Reinventing Rowing

Bringing an old sport into a new era
The rowing team unloading boats at St. Catherines
The rowing team unloading boats at St. Catherines

A light mist rises up from the remarkably still water as the day starts breaking. It’s winter jacket weather even though it’s May. At the John Lecky boathouse in Richmond, a group of boys are methodically putting rowing shells in the water, their silence occasionally interrupted by the honking of Canadian Geese gliding by. 

Rowers at a morning practice

“It’s incredibly peaceful being out there on the water before most people are up” says Owen Kazimirski, a senior who’s been on the St. Georges Rowing Team since grade 8.  “I feel really connected to nature.” By the end of the practice, Kazimirski and his teammates will have logged at least 14 kilometers, which includes sprints, steady state rowing on the water, drills, and more.  “Sometimes we’ll have errant logs in our path” says coxswain John Demianczuk.  “It’s a busy working river and our boat is just a small part of the ecosystem.”


After the practice, the boys haul the boats back into the UBC Boathouse and board a bus for the 25 minute commute to school.  They’ll do the reverse at the end of the school day.  Fortunately, unlike earlier in the year, it will not be dark when they put the boats away for the second time.

Rowers at a Regatta

“There is nothing at Saints that is similar to the rowing team” says former coxswain James Hughes (Class of 2022.) No other sport practices from September to June.  Every other sport has a 2-3 month season,  and within that season, every other sport has more competitions than the rowing team does all year.  “You gotta be in it for the long haul” suggests Hughes. Over a 9 month period, the team usually competes in around 6 regattas all leading up to CSSRA’s (Canadians Secondary Schools Rowing Association Championships) which is the National regatta held every June in St. Catharines Ontario. Head Coach Brent Duncan admits “it is not for the faint of heart” as leading up to the Nationals, some boys are on the water 7 days a week.

Coach Brent Duncan

Coach Duncan came to Saints as the Assistant Coach in 2017 and was elevated to Head Coach in the Fall of 2021. He has been passionate about rowing since he went to rowing camp as an 8 year old. It helped that he grew up in St. Catherines, a town dedicated to the sport.  His public high school had a great rowing program which helped him win multiple medals. His love of rowing led him to choose Western for both undergraduate and graduate school.  In fact, he chose to do a Masters degree in Sports History/gender equality/social inequality in sport at Western so he could remain involved in its rowing program.  


Being Head Coach is a multifaceted job involving the organization of one other full time coach and 10 part time coaches. Operating costs are higher than other Saints sports as the boats and their maintenance are expensive. The home of the team, The John Lecky Boathouse, is jointly owned by St. Georges and UBC. This arrangement helps to offset costs as the two groups share their equipment.  Even team trips are more expensive than other sports as the boats have to be transferred to every regatta.

Rowers rigging boats at St. Catherines

Given the scope of the program, the rowing team remarkably flies under the radar of most people at St. George’s. The rowers and their hectic schedules remain an enigma for most. However, this year, the program is the biggest it’s been in seven years since hitting a low point during and immediately after Covid 19. Duncan is proud of the 61 boys from grades 8-12 who are a part of the team, and he’s working with the administration, parents, and rowers themselves to figure out how to best shape the future of the expanding program. Duncan and his staff are currently in the process of a strategic review for the team – deciding which direction the team would like to take going forward. Two different focuses come to mind: the competitive success of the team, and the community/experience of the student athletes. Duncan admits that as of late the team has been leaning away from the competitive side of the sport.

2023-24 Rowing Team

This philosophy is a shift from earlier Saints Rowing team regimes. Elite universities in America recruit great rowers for their teams and there is a long standing belief amongst some Saints parents that excelling at rowing will help their child land admission at one of these schools.  Before Duncan came to Saints, there was an emphasis on excelling at competition not just to win in Canada but to prove a boy’s skill so he could get recruited to a university. Focusing on training to win appears to have backfired.  Duncan advises between 2018-2022 only a couple of graduating rowers continued to row in University. James Hughes Hughes (Class of 2022) admits that  “My teammates were burned out – trying to get better erg times, proving themselves in the boat, some of them worrying about their weight – trying to get it down to row lightweight or get it up to row heavy weight.  It was a lot and some boys were plagued by anxiety about it all.  In fact they said they never wanted to row again – I also know some parents were really putting pressure on their sons to excel and that dragged their sons down.” 

Rowers hard at work at a practice

Duncan appears to have righted the ship since he’s been Head Coach. All four of the graduating rowers from last year’s class have gone on to row happily at university, and that’s with the program putting no emphasis on university recruitment. Duncan explained that the mental health of the student athletes is a top priority for him and the team has worked to navigate the students’ high expectations for themselves and performance anxiety. “We focus on process and learning much more than results,” says Duncan. They’ve implemented a new system with team captains being an available first interaction point for struggling rowers who are perhaps too afraid to speak to a coach or parent and a larger emphasis is being placed on how the team can uplift each other at every practice. 

Rowers enjoying themselves on the St. Catherines trip

However, balancing the competitive nature of rowing and the athletes’ mental health is complicated. Duncan knows there are high achieving, talented and aspiring boys coming up the ranks and wants them to have the environment necessary to give them the best opportunities as rowers. Canada recruits the best rowers for their feeder program to the Junior National team and they suggest that a student must be doing between 15-18 hours a week of rowing with their school team. That number of hours is challenging for a Saints boy. Committing that much time to one activity means that student will not be a member of the band, or another sports team or a lead in a school play. It means he forgoes long weekends away with his family and it means he is working out early in the morning and after school. Duncan is keenly aware that solely focusing on rowing can lead to severe burnout but also that those at Saints who wish to pursue rowing at the highest level also need an intense structure to do so. Ultimately, that is one of the things the current strategic review will lay out, and Duncan is up to the challenge of building a team that values mental health and community while also providing the support and resources to the boys who wish to excel in this highly competitive sport. Duncan says “It’s not necessarily an either or.” He suggested that now that the rowing team has more adequate systems in place to support the student athletes, there is room to shift back towards being more competitive – showing hope for an efficient AND supportive team.

Owen Kazimirski voiced his thoughts on the current dynamics of the team and its potential future:

As the rowing team continues to evolve under Coach Duncan’s leadership, the balance between fostering competitive excellence and nurturing mental well-being remains a central focus. The strategic review aims to shape a future where each rower, whether aspiring to be a national champion or simply to enjoy the sport, has a place. Ultimately, it appears that the St. George’s rowing team is poised for a strong and renewed future, ensuring that each boy leaves the program with lifelong skills, friendships, and memories.

Rowers competing in nationals at St. Catherines
Leave a Comment
More to Discover

Comments (0)

All The Creed Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *