He's a member of the RowAmerica Hamilton youth racing team, which can regularly be seen practicing on the Great Miami River. At first, for those just starting out, the rowing can be awkward and complicated — trying to coordinate the strokes with teammates, and pulling the boat forward with just the right technique — says RAH Director of Rowing Joy Nix.
But when the team is working in sync, “then it feels like the whole boat is just flying on its own,” said Hershner, 15, who learned about the racing team when organization members visited his gym class last fall.
“RowAmerica came to my school, and they did a demonstration,” Hershner said. “I said, ‘Hmmmm…’ ”
He and others had just finished a 2-kilometer time trial on Tuesday, using dry-land rowing machines like those found at most gyms. The team uses the machines to rank individual members based on their times. Hershner was resting after doing his 2K in 7:31, down from his prior best of 7:57, as teammates cheered him and others on.
Grace Rhein, an eighth-grader at Mason Middle School, describes rowing this way: “It’s really fun and calming. When you’re in a workout, you don’t really look at the surroundings, so all I really hear is the water around me. It’s just working hard and being on water.”
“I like the consistency of seeing everyone every day, and they’re all just great people,” Rhein said. “It’s a unique sport.”
After doing those trials inside the organization's boathouse on North B Street, the 24-person youth racing team practiced in boats on the river, preparing for this weekend's Midwest Junior Rowing Championship at East Fork Lake in Clermont County. A good performance there could qualify them for nationals.
The boathouse, at 330 N. B St., used to be the generator building for Champion Paper and SMART Papers and is close to the proposed massive indoor sports and entertainment facility on the former Champion site.
About 40 kids and 20 adults are doing some kind of rowing program now, not only from outside Hamilton, but from adjoining counties. RAH has visited more than a dozen high schools in the region, and is offering summer camp and adult-introductory programs soon — including a free Learn to Row day June 4 and through the summer in Hamilton and at West Chester Twp.’s Voice of America Park.
City Manager Joshua Smith has called the Great Miami River the city's "most underutilized asset," and believes the recreation opportunities along the river, including the RiversEdge amphitheater and the Marcum Park development, will help spur downtown development, particularly along High and Main streets.
Jennifer Acus-Smith, a local artist, has helped make Hamilton more hip through her involvement with such organizations as the Fitton Center for Creative Arts and the new StreetSpark public murals program.
Acus-Smith, who several years ago co-founded of the Hamilton Underground Buzz (HUB) social-networking group to make Hamilton more interesting for young professionals, is well-positioned to know what appeals to young people.
“It kind of gets old after a while just going to bars,” Acus-Smith said. “Would there be something kind of unique, like watching rowing while you’re having cocktail hour, or something like that? That’s something not a lot of cities have.”
An ideal spot for that is the patio of the Fitton Center, where she used to work, she said. Acus-Smith believes Nix herself “has brought a lot of excitement and interest to some of the younger people since she’s been there.”
“It is a hip thing to do,” Nix agrees. “I know people in the community really love seeing the boats, because it is kind of a walking town, so people do get to see them in action.”
The rowing would not be possible without construction of the low-level dam off Neilan Boulevard during the 1980s, which created a pool upriver of the dam that gives about 4,000 meters of rowing space. Construction of the dam and a walking/biking path soon after along the river led residents to increasingly use the Great Miami River for recreation.
Crews recently added concrete patches to the floor of the boathouse to eliminate notches in the floor, so it can house boats, although, “we’re not moving the boats over here until we have water access at this site,” Nix said. That access ramp will cost about $750,000.
Great Miami Rowing Center, which is now RAH's non-profit partner, brought rowing to Hamilton in 2007. The RAH organization arrived in February 2015, and has taken other rowing teams by surprise.
“We’re lucky enough to have brand-new equipment,” Nix said. “We’re lucky enough to have really great support through the network of RowAmerica clubs, and the team has been able to really focus on getting faster.”
“We’ve definitely been to a lot of races where we were seeded low because we were an unknown, and we blow them away, which is fun,” she added. “We’re getting to be more known in the region, but still we’re pretty new.”
The athletes practice six days a week and this spring alone have “rowed in sleet, they’ve rowed in hail, in heavy rain, in crazy wind,” Nix said.
Rowing is a sport people can do long into their lives, because it’s not a weight-bearing exercise that’s jarring to the body. People who are overweight or have joint issues tend to do well with the sport, and the equipment can be adapted to meet the needs of the disabled.
Great Miami Rowing Center on June 4 is having a fundraiser at the Fitton Center for Creative Arts. Several artists have taken old boat parts or oars and turned them into auctionable art items. Boat naming rights also will be raffled off at that event, with chances to name a small boat selling for $35, or $75 for a large boat.
“It’s a pretty good opportunity to name something that you get to see on the river all the time,” Nix said.
Among other things, GMRC provides scholarships to disabled athletes and students who otherwise couldn’t afford the rowing costs. They organization also is working to create a state-of-the-art boathouse, with indoor training facilities and boat storage. Among other goals are boosting the number of indoor rowing machines from 30 to 50.
“It really is going to be a powerhouse for developing rowers,” Nix said.