US Olympian sets up rowing club for disadvantaged Hong Kong children – to share the camaraderie and benefits

Medallist and her husband put HK$2 million into establishing Kai Tak Youth Rowing Club, to foster a love of the sport in children from low- and middle-income families living in East Kowloon

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 August, 2016, 12:30pm
UPDATED : Monday, 15 August, 2016, 5:37pm

On a Saturday afternoon late last month under a blazing sun, the Kai Tak Youth Rowing Club was officially inaugurated in a park next to the Kwun Tong pier.

After the speeches, youngsters aged eight to 18 dressed in team colours took turns on stationary rowing machines to see who could row the fastest. Groups cheered their teammates on, creating an atmosphere of friendly competition and teamwork.

Kayaking in Hong Kong: where to go and everything you need to know

This is the kind of positive energy KTYRC co-founder Sarah Garner is hoping to foster, and it has taken her and her colleagues more than seven months of hard work and HK$2 million of her and her husband’s money to get to this point.

The American expat is no stranger to hard work; she is a former Olympic rower who won a bronze medal in the lightweight women’s doubles at the 2000 Sydney Summer Games.

Garner and her husband, a research analyst for a mutual fund group, moved to Hong Kong eight years ago. After having her two daughters, completing a master’s degree in public health, and working in pharmaceuticals marketing, Garner felt a strong urge to set up a rowing community in the city specifically for children of low- and middle-income families living in East Kowloon.

She hopes to offer the children a similar experience she had, growing up in Madison, Wisconsin, where her father introduced her to the sport during the 1984 Olympics and watching the American women’s 8s team win gold. She was 13 when she started rowing.

“After I graduated from college, I rowed in Philadelphia, training for the national team in the lightweight single. I had a job and took pre-med classes. Sometimes after dinner at 10pm, I’d go out and row by myself. You have this feeling like you’re flying; much like running at night, you feel like you’re going faster. It was a cool feeling.”

Not only did Garner become addicted to rowing, she also enjoyed the camaraderie of the sport.

“I like rowing the single, but my favourite is the 8s because it has a cool dynamic. It’s social, where you hang together, but you don’t have to say anything. There are no stars – everyone is the same even if you are a better rower. It emphasises that everyone is included, everyone is useful. If you work really hard you can do well in this sport.”

Although she doesn’t expect to immediately discover top rowing talent, Garner is keen to foster a rowing community for children who live in areas near the Kwun Tong pier. She had volunteered at the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club, but found many of the expats were transient. Instead, she became interested in working with children who will be here to not only participate in the sport, but also help develop it further in the city.

Helping her realise this dream is Lu Chan Tsz-wai, a women’s rowing coach at Chinese University who had previously competed at local and regional levels. Chan has been instrumental in helping Garner set up KTYRC because of her language skills and knowledge of the local rowing community.

Fitness tips from a New Zealand skier turned Hong Kong dragon boater, canoeist and runner

Similar to Garner, Chan began rowing at 14 years of age. “We started learning how to row on land, and I thought it was fun. After a while I saw that there were areas where I could improve,” she recalls.

In 2010, Chan retired and began teaching rowing to disabled and autistic children. “I slowly learned how to teach them. In many cases the autistic kids were difficult to physically handle, but they slowly improved because they weren’t disciplined at first.”

At that time, it was hoped an intellectually disabled team from Hong Kong would be able to participate in this year’s Paralympics in Rio, but the sport was dropped from Paralympics in April when organisers were unable to find enough teams around the world.

Although Chan was disappointed, by then she had already met Garner and decided to focus on KTYRC, which may later coach physically and mentally disabled children.

Before last month’s opening ceremony, Chan was busy liaising with volunteers and keeping the children in check at the Kwun Tong pier. It took three people to get the boats into the water, which had to be dangled almost vertically from the pier before they touched the surface. The children were helped into the boats by the instructor, who acts as the coxswain.

How surfing suddenly became cool in Hong Kong, and its ’70s expat roots

KTYRC has 14 boats of various sizes ranging from singles to 8s, and four more coming soon. They are currently stored in the garage of a nearby industrial building, where the children also do land training in a large rented space. There are a number of stationary rowing machines, as well as dock rowers that simulate being in the boat complete with oars to help students practise manoeuvring.

Many of the children have never taken part in water sports before, and Chan and Garner are prepared to take up the challenge. “I knew it would be hard because few people in Hong Kong row. It’s tiring but when I teach them, they enjoy it, making it worthwhile.”

Water safety is paramount and children are fitted with special safety belts. In the unlikely event their boat is turned over, they are told to stay near it, as the oars are floatation devices. As the KTYRC develops, a swimming component will be added. Running is already included to help the kids build the lung capacity and leg strength needed to row.

A few months ago KTYRC received its charity status, allowing Garner and Chan to apply for grants instead of digging into their own pockets and trying to build relationships with other sports groups.

Their main focus now is to receive government permission to have a pontoon near the Kwun Tong pier so they can build a boathouse to store their boats and get the children in them much faster. It would also give them distance from other water traffic, including fishing and leisure boats using the pier.

“The government hasn’t told us when we can have a site, but we are giving kids in Kwun Tong district some activities to do. We want to get them to realise we are doing something for the community so that they will help us,” Chan says.

Two Kwun Tong district councillors are on board and attended the opening ceremony, Nelson Chan Wah-yu, and Anthony Bux Sheik, whose 11-year-old son Joseph is enrolled at KTYRC.

“[About a month ago] I got the flier about this rowing club in my mail box and put it on my son’s desk. The next day he told me he wanted to be enrolled so I let him try it. He’s a shy and timid child. But every time he comes here, he doesn’t want to leave,” Bux says.

“Speaking as a parent, it’s good to have KTYRC here. There aren’t many activities for kids to do in this area. There are a lot of housing estates so there are lots of kids, and rowing is something different from football. My son doesn’t like football. Having water sports in Kwun Tong is special,” he adds.

Fun under the sun: city helps to kick-start mainland China’s love affair with water sports

Secretary of the Hong Kong China Rowing Association and fellow rower Anthony Rogers was also a guest at the opening ceremony, and praised Garner for her hard work.

“She’s done a great job and has the expertise in rowing, which is ideal,” he says. Surveying the waterway, Rogers adds: “I never thought of rowing here, but it’s relatively clean. It’ll be good to encourage the local schools here to get into rowing. It encourages kids to get out and focus on training, and with that discipline they will do well in school and in life. It will get them off the streets.”

With the benefits leading to healthier and more productive lives, Garner is hoping the establishment of KTYRC will encourage more young people to take up rowing. In the future it could result in more clubs being set up to build the critical mass to eventually have rowers compete regionally and internationally. And who knows, maybe the Olympics, too.

“In the US there are several hundred thousand rowers, and here there are about 1,000, 150 of which are junior rowers,” says Garner. “For the sport to expand, we need to foster community-based training clubs, for the young, old, elite. We need to develop the expertise.”