Row Ontario Retrospective: The Next 50 Years
History/ Dec 21

Row Ontario Retrospective: The Next 50 Years

In honour of our 50th anniversary we are putting together a seven-part retrospective series on the history of Row Ontario and the Ontario rowing community. This series is a celebration of all the volunteers, coaches, umpires, athletes, parents, regatta organizers and many more who have worked so hard over the years to build the sport of rowing in our province.

This is Part VII of the retrospective series, ‘The Next 50 Years’.

Check out the Row Ontario 50th Anniversary page on our website for more information on our 50th anniversary.

With over 150 years of history, the Ontario rowing community has gone through many different eras as the sport has evolved. The first 50+ years saw the sport introduced to Ontario communities by immigrants from the United Kingdom who brought their passion for rowing with them across the Atlantic. In this era, rowing would first be practiced recreationally by upper-class individuals across Ontario as rowing clubs sprouted up in several communities around the province. As the popularity of the sport grew, inter-club regattas began to be hosted to determine which of the early clubs had the top rowers. The regattas would eventually turn into large-scale events, attracting thousands of interested spectators to watch the early stars of the sport. Rowing became an Olympic sport at the outset of the modern-day Games, and rowing clubs in Brockville, Toronto, Ottawa, Hamilton, St. Catharines, London and Thunder Bay were established. The start of World War I in 1914 coincided with the end of rowing’s first 50+ years in Ontario. During this time, rowing, along with many other sports, went on a hiatus as members were sent to Europe to fight in the war.

The second 50-year era of the sport of rowing in Ontario, from 1920-70, had some big highs and arguably even bigger lows. The ‘roaring 20’s’ were a high, as society in general had money to spend on recreation and many of the established clubs thrived. However, the Great Depression through the 1930’s was a struggle for the sport, as clubs fell on hard times with dwindling membership numbers that led to financial issues. The Second World War again led to many clubs going on a hiatus. Following the war, the sport began to rebuild and become more formally organized. New stars of the sport emerged, and more regattas were being run throughout the province by the end of the 1960’s.

The era from 1970-2020 saw continued progress in the organization and professionalization of the sport. The Ontario Rowing Association (ORA) was created in 1970 (later changed to Row Ontario in 2001) and over the following 50 years the association moved from a ‘kitchen table management’ entity run by dedicated volunteers with nine member clubs, to a leading provincial sport organization with over 60 member clubs and 8,000 participants. This era has been characterized by growth and change as rowing in Ontario adapted to the ever-evolving Canadian sporting landscape.

With 2020 drawing to a close, a new era for the sport of rowing in Ontario is on the horizon. What lies ahead for rowing in Ontario over the next 50 years? Will it be another period of growth and change? What will the highs look like? What will the lows look like? How different will the sporting landscape, and in turn the rowing landscape, look in 2070 than in 2020?

While it’s difficult to predict the next five years, let alone the next 50 years, one area where Ontario seems to be already evolving is in the hosting of regattas on the domestic and international front. Ontario has always been a regular host of national championship regattas since the beginning and the Royal Canadian Henley Regatta in St. Catharines established itself as a world class event many years ago. Since the creation of the ORA in 1970, Ontario has played host to two World Rowing Championships (1970 and 1999), both in St. Catharines, and only a handful of other international events including two FISA World Tour events in 2002 and 2012.

However, over the next several years a diverse range of international rowing events will be making their way to Ontario rowing communities, starting next year. In 2021, London will play host to the CanAmMex International Regatta (postponed from 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic) and the Canadian Indoor Rowing Association is set to host the Americas Continental Qualifier for the World Indoor Rowing Championships. 2022 will be busy year on both the international and domestic fronts, as the FISA World Tour returns for its third go around on Ontario waterways, London will host the FISU World University Rowing Championships, and St. Catharines will host the rowing events for the 2022 Canada Summer Games, only the second time in history rowing will be contested on Ontario waters at the Canada Summer Games. In 2023, Mississauga will welcome the world for the World Rowing Indoor Championships, and the following year St. Catharines will again host the World Rowing Championships. This time it will be a ‘Mega’ World Championships, with the senior, U23, and junior world championships events all being contested on Martindale Pond.

With a slew of international rowing events coming to Ontario in the next few years, there’s a real opportunity for Ontario to become a home to major events on a consistent basis. When 2025 rolls around what exciting and prestigious rowing events will be next on the table? The eyes of the world’s rowing community will be focused on Ontario in the coming years. In five years, there will have been a significant growth in regatta hosting infrastructure, a number of ready and willing host communities, and a recent history of hosting successful events. Over the next 50 years will Ontario see more World Rowing Championships? More multi-sport Games like the Pan Am Games and Commonwealth Games? Will an Olympic regatta be contested in Ontario waters?

A rendering of what the new Henley Rowing Centre on Henley Island in St. Catharines will look like.

One segment of rowing that is definitely going to see more action in Ontario waters over the next 50 years is coastal rowing. The popularity of coastal rowing in Canada and across the world has been gaining steam over the past decade and there’s already evidence that coastal rowing may eventually become an Olympic sport. In 2019, the International Olympic Committee announced the addition of coastal rowing to the 2022 Youth Olympic Games programme in Dakar, Senegal, with 120 athletes (60 men, 60 women) competing in singles, doubles, and mixed doubles events. FISA President Jean-Christophe Rolland said at the time “This is fantastic news that the IOC has agreed that coastal rowing will be included in the Dakar 2022 Youth Olympic Games. Coastal rowing is critical to our strategy to expand the sport to new and diverse countries, many that do not have suitable rivers and lakes. The exciting nature of coastal rowing will also fit perfectly in with the style and brand of the Youth Olympic Games.”

Should coastal programming ever become an Olympic sport, the Canadian high performance system will need to adapt in order to send the highest possible number of Canadian rowers to the Olympics. In turn, Row Ontario will also need to adapt their high performance programming and development systems so they can produce elite level coastal rowers. There will also need to be more coastal rowing regattas added to the event schedule to provide racing opportunities. National and/or provincial coastal rowing championships could be the next evolution in the summer regatta calendar over the next several years, and over time annual coastal events could be added to communities across the country.

Much like coastal rowing is critical to FISA’s strategy to expand the sport of the rowing into new and diverse countries, adding coastal programming to the Canadian, and by extent the Ontario, rowing system, provides an opportunity to grow the sport into new communities. In Ontario alone, there are many communities in close proximity to the Great Lakes where flatwater rowing is not suitable. Some communities also have the option of having both flatwater and coastal programming. The addition of coastal programming will take time, but eventually the Ontario rowing community could start seeing clubs or regions that specialize in coastal rowing and produce excellent recreational and competitive coastal programming.

Over the next 50 years will we begin to see a current, or future, Ontario rowing community become a hotbed for coastal rowing talent? Will it be the already talent-rich Niagara region? Will it be Eastern Ontario, with its many waterways and deep history in rowing? What undiscovered rowing community on the shores of Lake Ontario, Lake Erie, Lake Huron, or Lake Superior will become known for its coastal rowing?

Another important question on the high performance side of the sport is how will the growth of coastal rowing have an impact on already established competitive flatwater rowing programs? Seeing a coastal rower from Canada compete at an Olympic Games is years away at this point. The 2024 Paris Olympic programme was announced in early December and the rowing events remain unchanged with six open weight and one lightweight event per gender being contested. The path forward for high performance in the next four years is clear. Any deviations in that path will likely come as a result of decisions made by FISA and the IOC. Countries around the world adapting to the evolution of the sport is not a new concept and it will be interesting to see the evolution of the Olympic programme over the next 50 years.

Rowing has been contested at every Summer Olympics in history except the first one in Athens in 1896, where the regatta was cancelled due to bad weather. Ontario rowers have played key roles on Team Canada in virtually every games Olympic Games and the high performance development system in Ontario remains one of the pillars of the national high performance program. With the creation of the Ontario NextGen Performance Centre in 2020, the foundation of Ontario’s high performance system has been set for the foreseeable future. In the short term, the Performance Centre is set to provide an ideal daily training environment for aspiring elite level athletes and provide a pathway for Ontario rowers to reach the national team level and compete on the grandest stages in sport.

In the long term, a successful high performance system, one that sees athletes develop through club programs and provincial programs, before moving on to compete in the national program, has the ability to grow and develop the sport in other areas besides high performance. In its 150+ plus years of history in Canada, rowing was never more popular and part of the national consciousness than it was following the great success of the national team program in the 1990’s. Seeing rowers win medals at the highest heights of sport generates excitement, buzz, and interest in rowing, and has shown to increase participation at the grassroots levels, which in turn leads to a stronger, healthier, and happier sport as a whole.

The Ontario rowing community has always played a significant role in high performance success and over the next 50 years will continue to play a significant part in any success Canada has at the international level. Who will be the next Ontario rower to join a youth program at their local club and evolve into a World Champion? Who will become the next Wendy Wiebe? The next Brian Price? The next Roger Jackson? Or the next Marnie McBean? Will Canadian rowers top the six medals they won at the Olympics in 1984 and 1996? And at the Paralympic level, who will join Andrew Todd, Victoria Nolan, and Curtis Halladay as Ontario rowers with Paralympic medals? Will the Canadian rowing program once again become world-leading?

Dann Tardif Photography

Over the next several years strategies will be developed on how to introduce rowing to communities that have never been introduced to it before. The potential for growth in diverse Canadian communities is strong. What will the demographics of rowers in Ontario look like in 50 years? How will the strategies for attracting new diverse communities to rowing be implemented? And who will inspire the next generation of Canadians to enter the sport of rowing?

While the era from 1970-2020 saw tremendous advancements in the organization and professionalization of rowing in Ontario, there is still room to grow. In recent years, there has been a big push to make sure that sport in general, and by extension rowing, is as safe as possible for all participants, coaches, officials and volunteers. ‘Safe sport’ has become a buzz term across the Canadian sporting landscape and the progress made so far is only the beginning as increased awareness will lead to more regulations in the not-too-distant future.

When a parent is making a decision on what sport to enter their child in, they need to be assured that their child will be safe, they will be well-protected, they will be in a professional environment, and their hard-earned money spent on rowing will be a good investment for their child physically, mentally, and emotionally. The landscape of what a parent is looking for in sport and how their dollars are being spent has changed. It has changed throughout the first 50 years of the ORA/Row Ontario and will continue to change throughout the next 50 years. If rowing wants to continue to grow, or even maintain its current place in the sporting landscape, meeting the expectations of the public from a safe sport perspective is essential.

A big piece of safe sport also relates to coach education. Rowing coaches are now better educated and better trained than ever, and coaching attitudes have changed tremendously in the last 50 years. Parents want to know that the coaches charged with teaching their child the sport have gone through all the right certifications and the clubs they will be training at are in compliance with all safe sport regulations. What advancements in coach education, both on and off the course, will take place by 2070? What will the safe sport landscape look like in 10 years, let alone 50? And how will the Ontario rowing community adapt to the evolving regulations?

Forecasting the next 50 years for the Ontario rowing community is a tough chore. Questions just lead to more questions, not answers. But if history has taught us anything, rowing will need to evolve over time in order to prosper. It will need to stay current and relevant in the Canadian sporting landscape. It will need to take on new challenges, overcome obstacles, and abandon outdated attitudes. There is always room to grow and watching the sport of rowing grow in Ontario over the next 50 years will no doubt be fascinating.

This is the final part in the Row Ontario Retrospective Series. Thank you to everyone who has contributed to this project over the course of the year. It would not have been possible without you and your unmatched knowledge on the history of the Ontario rowing community.

Photo Credits:

Henley Rowing Centre Visual – St. Catharines Standard

Coastal Rowing Picture – FISA World Rowing

Youth Rowers – Argonaut Rowing Club

Safe Sport – Rowing Canada Aviron