In the wee hours of the morning, while many of us are still sleeping, a whole culture springs to life between the banks of the Mississippi River.

If you’ve happened upon the members of the Y Quad Cities Rowing program, you know what I’m talking about. These folks slip out into the water in those quiet hours, gracefully gliding their crafts across the surface of the river.

Sure, you’ll see them out there during other times of the day, but Amy Johnson, Two Rivers YMCA senior program director of sports and outreach, says there is something about catching the rowers out before the pre-dawn hours that is especially peaceful.

Often, you can hear them rowing, their oars slicing into water, before you’re actually able to see them.

The Y operates the rowing program out of the Sylvan Boathouse along 1st Avenue in Moline. Formerly a private club, the Y took over operations about seven years ago. It offers lessons, rowing memberships, group challenges and competitive teams, and the Y has plans to expand the facility in the future.

Inside the boathouse, you’ll find, as the name implies, boats — and lots of them. From the outside, the building appears to be large, but I was surprised by just how many crafts are housed inside. There also are indoor rowing machines, or ergometers (ergs, for short); and a plethora of windows with stunning views of the Mississippi River.

The walls are lined with plaques from the rowing club’s competitive teams' wins. Johnson says that when the Q-C team shows up for a competition, other teams get worried. And with good reason — the locals here take their rowing seriously. Johnson says even the teenagers are enthusiastic about their early morning workouts.

“The teams are here at 5:20 in the morning so they can get on the water, and they’re excited about it. It’s great to see,” she says.

It’s no wonder. Johnson says many of the team members go on to win scholarships and head off to educations funded largely by their rowing accomplishments. They also get the chance to travel, competing stateside and internationally.

“Our competitive group went to the Netherlands last year,” Johnson says. 

The team is learning from one of the masters in their field. Their coach, Dr. Peter Sharis, is a local cardiologist and former member of the 1992 Olympic rowing team who made the finals in the summer games in Barcelona, Spain. He now volunteers for the club as a coach.

That’s not to say that you have to be at an Olympic level to row here. The Y offers classes for beginners so you can learn the basics of rowing, and instructors will make sure you have them down before you get out on the water. It also offers intermediate and private lessons, too, and prior to getting into a boat, participants will take a swim test. Those who are unable to pass will be required to wear a life jacket.

Johnson says people will learn the various techniques of rowing in the classes, including the basics of sweeping (using one oar) and sculling (using an oar in each hand). A boat shell on the club’s deck will help you get a feel for what it’s like on the water before you’re actually in a boat on the river. 

Johnson says you’ll also discover that rowing is a total body workout. 

“A lot of people think it’s just about arms, but it’s cardio and it’s legs. You’re driving with your legs, and you have to use your brain.

"When you think about the Y’s mission — which is spirit, mind and body — rowing really encompasses that. You’re out in nature, which can do so much for the spirit. You’re using your mind, focusing on technique and working with other people. You have to understand all of the pieces and put it all together. And there are the obvious physical benefits,” Johnson says.

The folks at the Y want to make sure these benefits are available to as many people as possible. To this end, it also offers an adaptive rowing program using the same equipment, but adapted for those with physical or cognitive disabilities.

For those who participate, the experience is invaluable.

Juli Larkins, of Moline, became paralyzed 23 years ago in a motorcycle accident, and now uses a wheelchair. A friend asked if she would like to try adaptive rowing in a pilot program. Now, she's in her sixth year with the program, and is one of five adaptive rowers.

“I love the water, nature and competing," she says. "It is a great way for us to ditch the wheelchairs and look like all the other rowers out on the water. Being in our sculls rowing on the Mississippi is an amazing experience. This program gets me out to exercise, improves my self-esteem, gives me freedom from the chair and gives me a chance to hang out with other disabled members, and we could not do it without our coaches, volunteers and the Two Rivers YMCA.” 

Being out on the water, enjoying nature and potentially competing are all options for those who would like to try rowing. Johnson says rowers are a friendly group, and they always welcome new members.

“One of the things that impresses me is how much fun they all have together. They can be very serious about what they do, but they also have a really good time,” Johnson says.

The club plans to celebrate National Learn to Row Day, show off the facility and provide more information about rowing with an open house on June 3 from 9 to 11 a.m. at the boathouse, 1701 1st Ave., Moline. 

Chris Cashion is a writer on staff with Radish. For more information about the Y Quad Cities Rowing program, contact Amy Johnson at 309-762-6030 or visit www.tworiversymca.org.

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