The Lake Washington Rowing Club has a big footprint in U.S. rowing history. As one of the nation’s premier rowing clubs, LWRC has enjoyed more than a half-century of rich experiences that include Olympic medals.
The club also has a colorful real estate history. From being a tenant of the University of Washington to acquiring its own space in a floating boathouse in South Lake Union, then moving to a warehouse and, finally, to a traditionally styled boathouse in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, the club has provided a home to hundreds of rowers of all ages and skill levels.
The club was created in the late 1950s, by former college rowers, to provide a training camp for continued competition. Former Stanford crew captain and 1956 Olympic gold medalist Dan Ayrault, later headmaster at Lakeside School, stated in 1958: “Rowing talent is going to waste here.” Ted Frost, captain of the 1954 UW crew, explained, “After four years, a college oarsman has just reached his prime. We have provided no means of keeping oarsmen in competition in an area which is the natural place to furnish this country’s best rowers for international events.”
Ayrault and Frost were movers in the creation of LWRC. George and Stan Pocock donated the club’s first shells, and the medal payoff quickly followed. LWRC entries won three gold medals at the 1959 Pan Am Games in Chicago. At the 1960 Olympics in Rome, the LWRC coxless four of John Sayre, Rusty Wailes, Ted Nash, and Ayrault won the gold medal. The coxed pair of Conn Findlay, Richard Draeger, and coxswain Kent Mitchell took bronze. Four years later, Findlay and Edward Ferry, with Mitchell coxing, won gold in the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo. The LWRC coxless four of Geoff Picard, Dick Lyon, Ted Mittet, and Nash brought home bronze. Women joined the club in 1963. Three years later, a group of nine LWRC women hosted and won the first National Women’s Rowing Association (NWRA) championships. In 1969, an LWRC crew became the first US women’s crew to compete in the world championships in Europe.
The early 1970s saw a shift in the US approach to competing in international regattas. Instead of club entries, competing in trials, with the winner representing the USA, individuals were selected from national training camps. To keep the club afloat, scullers and masters rowers of many levels were invited to join. The inclusion of more members allowed LWRC to grow and flourish one of the few local clubs. Until June 1975, LWRC had been housed at the UW, first in the old canoe house on the Montlake Cut and then at Conibear Shell House. Frank Cunningham, a Harvard-educated coach, teacher, author, and boat-repair whiz, made a purchase that gave the club more independence, a floating boathouse on Lake Union. Cunningham was an icon in Seattle rowing circles. He died in 2013 at age 91. “Frank got us on the boathouse path by paying $1,600 for what became the floating boat-house,” recalls longtime LWRC member Marilynn Goo. “He then told us that the club had to pay him back or Jane would divorce him." Without him, the club may well have died a slow death.
“Frank bought a pink mooring slip that someone had built a yacht in,” she explained. “We had to add flotation, build a floor and roof, enclose the open end, and add a sliding door so we could take boats in and out.” However, it wasn’t big enough to house eights. After a failed attempt to create a permanent boathouse in 1986, LWRC leased an unimproved warehouse in Fremont; members converted it into a boathouse and built a dock. That became the club’s main home from 1987 through 1994, when LWRC realized a long-standing goal with the ground-breaking for a large, modern boathouse in Fremont, almost under the Aurora Bridge. Designed by architect and LWRC rower Nelson Miller, it is one of the largest boathouses in the West. Loan guarantees from members helped secure acceptable interest rates, and work parties expedited construction and cut costs. The boat bays opened in September 1994. After the upstairs buildout was completed, the boathouse was dedicated in March 1996. LWRC owns the building but not the land under it and must pay rent on a 90-year lease. The old floating boathouse, located at the foot of Garfield Street on Lake Union, remains in use as a supplemental facility.
Today, the majority of LWRC members are masters (age 22 and older) rowers with a spectrum of abilities ranging from beginner to elite. The common denominator throughout the membership is a love of the sport. The club takes pride in itself as a friendly, volunteer-based organization where experienced and novice rowers all thrive and feel comfortable. With its coaches and accomplished rowers, the club seeks to perpetuate its strong tradition of passing on technical skills and racing acumen.
Doing its part to provide racing opportunities, LWRC co-hosts with the UW early each November the Head of the Lake Regatta. The largest fall regatta on the West Coast, it regularly attracts rowers from the Northwest, California, Canada, and elsewhere. This regatta is yet another example of LWRC fulfilling its legacy.
Retired Seattle Times sportswriter Craig Smith wrote this article in 2014 to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of groundbreaking for the boat bays. His wife, Julie Smith, rows with Martha’s Moms at LWRC.