Athletics: A rowing movement hopes to take off in lakes area

The Brainerd Lakes Rowing Club hopes to start a competitive club team in the area.

The Brainerd Nordic ski team float on Wilson Bay on Gull lake in their eight-person scull Thursday, June 3, 2021, while receiving instructions from Brooke Watland and Ari Gallop on their jet ski. The athletes were invited to a rowing mini camp by the Brainerd Lakes Rowing Club to learn the different aspects of the sport from members of the club. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

EAST GULL LAKE — A friendly argument broke out on the shore of Gull Lake Thursday, June 3, between long-time friends.

Brainerd Warriors Nordic ski coach Mary Claire Ryan and her friend of more than 40 years, Deby Zarling, are outdoor activity enthusiasts. Between mountain biking, cross-country skiing, water skiing or any outdoor activity one can think of, Ryan and Zarling have probably tried it and are likely doing it right now.

So when Zarling invited Ryan and her Warrior Nordic ski teams to be the first to be introduced to rowing by a new group of rowing enthusiasts Ryan jumped at the chance.


The Brainerd Lakes Rowing Club is headed by Rikken Johnson and Brooke Watland with the help of Steffan Johnson, Jenny Gunsbury and Zarling. They hope to produce enough interest in rowing to create a club team.

The group’s mission statement is two-fold as it says on its website: “Teaching youth the sport of competitive rowing and teaching people of all ages rowing for exercise, recreation, and fun. Whether you’re a seasoned racer or just want to glide across the lake at sunset, join us.”

The group is hosting four learn-to-row classes. The first will be June 8-11 from 7-8:30 a.m. The other classes will be June 15-18, June 22-25 and June 28-July 2 at the same time.

The group is also reaching out to all area coaches and activities directors to try rowing as a team-bonding exercise and a good summer workout.

“For us, we just want to provide as many opportunities to get people out here,” Watland said. “If you want to come out for a private lesson where it’s just me and you and you’re just in a single and trying it out by yourself, or you want to bring a bunch of your coworkers and you want to get into an eight and try that you can.

Brainerd Nordic skiers invited to an evening of rowing

“Right now we have a big push where we want to get high school students involved. Rowing is just a phenomenal sport for every aspect of what you’re trying to do with your life.”

Watland is a Brainerd High School graduate and played hockey and ran track when she was at Brainerd. She didn’t want to finish competing athletically and by chance fell into the rowing team at the University of Minnesota.


“By a fluke, I met a distant relative who was on the rowing team and she told me I could walk on. My freshman year I walked on with about 130 other girls and we paired it down to about seven by the time I was done.

“Of all the spots that I did, rowing was by far the toughest. It’s a sport where you are pushing yourself physically as hard as you can, but you have to stay mentally tough. You can’t check out. If you do, the whole boat will fall apart. If you don’t do it together you will not move.”

Brainerd Lakes Rowing Club hopes to create a high school club team that would compete in competitive regattas. There are club teams in Duluth, the metro area as well as Wisconsin.

Watland stressed the club has two missions, however, and stressed if people want to go out for the sunset and views there are those options as well.

She said rowing is similar to canoeing or kayaking, but in rowing in a shell, the seat moves.

“You’re using your legs,” Watland said. “This is a whole-body experience. Everything is tired. I think it hits 85% of your muscles so not many sports have that big of a target.”

And that was where the friendly debate began between Zarling and Ryan, who takes great pride in the aerobic and strength workout of Nordic skiing. But the two weren’t there to argue statistics, but rather introduce skiers to rowing.

“I think any sport, or any coach, would agree your core is so critical to everything and this rowing really forces you to engage your core or you're not going to make it,” Ryan said. “It is a great all-around workout that would complement any sport. Nothing against the power conditioning they have at the high school, but if you want to try something different and get comparable results this is an answer for it.


“The other thing I find with a lot of my skiers is that balance is important. In a single skull, you might be able to make it, but they’re putting you in an eight-person skull so you better work as a team and coordinate as a team, which every coach wants its teams to do, or you might get wet.”

For more information on the Brainerd Lakes Rowing Club visit its Website at . Interested people can also email or contact Steffen Johnson, the board chair, at 703-969-1511.

The club will do its training at Madden’s Resort. It did receive a grant from the Brainerd Sports Boosters and will be working with Takedown Gym to establish classes and indoor conditioning for off-water months.

JEREMY MILLSOP may be reached at 218-855-5856 or Follow on Twitter at

A member of the Brainerd Lakes Rowing Club Rikken Johnson gives an orientation to the different parts of a rowing scull Thursday, June 3, 2021, at Maddens Resort on Gull Lake. The club members invited the athletes to an evening lesson on rowing in a scull. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Covering the Brainerd lakes area sports scene for the past 23 years.
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