Since 1995, Sammamish Rowing Association (SRA) has served as a gathering place for anyone who loves being on Lake Sammamish’s waters.
Many come for a sport that may seem simple — pushing an oar to propel a boat. But mastering the technique of rowing can take years to perfect.
Those who try it for the first time will suffer a few painful weeks of blisters on their hands. Yet, from students to older recreationists, thousands have braved the pain to learn, and they keep returning to train, compete, and teach others.
Through SRA, many have found something greater than just a place to work out. They have found a community that supports them, and a sport that strengthens their confidence in themselves.
From the start, SRA aimed to be inclusive, intentionally calling themselves an “association” instead of a “club.” They welcome everyone from ages 12 to 80-plus, according to their website.
Susannah Pryal, a current SRA rower, can attest to this commitment. One of her teammates will soon turn 82.
Pryal, who is 51, got into rowing late in life. She grew up near Boston, where the sport was popular, and had always wanted to try it. But she did not start until age 37, when she took an SRA class. After suffering a hand injury, she stopped because “life and kids got in the way.”
Then last year, during the COVID-19 pandemic, a friend encouraged Pryal to return, and she overcame her trepidation about her health and weight. After realizing she had to relearn basic techniques, she doubled down and bought a rowing machine to practice at home.
“I watched videos, and I practiced to get my body just right, and I practiced and practiced,” Pryal said.
Since then, Pryal has been a boathouse regular. She has competed in multiple regattas, and this October, will return to Boston to row at the Head of the Charles, the largest regatta in the world.
For Pryal, rowing was a chance to achieve a healthier lifestyle.
“I’ve lost a lot of weight. I’ve gained a lot of muscle. I mean, I have definition. It’s crazy,” Pryal said.
She has also made some best friends from her novice class, a few of whom row competitively with her.
Although SRA offers adult sessions, its marquee program focuses on youth. It was through their youth program that Sydney Colburn started rowing in eighth grade, and this eventually led Colburn to row for the University of California, San Diego (UCSD).
Now 22, Colburn, who uses they/them pronouns, is an assistant coach at SRA, and coordinates the Learn to Row program.
Loneliness motivated Colburn to initially seek rowing as an outlet. Most of Colburn’s closest friends from their gifted and talented program ended up attending Redmond High School, while Colburn went to Eastlake. That loss made the adjustment to high school difficult.
“I had a really hard time in high school,” Colburn said, “But because of the rowing community, and because you have to be there for your boat and if you don’t come, they don’t go out, that was the thing that kept me going.”
Colburn joined the high school team and competed in regattas across the region. Colburn’s boat was undefeated in their sophomore year, and won third at the regional championships a year later. Afterwards, Colburn contacted the rowing coach at UCSD, and was recruited to join the college team.
During freshman year at UCSD, Colburn’s performance peaked. Colburn started out on the slowest boat on the team, but after putting in the time to work out and practice, they finished the season competing at the 2019 NCAA championship.
Colburn also began coaching as a high school senior, and kept coming back to SRA during college summers to work. Given their experience, SRA offered Colburn a full-time coaching job after graduation this year.
Colburn encourages adults of all ages to give rowing a try, but go in knowing how much of a learning curve it will be. It took Colburn five years to reach mastery.
“Adults aren’t used to being bad at things, right,” Colburn said. “So, my advice for adults learning how to row is to be easy on yourself and learn at whatever pace you want to learn at.”
But from better health to finding a tight-knit community, the benefits outweigh the challenges for many SRA members.
“Overall, [rowing] makes me feel good,” Pryal said. “I always say that this is like the biggest happy pill you could ever take.”
Sammamish Rowing Association is currently amidst its training and competition season, and will offer new Learn to Row classes next summer. You can find a full list of their programs on their website.