Student rowing club Argo is bursting at the seams. Its membership is twice that of the traditional Wageningen student societies. This is no isolated example: rowing clubs all over the Netherlands are incredibly popular. Is all that messing about on the water really so much fun? Yes, but that is not all.
The Channel Championships on the Rhine last weekend marked the end of W.S.R. Argo’s trial period. After a month getting to know the society, the other rowers and the sport, 220 first-year rowers got in the boat to compete against one another for the first time. This was also the point when new members finalized their enrolment with the club — 200 in total, 40 more than last year. ‘A few more than we had reckoned on,’ says chair Bas Ooteman proudly. ‘Great to see that so many firstyears are apparently so enthusiastic about rowing.’
Wageningen is not the only town where student rowing clubs are doing good business. The rowing societies were pretty popular during the introduction weeks in Delft, Groningen, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Utrecht, Eindhoven, Leiden and Enschede too. Some students had to be turned away because there were not always enough boats to accommodate all the first-years. In Wageningen, almost 300 students registered an interest initially, with 80 having to be turned away at once.
Kristel Kooij, sports participation manager for the Royal Dutch Rowing Association (KNRB), confirms that student societies are incredibly important for rowing as a sport. ‘The KNRB has about 34,000 members, a good third of whom are students. The Netherlands has 120 rowing clubs and about 20 of these are student clubs. We grow bigger every year and that is largely thanks to the students.’ Kooij says rowing is popular among students because it is an activity that combines sport and club life particularly well. ‘You practice the sport but you also get experience sitting on committees and boards and there’s plenty of room for a social life. Competitive rowing teaches you to function in a team, work towards goals, deal with setbacks and persevere. So you really benefit in your personal development. The many hours spent training also force you to plan well.’
The best combination
It was precisely that combination of sport and sociability that made Jip Jordaan and Bart Middelburg decide to join Argo. Bart, a Master’s student in Earth and Environment, says, ‘For me, sport is a great way to let off steam; I love working towards a competition with my mates. I wouldn’t get much fulfilment from a society that was only about alcohol. In that respect, Argo is the best combination of society life and sport. It’s a real student society with traditions and rituals but the rowing gets priority.’
Bart made a deliberate decision to become a league (rather than competitive) rower three years ago after completing his introductory period. ‘Competitive rowers put a lot of time into their sport and their bodies need rest. I like being actively involved in the society in other ways than just the rowing. I’ve been regularly serving behind the bar on Tuesday evenings for a while now. It often gets late then and you can’t combine that with competitive rowing. I did have doubts as I’d like to push my performance to a higher level. In fact, I’m pretty fanatical for a league rower; last year I rowed really intensively, about four to five times a week. This year I will be focusing on coaching. I’m never going to be a competitive rower now. I really enjoy rowing but I don’t want to give up everything for it.’
Jip Jordaan did decide to go for competitive rowing. Although that was not obvious from the first moment she got into a rowing boat. ‘It was clear that I did not have a natural talent,’ says the second-year Food Technology student. Jip joined the rowing Society during the AID week following encouragement from her uncle, who said she would make a good rower given her height (1.85 m). ‘I wanted to join a society but I wanted to do something else as well. I thought sport would be the most fun, being all fanatical in a team. But rowing was quite tricky, the sequence of actions in the strokes and keeping your balance. My coach said I looked terrible.’
That is a familiar story for first-year rowers, says chairman Bas. ‘Almost none of the people who join our society have experience rowing. Most of them have spent years practising other sports and fancy trying something new when they come to university.’ That is another reason why rowing is popular with students, he thinks. ‘Starting something new together creates a bond. That first training session is often more a case of trying something out than actual high-quality rowing. Keeping your balance is difficult, rowing in unison is difficult – in short, it’s a mess. But it is a fantastic mess. Everyone is on a voyage of discovery; there is a huge sense of adventure in the boat.’
Jip soon caught the rowing bug. She even registered for the selection for competitive rowers. ‘To start with, I sometimes had my doubts whether it was the right decision. A lot is demanded of you; you are at Argo nearly every day and sometimes we even started rowing at seven in the morning. It was also tough on my body; I hadn’t that much experience of sport so it took some getting used to. It’s not so much fun to sit in the boat in pain. I did wonder at times whether this was what I really wanted.’
The answer was yes. One year on, Jip is still a competitive rower. She has access to the best coaches and the fastest boats. She doesn’t see it as a big problem that she has to watch her diet and go to bed early and is unable to drink any alcohol for the next six months. ‘The nice thing about competitive rowing is that you and the rest of your crew give it all you’ve got. You push yourself to extend your limits and it makes you really strong, both mentally and physically. We are really close as a crew and we often go to parties or dinners together. Then it’s not so bad if you can’t have a drink. And apple juice tastes quite nice too.’
First-year rowers can soon be trained to a high standard. Chairman Bas thinks that this is an inviting prospect for students too. ‘If you want to reach a high standard in volleyball, you have to start playing when you’re eight. If you only begin when you’re 18, you will never be more than an amateur. But if you start rowing when you’re 18, you can still reach Olympic standard. That’s a nice thought.’
Kristel Kooij of the KNRB: ‘About 40 per cent of our national team consists of rowers who came through from youth training while the rest came from student rowing. Rowers who quickly reach the highest level are often students who have been swimmers, for example, or speed-skaters at a high level before and so are already extremely athletic. There are examples of athletes who started rowing in 2008 and went on to win a medal at the Olympics four years later. That’s possible.’ That is why the KNRB provides support for the student rowing clubs. Kooij says, ‘We make sure the conditions are right. For example, we assist the boards, which change every year, via the Aegon Board Cup, and we encourage all the societies to have their own paid professional coaches. We think it is important to have good collaboration because the student rowing clubs are an important source of top-level rowers.’
Jip is not dreaming of a career as a top-level rower. ‘A project has now started for going to the 2020 Olympics. That sounds really cool to me but you would have to move to Amsterdam quite soon and train twice a day. I’m fanatical and I go all out for rowing but I’m not prepared to do that. In the first place, I wouldn’t want to move to Amsterdam and secondly you wouldn’t have any time at all for student life.’
Photo's: Sven Menschel