Honoring a special GPRF Employee, Heather Alschuler
Heather Alschuler started at the GPRF over a decade ago, and we are sad to announce her departure at year-end. While we acknowledge that her time with us has been significant and greatly impactful, we also recognize her decision to focus on raising her children is extremely significant and noble.
We wanted to ensure you all know how very important Heather has been at our foundation, and the impact she has had on the many people around us.
How long were you a part of the GPRF?
I started with the GPRF in the fall of 2010, back when all of the outreach efforts of the GPRF were called Row to the Future (RttF). At the time, RttF was just a very small organization that operated out of the small closet in the back of the PRC. It was mostly volunteer run with only one full-time employee, one Americorps intern, and one part-time employee. Things started to take off for RttF as the Erg Ed program took off, and what was then Rainier Valley Rowing (RVR) program grew into what the current student scholarship offerings look like today. I did take three years away from the GPRF during the height of having my three children, however I returned to the GPRF in 2018 to help run the national side of Erg Ed, and eventually oversaw all of our programs that help kids find, start and stay rowing. It has been such a pleasure to work at something so rewarding and incredible during seven of the last ten years. To see the growth and impact of the GPRF has been an honor. I'm so excited for the future of the GPRF and can't wait to see all of the impact on kids that the programs and work the GPRF is doing, will have over the next ten years!
How did your position impact the GPRF?
In 2010 I had the honor of being brought on board to develop a curriculum for a school based rowing program to pilot in the Seattle Public Schools. As a certified teacher and Olympic Rower, I was given the incredible gift of being able to combine my two passions, into a program that has the potential to bring similar opportunities that I was gifted through rowing in my life. During the most recent years of my work with the GPRF, I was able to start to really look at the pathway from the classroom to the boathouse and how we might be able to create less barriers for kids to find, start and stay in the sport of rowing. This included smaller stepping stones between the introduction to the sport with the Erg Ed program in the classroom and signing up for junior rowing programs. Some of the stepping stones we were developing were after school indoor rowing clubs, field trips, rowing camps, etc. We were also working at taking a deeper dive in the 'stay' aspect of our programs' mission by looking at boathouse culture, and expanding high quality coaching education.
How did the ErgEd program come about?
The concept of Erg Ed started back in 2009. Karla Landis approached Lori Dunn, Seattle Public Schools (SPS) PE Manager, about piloting a program in SPS middle schools that would introduce students to the sport of rowing, and create avenues of access to the sport through PE classes. Born was Erg Ed! They hired a teacher who also knew rowing (me!) to put together a program to give a try in the classroom. We started in just three schools in Seattle in 2010 - Aki Kurose MS, Eckstein MS, and Washington MS. From there, the program started to grow and within two years we were able to offer Erg Ed in all K-8 and Middle Schools throughout the Seattle Public School district. Every student suddenly had access to the sport of rowing and it became a much more normalized sport across the city of Seattle. In 2014 we expanded into the Renton Public School District and in 2016 started to work with USRowing in offering an Erg Ed grant program. Suddenly we became a national program vs just a regional one. Erg Ed reaches thousands of students each year, and introduces the sport of rowing to them, as well as paves a path to continue participation within this lifetime sport of rowing. Every student who wants to row, is able to.
Erg Ed has been built upon the foundation of working with incredible Physical Education teachers, committed school administrators and willing public school districts, combined with amazing rowing communities to bring a unique and high quality program to so many students on such a large scale.
Where and when did you start rowing?
I found the sport of rowing in a very similar way that Erg Ed helps kids across the country find the sport. When I was in high school in Kelowna BC, the local rowing club came to my PE class and brought an erg with them. After a short intro lesson, they had all of the students hop on to the erg and race. The winner received a free set of rowing lessons. As history has it, I won that set of lessons and originally signed up to take on rowing as a way to crosstrain for what I was hoping would be a collegiate basketball career. However, rowing very quickly took over and I haven't looked back since!
What is your favourite memory of rowing?
There are so many incredible rowing memories and opportunities I've had within my life. I've had the honor to travel to many incredible places and bodies of water all over the world. But most importantly and what I value most are the incredible friendships that I have formed because of the sport. Many of my closest friends are spread all over Canada and the US, yet we still talk all of the time and even if there are long gaps between check ins, when we get together, it's like no time has passed at all. I love each of the incredible, strong, smart, inspiring women I've ever raced and trained with. Right from my first summer of rowing, through my time at the University of Michigan and into my days on the Canadian National Team, I am so lucky to have a life filled with such great friendships and relationships. We've had so many incredible times together traveling, laughing, and learning how to train hard and push through great challenges and obstacles.
If I had to pick just one memory from my time on the water (which is so hard to do...) I think I would have choose the feeling of crossing the finish line in 2008 in Poznan, Poland at the last chance Olympic Qualifying regatta. It was the moment of my rowing career I had been working so hard for. We had to finish in the top two to qualify for the Beijing Olympics. There was a field of strong contenders, but right from the first stroke, it was clear that three crews were going to lead the field for two spots. We were in third place by a couple of seats going through the 1000m mark, behind China and the Netherlands. We were rowing incredibly well and I knew we were going at top boat speed. We had an incredible cox'n, Lesley Thomson Willie and she made a huge call at the 800m to go mark that we were going to start our sprint. She told us to trust her and she would get us over the line first. We went for it. We did what she told us to do and gave everything we had each stroke. There wasn't anything after this race for the crew who came third, and we had been having such an incredible summer of racing, we were fast, and she knew we could make it to Beijing if we just gave it all. So we went, and crossed the line flying in at 44 strokes a minute. In bow seat, I was the very first rower to cross the finish line and punch my ticket to the Olympic Games. I was going to be an Olympian! A moment that was filled with a mix of emotions - exhaustion, excitement, disbelief, confidence, relief, pride, determination. Each stroke I had taken and all of the hours upon hours I put into getting to that very moment paid off. My Olympic dream was going to come true.
Who inspires you the most in the sport?
Wow, another tough question! There are so many incredible athletes I've had the privilege to both train with, meet and watch from a distance. Some of the most inspiring to me are the teammates I've had the privilege of rowing with. It takes so much work to reach the elite level of sport. There are many worthy, hardworking people who never get to actually go to the Olympics and other world level races, but push those who do to be better. Beyond the many inspirational teammates I've had, I also have always been inspired by the Canadian National team rowers who came before me, such as Silken Laumann, Kathleen Heddle, Marnie McBean, and other incredible athletes such as Serena Williams, Mia Hamm, Sheryl Swoopes.... the list can go on! There are so many incredible, inspiring, strong women athletes to look up to! I just love it!
I've been inspired by many throughout my life. My friends, family and village who surround me daily are my inspiration. However, no one is more inspiring than my three daughters. They push me to live the best life I can. Because of them I try to show them how to be a strong, smart, confident woman. I strive to model how to take up my space in this world and use my voice to work hard, go after dreams and do it all with everlasting kindness and love.
How has your rowing experience changed during COVID-19
I row with an incredible group of master women, however we have not had much water time since March. I have still been training on my own and am constantly inspired by each and every one of these incredible women, however, there has been very little team rowing since COVID struck. I have been able to go out on the water only two times since the spring. I am looking forward to rowing with the women as soon as it's safe to do so again. This time has certainly made me realize that it is a privilege to practice with a team and in team boats. I certainly will never take that for granted again!
What advice would you give to someone considering rowing for the first time?
Go for it! Give it a try! Be sure to allow yourself time and grace, as it is harder than it looks, especially with on the water rowing, where a lot of balance is needed for success. If possible commit enough time to participate in a regatta. You will fall in love with the grit, beauty and community that awaits you in the sport of rowing!
Do you have a favourite workout?
This answer has greatly shifted over the past two decades as my fitness and life priorities ebb and flow. Right now my favorite go to workout are 10ks at about a 24 stroke per minute rate. Strong and steady, but maintainable pace until the end.
Anything else you'd like to tell us about?
It has been such an honor to be part of this chapter of the GPRF story. To be given the chance to create opportunities for kids to have the same type of experiences and life changing chances that I was given when a rowing machine visited my PE class, is truly a dream come true. Rowing changed my life. I travelled the world, made lifetime friends all over the world, found a community more loyal and deep than I will ever find again, and have had doors open to me that would never have been in my wildest dreams! Once a rower, always a rower. It truly is a lifetime sport and if you take a break from it for a while, it will welcome you back. There are very few sports that you can do from the time you are young, right into the golden years of your life. The GPRF is doing great work that will allow ALL kids to find, start and stay in something that can be so powerfully life changing. I can't wait to hear all of the new rowing stories that are about to start because of the opportunities GPRF's programming and efforts are creating.