The Marin Rowing Association Builds Strength and Character

rowers in Marin
MRA offers individual rowing shells where each rower has two sculling oars. (Courtesy of Marin Rowing Association)

Anyone who knows Marin sports, especially water sports, knows about the Marin Rowing Association. And those who know it know it has a reputation for winning at the highest level, its members and teams taking championships and even Olympic medals. But executive director and San Anselmo resident Sandy Armstrong says that “cutthroat” competitive reputation belies the reality.

“The truth is that it’s very engaging. We embrace the kids to be good human beings, be really good athletes, train smart, train hard and look toward doing things really well,” Armstrong says. The association was founded in 1968 and now serves some 260 adults, 150 competitive high school athletes and hundreds more kids who attend annual summer camps at the Greenbrae-based facility. “We are trying to do those things better than others, but to also enjoy that process and make sure it is really soul building, physically building and team and leadership building.”

Armstrong, like many of the association’s rowers, fell in love with the sport while in high school, in her case while going to Redwood High School. “In my sophomore year I had friends that were rowing and I went to learn about it. The coach called me later that evening saying, ‘Hey, we would love to have you be a part of the team and you have to be at practice at 5:30 a.m. tomorrow,’” she says. “And I just loved it; it’s the reason that I am still in it.”

While she was in college in the mid-’80s at S.F. State, her high school rowing coach tracked her down and asked her to start a masters program with the association. A pivotal moment came a few years later when Armstrong was hired as a rowing coach at UC Berkeley and was cleaning out her office at Marin Rowing. “I thought to myself, ‘What do you really want? What are you doing?’ And at that moment, I chose to stay with high school girls’ coaching,” she says. “There is just something about watching a young adult grow between the ages of 13 and 18 and to know you somehow had a hand in that.”

MRA women's eight-plus team
An MRA women’s eight-plus team at a national championship in Sarasota, Florida. From left: coxswain Marco Gianinni, Claire Brockman, Juliette Lermusiaux and Ellie Sutro. (Courtesy of Marin Rowing Association)

And the activity, which can involve sweep rowing teams of eight, four, or two person shells, many guided by a coxswain, is the ultimate team sport in terms of everyone having to be on exactly the same page. Armstrong describes it as like playing golf with seven of your best friends, and your goal is to hit the ball at the same time, the same distance, swing after swing after swing. 

“The sport is very physically demanding, you are sprinting the whole way, it is exhausting,” she says. “There are these moments, as I tell the kids, that you’re asked the question: What are you going to do next? And are you going to commit? Or are you going to back off? And it is a choice and a decision and you mentally have to work your way through that.”

She says that’s why there is such camaraderie in the sport and why people are so proud to have made it through high school and collegiate rowing. That mental toughness translates into schoolwork, or working in an office or working under a boss and knowing when to lead or follow, she says. “There are organizations and businesses that seek rowers, because they know what kind of person they’re going to get.” 

But at the end of the day the sport is about having fun and being on the water, Armstrong points out. “You have this camaraderie. You know, we are just this huge family here,” she says, adding that there is something captivating about the beauty of a sunrise or sunset row. “It’s quiet and peaceful with seals popping up out of the water. When you are rowing, it’s just the sound of breathing in synchronicity and the sound of the boat moving through the water. And you are with your friends.”