Lansing’s Grand River — at least a two-mile stretch of it in southwest Lansing — will get a little more crowded this weekend. Rowing teams from all over the Midwest will arrive in Lansing Saturday and Sunday for the Head of the Grand Regatta, a boat race hosted by the MSU Crew Club rowing team.
“Every regatta is a little different,” explained Bryan Pape, coach of the MSU crew club team.
Spring regattas, Pape explained, are traditionally head-to-head races. Fall regattas, like the Head of the Grand, are traditionally time trial races. Boats will be launched one at a time at 30-second intervals, and winners will be decided based on how long it takes boats to complete the course. The Head of the Grand course stretches approximately 2 miles on the Grand River, from the bridge at Waverly Road to the bridge at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
Teams are divided into groups based on age, gender and size of boat determined by the number of rowers. The Head of the Grand, which is split into two days this year, features collegiate teams on Sunday and high school and independent teams on Saturday.
A Connecticut native, Pape was hired as Crew Club coach in August. While many rowers discover the sport in college, Pape was drawn in early.
“They got to me after sixth grade,” he said. “I fell in love with it.”
Pape, 29, holds an impressive rowing resume. He was a member of the U.S. national rowing team and has coached seven rowing teams, including four at the collegiate level. The MSU Crew Club hopes his experience can push the team to the next level.
“The program has had success, but they felt that the team was capable of more,” Pape said.
The sensation of an entire team working in sync — “swinging” is Pape’s term for it — is one of the coach’s favorite feelings.
“It’s the ultimate team sport. A crew that’s swinging moves so much faster and feels so much better,” said Pape. “If you put eight guys in a boat who are strong but not working together, it’s a slow, miserable experience.”
Men’s rowing is a university club sport, meaning it is not funded by the university Athletic Department. The top team, or varsity team, practices Monday through Friday starting at 5:45 a.m. The team also practices on Saturdays, but the practice time is dictated by MSU football home games, since many of the rowers work as ushers for the football games to raise money for the team.
Brandon Bristow, MSU senior and president of the Crew Club, has been impressed by Pape’s approach so far.
“It’s been going really well,” Bristow said. “He has a natural enthusiasm that we love.”
Bristow, 21, didn’t start rowing until he arrived at MSU.
“I got a postcard about it in the mail and thought I would give it a shot,” he said.
Bristow’s experience, Pape said, is not uncommon. He finds that many students are looking for the competitive experience they used to get from high school sports.
“You get a lot of student athletes who want that outlet,” Pape said.
Bristow immediately loved the camaraderie of the Crew Club team.
“Rowing is a close-knit family,” he said. “It takes a special kind of person.”
The MSU Crew Club family has grown in recent years, finding some new supporters in the Lansing community.
“I’m their closest neighbor,” said Jim Perkins. “I’m literally across the river.”
Perkins, a “semi-retired” architecture professor who teaches at MSU and Lansing Community College, lives on Moores River Drive on the south bank of the Grand River. Grand River Park sits directly across the river from his house.
The park, which was donated to the city by R.E. Olds, is home to three boathouses: the MSU Crew Club boathouse, the Lansing Oar and Paddle Club boathouse and the MSU women’s rowing team boathouse. (Women’s rowing at MSU was upgraded to a varsity sport in the mid-‘70s in response to Title IX requirements. The women’s rowing team also helps to run the regatta.)
Perkins first learned about the Crew Club team when a former coach, Mike Bailey, spoke at a neighborhood event. Perkins was impressed by the group and started looking for ways his neighborhood could support the team.
The neighborhood started inviting the Crew Club to holiday parties and events, and the team has opened up their boathouse to the neighborhood for tours.
“We’ve let both sides of the river get to know each other,” Perkins said. “I think we’re well on our way to creating a good relationship.”
Perkins has taken his personal support of the team even further. When he attended the Head of the Grand, he noticed areas where he wanted to help. The first thing he noticed was the race’s lackluster awards.
“I was surprised to find that Head of the Grand didn’t have a brand, it didn’t have recognizable symbols,” Perkins said.
His first project was redesigning the event’s trophy, creating a silver and gold cup with crossed oars and a Spartan helmet adorning the front.
“I asked, ‘Why can’t our trophy be the best?’” he said. “I think we hit it out of the park. I think it’s the nicest in the Big Ten.”
He also created new medals for winning rowers, based on the trophy design. The medals, laser cut from automotive stainless steel, are produced and donated by an anonymous Lansing-based donor.
“They have a weight to them that is really impressive,” Perkins said.
Perkins hopes that the Lansing community will come out to support this weekend’s regatta and noted that there are plenty of great viewing spots along the south side of the Grand River.
“We’ll have a lot of neighbors cheering on MSU,” Perkins said. “It’s a really exciting, really dynamic event.”
Head of the Grand Regatta
8 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 10 and Sunday, Oct. 11 Grand River Park 3205 Lansing Road, Lansing msucrewclub.com