By Ryan Sparks · August, 2012
Watching rain smack the window as cold winds blew up from Antarctica earlier this month at our New Zealand development camp, I (Ryan) was struck by a realization: some of our craziest decisions have been our smartest. I say that because three years ago we started a company that sought to provide guidance and college counseling just for rowers and their families — not based on ‘getting them in’ but based on finding the best fit for their development as people, athletically and personally. And somehow, it worked.
The U.S. rowing community lacks uniform tenets of sport science, coaching education, and athlete development. Basically this means our community is fragmented, sometimes political, and has very different ideas of the meaning of ‘success’ in regards to being an athlete or coach in the sport. At Sparks, our ideal isn’t to judge the issue to decide who’s right and who’s wrong (though like any good rowing people, we have opinions) but to provide folks access to the spectrum in hopes of developing our community.
So, we go out on a limb. We start a development camp in the best rowing country in the world during their winter, a 12 hour flight from the United States. And we bring kids from the US to row for six weeks, telling their parents it will be safe. And it works. While the kids are watching news about power outages and shootings in the U.S, they’re being taught the art of kind toughness by their kiwi peers — who think nothing of wading in (there are no docks in New Zealand) pulling out 14K on a 45 degree afternoon (after their earlier morning practice), smiling about it, then going home to their dairy farms to finish chores before watching the national news about the ongoing struggle between choosing sheep or dairy farming.
Our summer camps are similar, though may not appear so superficially. As much as we’d like to, we don’t make much (if any) money on them! The point of our extremely high reinvestment is two-fold. First, we further the development of our community by investing in extra resources of the kind wished for by high school coaching staffs but hard to come by and second, we try and push the experiential value of our camps to their limit — hopefully thereby developing the community and potentially buoying the other camps and counseling sides of the company.
In the end, we have enjoyed developing a system of camps that we hope will allow kids to first connect to the sport, second explore that connection, and third be able to utilize that connection for the betterment of themselves and the sport. Thus, we can bridge the inequalities created by the fragmented nature of our community. But doing so has always been a function of thinking outside the box with things like private coaching at Wesleyan, or the entire ideas of a winter rowing camp or camp just for coxswains. In the end, we’re interested to see where we turn up — we hope you are as well.
Thanks for being a part of camp.