Two boys members of the Lake Leelanau Rowing Club practice on the lake

Lake Leelanau Rowing Club by Delaney Cram

While out enjoying the water or relaxing by the shoreline, you may notice groups of rowers practicing on the lake — these are members of the Lake Leelanau Rowing Club (LLRC). The LLRC offers recreational adult and high school competitive rowing, sculling education, and sport.

This week, our blog features guest writer Delaney Cram — a member of Lake Leelanau Lake Association’s (LLLA) Traverse City West High School Student Ambassador and a member of the LLRC. From members' stories about competitions and experiences on the lake to information on how to get involved, we invite you to read Cram’s blog to learn more about the LLRC.

The wheels roll over the tracks, a throat-clearing sound, but it is only that first stroke, that first indescribable moment from when the rowers are still, hanging off the edge of the catch to when they push off into their stride, that it is even heard at all. After that, there are other sounds. The slice of blades into the lake, the hum of the shell as she breaks through wind and waves, the steady breaths of the rowers even as their pulses hammer and their muscles writhe and scream to the canter of a single voice, counting strokes to the finish line. All of that is nearly indiscernible to an ordinary onlooker. They may notice the pair of youths charging across the glassy or roiling water just ahead of a little tin motorboat, where a faint voice issues commands, but it’s likely they have no idea of the victorious battle taking place within the shell’s hollowed chamber. 

The pair referred to are junior Leo Lombardi of Glen Lake High School and senior Parker Cabbage of Traverse City High School. They are rowers under Lake Leelanau Rowing Club (LLRC). From the instant the ice fled from the shores of Fountain Point and the deathly chill dulled within the lake’s depths, the two braved our beloved lake in what is considered by the greater rowing community one of the most dangerous boats. All this is to be ready to compete in USRowing’s Youth Nationals in Sarasota, Florida for the Youth Men’s Pair. The pair is in a rowing shell with two rowers, each using only one long oar in what is known as sweeping. This type of shell is considered dangerous because it is the easiest to flip over, especially in rough conditions. The slightest inconsistency in their strokes or too much lean to one side or another, and the fragile balance of the shell could be compromised. Yet, that didn’t stop them. 

For nearly two months, Cabbage and Lombardi alternated between racing single rowing boats and the coveted pair. All their hard work paid off after both the pair and Lombardi qualified for the U17 Men’s Single for Nationals. And the wins didn’t end there for LLRC. On June 9, Lombardi’s single placed 11th out of 30, securing his spot in the National Championships’ semifinals, a competition that would officially place Lombardi as the ninth fastest U17 men’s rower in the country. 

“I honestly did not think I was going to get that far,” Lombardi said. “But, it really made me excited just for the next race and really made me think that everything I’ve done so far really paid off. So, it [made] me [want] to work harder.”

LLRC has been rowing out of Fountain Point Resort since 2010 when Erik Zehender founded the club. 

“Fountain Point was going to be developed as a subdivision in 2008 and my mother was going to do that and then[.....]I convinced her not to do that,” Zehender said. “I always had my own boat here so I was always rowing in Leelanau[....]I thought it’d be fun to have other people to row with besides just myself, so then we started the club.” 

LLRC is open to juniors – middle and high school students – like Cabbage and Lombardi from schools throughout Grand Traverse and Leelanau Counties. LLRC also has a masters’ team, which is composed of adults of varying experience levels. Both teams welcome anyone regardless of prior experience. Yet, the junior team in particular has a reputation for turning out successful and competitive collegiate rowers. 

“Ten kids from the area have been recruited to Division 1 programs and most of them have gotten scholarships at some level,” Zehender said. “Our first scholarship was [in] 2013 [to] Katie Long, whose mom was the superintendent in Leland school.”

A more recent success story from the local rowing club has been the performance of 19-year-old Lila Miller. Though born blind, Miller is the three-time National Champion in the USRowing’s inclusive women’s double. 

“That’s pretty amazing for someone blind since birth[....]to be as tough as she is on the water, and frankly as agile as she is to row with other people[....]That’s very inspiring to me,” Zehender said. 

Miller graduated this spring from Traverse City Central High School, and will now be moving up to LLRC’s master team, composed of adults. 

Part of the junior team’s success must be attributed to their World Champion and Olympian coach, Viktor Grebennykov, a native of Ukraine who took over as head coach of LLRC in 2018. 

“Our coach Viktor really pushed me hard and I don’t think I could have done [Nationals] without him,” Lombardi said. “Just with the work-outs he put together and how he was as a coach, it really made me want to push myself and strive to be the best that I can and make me do things like nationals.”

Grebennykov has recently resigned from LLRC due to personal reasons, but his contribution to this team will not be soon forgotten. He certainly has made LLRC a formative place for our area’s youth. 

“I really see myself going to college for rowing,” Lombardi said. “I honestly had no idea what I wanted to do before rowing. But, now I feel like it’s really helped show me what I want to do ‘cause it’s something I love so much.” 

LLRC has also been a place of extreme community, where people who love being active and love our lake can meet together on Lake Leelanau in camaraderie. A lake which, many will agree, is incomparable to any other. 

“It’s such a beautiful spot compared to where most rowing happens,” Lombardi said. “Most rowing happens in bigger cities and, especially compared to Cuyahoga, it’s just a beautiful area and I just enjoy the clean water and calm water so much. It’s just a better place for rowing than so many others around the country.” 

LLRC has always strived to be a place where adults and children from different backgrounds can come together and find activity and community in our lake. Lake Leelanau is the optimal location for rowing because of its clean waters, its immense space, its variety of conditions, and most importantly its community. The care and compassion that surge from the community through these waters make it a place people want to be. Rowing is an easy sport to fall in love with, which is why it is done anywhere from stale reservoirs to narrow rivers. But, rowing at Lake Leelanau is a truly remarkable experience, and one that everyone who loves this lake ought to seek out if only to see Leelanau from an angle never seen before. 

“People can start rowing with LLRC anytime, any day,” Zehender said. “We do ‘Learn 2 Rows’, which are less frequent, more organized where people can come in groups, or as individuals and participate in a group, but anybody can just buy a membership, it comes with two semi-private sculling lessons[....]that can get you comfortable on the water.” 

But, one does not have to necessarily hop in a shell to be involved with this sport. Every October, LLRC hosts a regatta - a rowing race - of their own on Lake Leelanau with the finish line set up in front of Fountain Point Resort. The course is often marked in a loop from Fountain Point, roughly two kilometers south, and then back around to the resort. 

The regatta, known as the Leelanau Chase, can be viewed from shore around the Fountain Point area, but recreational boating will not be permitted over the race course while races are taking place. The best place to view the regatta would be on Fountain Point’s property itself, in the midst of the action, with a front-row seat to the start and finish lines, and near the announcer’s tent where the results of the races will be posted and Leelanau Chase merchandise will be available for purchase.

About Lake Leelanau Rowing Club 

Lake Leelanau Rowing Club is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization serving the Greater Grand Traverse area and all Northern Michigan communities. We offer recreational adult and high school competitive rowing, sculling education and sport. On the grounds and lakefront at Fountain Point Resort, Michigan’s oldest waterfront resort, and a national historic district, rowers and scullers travel from all over the state, region, and country to experience and enjoy Lake Leelanau’s 20 miles of idyllic and highly varied waters. Visit lakeleelanaurowingclub.com to learn more.

For more information on how to start rowing with or supporting LLRC, visit lakeleelanaurowingclub.com or contact [email protected].

If you or someone you know is interested in learning more about LLLA’s high school ambassador programs, please submit an inquiry via our contact us form.

Join our Watershed Wednesday E-Bulletin email list to receive the latest news on Lake Leelanau and its surrounding watershed!

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