Two rowers rowing on the grand river at sunrise

The Grand: Uniquely perfect for rowing

Laker Navy will celebrate 60 years on Michigan's longest river

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The Grand River is the longest in Michigan at 252 miles, and was once essential to the West Michigan furniture industry.

The river’s conditions benefited loggers and have also proved advantageous for GVSU’s Rowing Club. The team has what assistant coach Kyle Barnhart ’14 said are perfect conditions right in their backyard.

“It’s really unusual for a collegiate team to be positioned right on a river,” said Barnhart, assistant director for Alumni Engagement and a rowing alumnus. “And the river itself is very conducive to rowing, in fact, it’s uniquely perfect for rowing. There’s a low amount of pleasure boat traffic and its flat, sandy bottom means that it is a very calm river."

Maybe George Potter, former Grand Valley vice president for Academic Affairs, understood the Grand’s conditions in 1963 when he began making plans for a collegiate rowing program. Rowing began the following year and is considered Grand Valley’s oldest sport. The team will celebrate its 60th anniversary next year.

A sepia toned archive photo of nine people rowing in a boat, water all around them
90 ACRA All-American honors; 7 ACRA Coach of the Year awards;  37 ACRA National Championship titles
8 Dad Vail Championships, last in 2022; typically held  in Philadelphia, the Dad Vail is the largest collegiate regatta in the U.S.
Black and white archive photo. Nine rowers cheer while sitting in their boat on the river. Trees in the background.

Potter himself had rowing experience; he was a native of the United Kingdom and attended Oxford University.

Current head coach Troy Harding said today’s Laker rowers, the “Laker Navy,” are well-acquainted with the program’s history. In fact, Harding said the program's history and success are partly what drew him to Grand Valley two years ago from California, where he coached an inner-city youth rowing team in Los Angeles.

“Our students know about the alumni, they know the tradition and the competitive nature of the team,” Harding said. “It’s something that we continue to build on and it’s one of our pillars: tradition, culture, performance.”

Performance should be emphasized to potential novices (newcomers) on the rowing team. Harding said the team practices at a high intensity. A typical week has the Laker Navy practicing on the Grand River each weekday evening and Saturday morning, lifting weights and rowing indoors multiple times during the week.

“We want to set ourselves up for a competitive season,” Harding said, adding opponents include teams from the University of Michigan, Notre Dame, Michigan State and Northwestern.

Club president Eliot Van Pelt was, initially, a reluctant member of his high school rowing team in Rockford. Van Pelt said he was more interested in playing hockey and agreed to join the rowing team with a friend. He was soon hooked on the sport and said he enrolled at Grand Valley, in part, to join the team.

“You push yourself individually to become better and become a part of something that is more than yourself,” he said. “Those are also principles you can apply to your life.”