2016 Olympian and current national team member. The Voyageurs have also won several OUA medals and Amanda herself was voted OUA coach of the year in 2011. Over the years Schweinbenz has had a number of different roles with Rowing Canada Aviron and Row Ontario and she is currently a NextGen Performance Coach with Row Ontario in Welland.
The Sudbury Rowing Club has also benefited from the tireless efforts of Thomas Merrit; yet another Professor at Laurentian University.
“Thomas is a science Professor and had a strong rowing background when he arrived in Sudbury in 2006,” said Bruce. “He joined the club when it was at the old ‘Sudbury Boat and Canoe’ location and while he enjoyed just rowing, he quickly realized how inaccessible the facility was to persons with disabilities. He advocated for something better and joined forces with those, like Barb Courtin, who were pushing for a bigger and totally accessible facility. The result, in 2016, was the Northern Water Sports Centre which was built with all of the community in mind. Now persons with disabilities are full participants in what happens at our club and Thomas leads one of the strongest para-rowing programs in the country.“
Merritt is the proud coach of many, including Paralympian Dr. Steve Daniel who represented Canada in the single skull at the 2008 Paralympics. Another Club member who has been central to its development is Donna Speigel.
“Donna has been an active rower, and frequent volunteer and Board member,” said Courtin. “She was also the first to introduce us to tour rowing. I believe she had been on a tour and just got hooked. By 2003 she was on the Board of Ontario Adventure Rowing; (a role she still holds to this day). That same year she organized the first ‘Black Fly’ tour on the French River. Since then, she’s organized nine other ‘Black Fly’s’; all on different Northern Ontario waterways. These tours involved 25 rowers – some from our club but most from clubs in Southern Ontario.”
In 2010 Spiegel and her husband Mitch started an effort to have rowers from other country’s come to Northern Ontario for a tour. Their efforts paid off and in 2012, flying the Row Ontario, Rowing Canada and Ontario Adventure Rowing flags, they hosted a FISA World Rowing Tour. The tour featured 60 international rowers – all of whom were overwhelmed by the majesty of the Northern Ontario wilderness they were rowing through and the warmth of the hospitality they found on distant shores. Going forward, another World Rowing Tour is planned for the Thousand Islands of Georgian Bay in 2022 with Spiegel a member of the organizing committee.
“Staying closer to home, it’s important to understand that the Sudbury Rowing Club is a relatively small operation that sometimes lifts more than its own weight.” said Bruce “In a typical year, we might have 80 or 90 members. We try to be as full-service as possible; with high school, university, adaptive, masters, and learn-to-row programing. We also host a high school regatta each year for the schools that participate in our high school program. In the past we’ve also hosted a headrace for our members which is all eights and in the fall. The race is named for Loreen Joe; a beloved early member who passed away.”
Like everyone, the club dealt with a different type of year in 2020, but thanks to dedicated members and the commitment of the club’s volunteers were able to hold a modified rowing season.
“Of course, 2020 was not a typical year for our club,” says Bruce. “Because of COVID concerns we were unable to host our high school or university programs and we were down to only 37 members. Those few members all had a shorter season than usual. Like everyone else in the rowing community, we are doing our best to stay safe and practice patience. These are things that rowers understand – but the catch will come, the oar will drop, the drive will be powerful, and the recovery will be bliss.”
Thank you to Susan Bruce and Barbara Courtin for their generous contributions and help in completing this profile. Photo’s are property of the Sudbury Rowing Club and the Northern Water Sport Centre.