Row, row, row on a golden lake
Athletes from all over love Lake Natoma—which might be why some of the world’s best rowers grow up here in Sacramento
Lake Natoma offers an ideal confluence of terrain and water. It’s easily accessible and enjoyable, especially for Sacramento recreational enthusiasts utilizing the American River Parkway. But rowers see the lake differently: It has all the ingredients for a perfect regatta, or boat race, which Sacramento State rower Holly Hopkins knows quite well.
“Our [Lake Natoma] course is pretty, even in all lanes, and I’ve never heard one is better than the other,” Holly says of racing the lake, which she began doing as a kid for River City Rowing Club. “People sometimes talk about the San Diego Crews Classic [in Mission Bay], where there’s a disadvantage to the outside lanes, but we have hills all around and there’s no slope. So yeah, it’s very even.”
Holly has rowed for Sacramento State’s varsity team since her freshman year and is among more than 20 Sacramento area women on the roster. Her sister Heather also rows for Sac State. Although it’s not uncommon for siblings to compete on the same team in various sports, it’s unique at Sac State. And it’s also unique for sisters to be in the same boat.
The Hopkins siblings, who live in Davis, had earlier athletic passion as ballerinas. But after many years of dance, Heather switched to rowing last summer. Holly is the “stroke,” or eighth seat, on the boat; Heather sits behind her in the seventh seat.
“I kind of enjoy being able to spend more time with my sister and do something with her,” Heather says. “The competition between us? It’s not really an issue. I want everybody to be stronger. That just makes the boat go faster. We’re all competing on some level, but we’re all competing together [on the team], so we’re not really competing as sisters.”
David Weir also grew up in the area and has rowed around the world, from Cherry Hill, N.J., to Brandenburg, Germany. He’s practiced on Oregon’s Willamette River on countless cold and rainy mornings in Corvallis, where he’s a senior at Oregon State University.
But like other rowers who appreciate a wide, long and straight course situated on fresh water and protected by nature’s landscape, Weir enjoys rowing the most when he’s on his home course at Lake Natoma.
“Usually in Sacramento, it’s sunny, warm and gorgeous,” says Weir. “Usually, you have flat water. And when they run regattas there, they do an excellent job. There’s top-notch data. You know who’s where at every marker in the race. … You couldn’t ask for anything more.”
For Weir, the Hopkins sisters and a few dozen Sacramento area men and women rowers, the niceties of the “home-court advantage” will occur this Saturday and Sunday at the Pacific Coast and Pac-10 championships.
“I’ve had the privilege of rowing in a lot of places,” says Weir, who attended Folsom High School and also began his Lake Natoma rowing career for the River City Rowing Club. “I think of Lake Natoma as kind of the gold standard.
“It’s just gorgeous when you’re out there.”
Rowing may appear to be simple, but this weekend’s competition will up the ante on the sport’s complexity. Sac State and UC Davis varsity eight teams and other teams can compete among the Pac-10 races Sunday, but they’re not eligible for Pac-10 titles. Saturday’s events also will include Division II and III schools, club teams, lightweight boats, junior-varsity and freshmen squads, mixed recreational teams, masters and single-scull (individual) race divisions. It’s a jumbled, even confusing mixture of heats, qualifying times, eight-rower boats, four-rower boats, expert and novice rowers, weight divisions and even repechage (second-chance qualifying).
But the actual rowing competition is as streamlined as the sport’s simple yet complex ways.
With rare exception, rowing races are 2,000 meters in length and are often called sprints. The winning teams row as a cohesive unit to produce the fastest times—usually between six and seven minutes, sometimes faster, sometimes slower. In varsity eight races, the most prestigious events, crews take about 200 strokes per race, with a usual pull of about 36 strokes per minute for the first 1,500 meters. Anything goes after that, including “power strokes,” a sudden burst of energy for a designated number of strokes.
“The mental side of rowing is huge,” says Mike Connors, the longtime women’s head coach at Sac State and a former collegiate rower at Santa Clara University. “You can be big, lean and strong. But if you can’t leave your ego out of it, you might as well be a single sculler.”
The Sacramento State Aquatic Center opened in 1981, and the facility is primarily known as a rowing venue, with about 7,000 meters of available rowing water. It’s also a spectator-friendly location, with an open beach near the finish line and a straight course that allows full view of races.
The 2,000-meter competition course runs east to west and is situated between rolling hills on the north side and natural shrubbery, trees and a parkway on the south side.
“It’s considered a very fair course—and that’s not always the case. And it’s relatively protected. So even when we get a lot of wind, it’s pretty rowable water,” says Connors, who notes that there have been national championships and international regattas held at certain venues where the water literally is unrowable. Yet they’re still hosting major regattas.
“So everyone who comes to Lake Natoma, especially from outside the region, falls in love with the place,” Connors says.
Stanford University, UC Berkeley and University of Washington are perennial Pac-10 favorites, particularly in varsity eight competition. But in many ways, it’s the venue that makes the competition in rowing.
“It’s pretty easy to get under six minutes on the course,” Weir says of his home lake. “It’s hard to set a record on the course compared to Cherry Hill, because you’re not going to get a tailwind on Lake Natoma. You’re usually going to get true, flat water conditions. Which is how it should be. You’re not trying to set speed records. You’re trying to find out who’s the best.”