What Great Bay Rowing has Taught me

“Great Bay Rowing (GBR) has taught me that change and progress can be completely up to you, and the work you are willing to put in, and that there’s no substitute for showing up,” shared Iris Cotrupi (‘20), GBR athlete from Portsmouth. 

GBR is a non-profit rowing club located in Dover on the shore of the Cocheco River. Sean O’Connell founded the club in response to a growing interest in rowing in the Seacoast area. Since its establishment in 1996, GBR has consistently taught athletes meaningful lessons on and off the water. GBR has developed into a competitive and serious club whose athletes leave having learned a lot more than just rowing. Personally, GBR has taught me the meaning of a supportive community and what it truly means to be a member of a team. Since joining, I’ve been introduced to so many new things that I never would have been able to experience if not for GBR.  

One of the major things that sets GBR apart in my eyes is the community within the club. Right now, the juniors team is small compared to other teams they race against, with about 60 athletes. However, in the future, Hallie Woods, Director of Rowing at GBR since 2019, would love to see the program “be huge, in a good way. I want to be able to offer programs to the juniors we have right now, to grow the masters program, and to have an awesome middle school feeder program.” 

Additionally, the club is in the process of growing and developing an adaptive rowing program to add to their tight-knit community.

While all sports involve community and teamwork, GBR is the only rowing club in this area, and as a result of that, draws students from many surrounding school districts such as Oyster River, Portsmouth, Dover, and Exeter. Prior to rowing, all the sports I did were with the same kids I’d known since elementary school. 

“GBR is a really eclectic group of folks, and each one of them I’m very glad they’re in my life and they’ve offered me a perspective that’s very different from mine which is difficult to find in our area,” shared Cotrupi.

Greta Horgan (‘20), GBR juniors team (which includes athletes ranging from eighth to twelfth grade) captain from Portsmouth, agreed, adding, “I feel like we’re a bit of a ragtag group that all came from other sports that we didn’t fit into, and I think that’s kind of how we all relate. We connect well in that way,” shared Horgan.

GBR Spirit Week

Along with this ability to meet new people, another benefit to having students from all over the Seacoast means there are no friend groups that were already established prior to joining the team, which makes for a very welcoming environment. “The fact that we draw from so many communities is a real social advantage for our kids. GBR is not cliquey. It’s very inclusive. The culture and social aspect of GBR, that inclusivity, is really special,” said Jennie Marshall, President of GBR since 2014. 

GBR coxswain Tessa Lippmann agreed with Marshall, saying, “from when I first joined it felt like such a family. There was no barrier when I started, everyone was just so welcoming. The idea of GBR is just bringing people in and being there to support each other with whatever is going on in our lives.”

Right away, you get put into boats with people you’ve never met before in your life and know little about, and are expected to trust them and work with them smoothly. This is a unique skill to have, and I feel it is something really important to be able to do in life.  “When you’re a part of a boat, that boat is your family and that is your priority,” shared Lippmann. Each season there are new people who join, and us GBR athletes consistently have to practice that skill. That is something valuable that few programs around here are able to provide. 

With any sport, you need to have teamwork, and most athletes would likely agree that it’s one of the most important aspects of their sport. However, more than any other sport I’ve done, rowing has taught me how to work with a team because if you don’t, even for just a minute, the whole boat will suffer. 

Photo by MadLiv’n Design and Photography

At the most, you’ll be in a boat with seven other rowers. You all have to put your oars in the water simultaneously, and have your bodies perfectly in sync as you go forward and backwards. Everything has to be the same in order to have a fast boat. There are so many different variables in the stroke, and believe me, it’s not easy to do. You can’t do it alone, and it’s all about matching the person sitting in front of you and trusting them to do the right thing. 

 “It’s the ultimate team sport. It’s very hard to have a superstar. You can have one fast person, but if they don’t fit into the whole vibe of the team and the rhythm of the boat, they’re not going to make a boat faster,” shared Director of Rowing at GBR since 2019, Hallie Woods. 

Rowing hasn’t only taught me how to exemplify teamwork in the boat. Being a member of GBR has also shown me what it means to be a member of the team, past just showing up.

To me, being a member of the team means doing things when no one asks. Every day at practice I see people running around, so willing to do things like strapping a boat or getting oars for everyone else before themselves. Along with this, being a good teammate also means supporting all of my teammates and having fun with them during our spirit week, and at spags and regattas. 

Neon day during GBR Spirit Week

“If you look at people cheering from the sidelines [at regattas] it’s so loud and everyone is just so supportive and proud to be a part of GBR. It’s a really good team as far as performance at regattas goes, and also just a great team to be a part of,” shared Lippmann.

At GBR, athletes are eager to participate in more than just rowing together. “GBR is definitely one of the more fun teams I’ve worked for […] I think there’s a healthy dose of people supporting each other and people wanting to beat each other but not in a destructive, drama filled kind of way which is awesome,” shared Woods. She continued on to say, “there’s a good buy-in to stuff like spirit week, and the spags, and it’s definitely one of the most “together” teams that I’ve worked with before.” 

This sense of community at GBR and upbeat environment may be thanks to the tone the rowing community at large has set. Because it is a more niche sport, the community is “unique because it is tiny. Everybody in rowing knows everyone. Because [rowing] is relatively unknown, other people are really eager to share and talk about it, so it’s full of these super enthusiastic people,” said Woods. 

Along with the teamwork aspect of GBR, another thing I learned from GBR that I hadn’t in my previous experiences is to be grateful for, and work with, what you have. “[Rowing at GBR] has taught me that even though [the boathouse] is not the most beautiful place on Earth, we just work with what we have to go fast,” said Horgan. 

In rowing  it could seem hard to work with what you have because rowing shells are very expensive, not to mention all the other things that come along with them like oars and riggers. With other sports, you may just need one thing like a ball to do the sport at a basic level. To row, at the most basic of levels, you need the boat, riggers, and oars. 

It’s really expensive to get equipment for rowing and as a smaller, non-profit club, GBR can’t just buy an endless supply of boats. However, this has taught the athletes that even if it’s not the newest or fanciest equipment, you can still row and go just as fast. “Being a non-profit club and receiving no corporate funding, GBR tends to draw rowers who are there for the love of the sport,” said Cotrupi. She explained that the club is centered around rowing, which is ideal. The rowers learn to love rowing for what it is at its core, which is very valuable. 

“GBR athletes are tough. They’re not pampered, and I love it. The GBR kids don’t take things for granted; they’re not over privileged. They’re rowing because they want to row and they have the attitude of ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way,’” shared Marshall. 

A great example of this attitude among athletes that Marshall shared was when up until spring of 2017, there was no dock at the Dover boathouse. Prior to coming to Dover, GBR shared the boathouse at Jackson’s Landing in Durham with UNH. However, at this location, the athletes could only be on the water every other week due to the tides and water access on the Great Bay. 

GBR decided to move the junior team full time to the Dover boathouse, even if it meant having to wet launch every day. Wet launching meant the athletes had to carry their boats through the mud into cold water, sometimes up to, or over, their waists. Believe me, it was not fun a lot of the time, and was more difficult than it might seem, but we all look back on it now and love the memories it gave us. We were willing to do this each day if it meant getting more time on the water, something vital to producing a strong boat. 

Eventually, after a large team fundraiser and lots of hard work and planning from all involved, we got a dock. After getting the dock, and knowing that it was a privilege made the athletes appreciate it that much more. 

Along with gratitude, rowing at Great Bay has also taught me and my teammates how to be independent while still being on a team. However, “the sport itself is based on the concept that we’re only as strong as our weakest link. In rowing, you really are all in it together and I think that is a strength, but it’s also a skill that has to be developed. You have to understand how to be a part of a team, and understand how to push yourself individually without being individualistic,” shared Marshall.

While gratitude, community, and teamwork are all vital skills to have learned, probably one of the most important things I’ve learned from being a part of GBR is to strive for excellence. Each day I’m surrounded by people who want to do well for themselves, and for the team. Everyone wants to do better each day, and is willing to work really hard to get to where they want to be.

Photo by Becca Shay

However, it wasn’t always this way for GBR. “I think there was a concern [in the past] that if we talked about things like excellence and trying your hardest and giving it your best, and demanded that of people, that we would ruin the culture of the team. I think what people realized is that that actually enhances the experience,” shared Marshall. 

She explained that excellence may mean something different for each person. It could be becoming a D1 athlete, or simply learning that exercise is good for you. GBR gives everyone the opportunity to strive for excellence each day, regardless of what that may mean for them. 

Athletes will continue to benefit from the lessons rowing and GBR have taught them over the years; I know I definitely will. I can thank GBR for giving me some of my best friends, teaching me how to be a teammate, and showing me what a strong community looks like. I’m confident that when I leave GBR, I’ll be leaving better off than I was that first day I walked into the boathouse years ago.

Featured image by MadLiv’n Design and Photography