The Meaning of Martin Luther King Jr Day in American Rowing

By Denise Aquino, National Inclusion Program Manager

What has Martin Luther King Jr Day meant in the rowing world?

If you Google “Martin Luther King Rowing,” the first thing that comes up is a Facebook post from 6 years ago in 2015. In it, the Stanford Men’s Rowing team rowed 54 miles to honor the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery voters rights march. The 54 miles represents the mileage between the two cities. During the row, the 8+’s rowed to the sound of Martin Luther King’s legendary speeches, in addition to music.

Aside from being a great steady state workout, I can’t help but think, what an honorable way for the rowing world to acknowledge the civil rights movement in our country. Why isn’t this 54 miles (or a modified version) row “a thing” that more rowing clubs adopt?

To learn more about the planning and thought behind this memorial row, I spoke to Craig Amerkhanian, the head coach of the Stanford Men’s team at the time. He said,

I put a boombox in the launch and played his speeches because change is gonna come and those speeches moved me as a young boy and throughout my life. And I wanted it to move them.

The row represented fair work and honest work. To me, Dr. King and the right to vote represents America, and our right to fair and honest work. Rowing is a roll up your sleeves sport. And we need to roll up our sleeves and get this done. I needed to make my guys aware of their privilege, duty and blessings, like education opportunities and their right to vote. 

At the end of the day this sport doesn’t require experience, it invites walk ons and there’s so much opportunity in this sport (In 2012, our USA Olympic Men’s team had two college novice black African Americans, David Banks and Alex Osborne of Stanford, rowing for their country). Creating awareness for this is important and creating awareness for voter suppression (which is still relevant) is important. And we need this awareness now more than ever.

I was grateful to speak with Coach Amerkhanian and look forward to future rowing events inspired by this row and our conversation.

While the 2015 row was an honorable moment, it’s history. We’re three weeks into 2021 and the rowing world has more to do than 54 miles of rowing to honor Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which is the only the second birthday named as a federal holiday after George Washington’s birthday. Given this holiday’s significance, we need much, much more.

This Monday, January 18, 2021, there are two panel discussions in the rowing world:

  • The Head of the Charles x Gold Cup Fund is hosting an all black coaches and rowers roundtable at 5pm PST / 8pm EST; click here to register

Power Ten / Lake Phalen Community Rowing is hosting a BIPOC roundtable at 10am PST / 1pm EST; click here to register

In terms of being “a thing,” I’m proud of the George Pocock Rowing Foundation’s A Most Beautiful Thing Inclusion Fund. This new fund exists to support the work of Arshay Cooper and expand the sport of rowing into under-resourced communities. Partners include Concept2 and HUDSON (read the press release here); advisors to this fund include Olympians Anita DeFrantz, David Banks, Aquil Abdullah, Alex Osborne, Pat Spratlen, Mike Teti and Mary Mazzio as well as the film’s executive producer, Bill Hudson. To donate, click here.

In its inaugural year, I look forward to the great “things” this fund will bring to the rowing world, whether on the 3rd Monday of January or all 365 days of the year. I can dream of rowing 54 miles, but together we can do more than dream; we can break barriers and build lineups that colorfully frame the rivers and streams of King’s “promised land.” We seek to make one sport of rowing, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.

And that is what I believe, MLK Jr Day has meant and will continue to mean for the rowing world.

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