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Master rowers take to the river

The sport is growing, especially among older residents, who enjoy the exercise and camaraderie.

Don't let the name intimidate you.

The master rowers in the Cooper Rowing Club are new to the sport, earning the title out of respect for their ages more than their abilities.

"I don't think I've ever rowed a perfect stroke!" said Jane Knapp, 46, of Mullica Hill, a member of the Cooper Rowing Club's master's program who learned to row last fall. "But that's my goal, and I feel it getting closer."

And Knapp isn't alone in her quest. The number of master rowers in the Cooper Rowing Club, which operates out of the Camden County Boathouse on the Cooper River in Pennsauken, is growing.

"We have over 70 members now," said Cooper Rowing Club head coach Jaime Stack, 32, of Barrington, who works with the masters. "The sport is becoming very popular among older folks. People who have never been on the water before are deciding to give it a shot in their 40s, 50s, even 60s."

So why start now? Rowing is one of the most physically demanding activities on the planet. Pulling an oar through the water involves every muscle in the body, sometimes proving too much for even the most athletic whipper-snapper. Further, rowing is extremely technical and simply trying to do it right can be mentally exhausting.

According to Knapp, that's exactly why.

"I enjoy it because it's challenging, because it's a great workout. Plus, it's a great way to burn off stress," said Knapp, who has been a USAir pilot for 19 of the 26 years she's been flying, as well as the owner of a home health-care business that she runs with her husband. "And, you're outside, surrounded by nature. That helps you forget about the physical aspect of it. Why be in a gym when you can be on the water?"

For fellow master rower Chic Saile of Cherry Hill, the atmosphere of teamwork is what drew him to rowing. After retiring as director of IT at Rohm & Haas in Philadelphia two years ago, the 64-year-old bundle of energy decided to add an oar to the list of sports equipment he uses. The list already includes running sneakers, a bike, a yoga mat and weights.

"I've always been physically active," said Saile, who lives in Cherry Hill with his wife. "I run, bike, do yoga, but all these things are solitary activities. I can do them by myself. When I attended La Salle High School in Philly, I rowed a little and enjoyed the teamwork, the camaraderie. So when I saw that the Cooper Rowing Club could teach me how to row and I could be in a four-man boat, or an eight-man boat, I figured, 'Why not?' "

Becoming involved in rowing at this stage in life does cause some unique challenges for the masters, but taking orders from Stack, who could be as old as some their children, isn't one of them.

"It's not tough taking orders from a young punk like Jaime," Knapp said. "He's a river god. He knows everything there is to know about rowing, and we all respect him."

Their respect is well-placed. Stack, who first learned to row while at La Salle High School, earned several medals at La Salle University, including medaling in the prestigious Dad Vail Regatta. Since graduating in 1997, he has coached several college programs, including Rutgers-Camden for the last five years, and he manages the Camden County Boathouse.

"Coaching the masters is different than coaching kids and college students," Stack said while his team stretched and warmed up before heading out on the water. "Rowing uses every muscle, and over a lifetime muscles develop differently depending on how you use them. So, when I coach someone who has never used their muscles to row throughout their life, I really have to break them down, retrain them until the rowing motion becomes natural."

But it's just as satisfying.

"The reason why you coach doesn't change depending on who you're coaching," Stack said. "When you watch the progress someone makes, watching them go through the process and experience that moment when it clicks, when it makes sense to them, that's very satisfying whether they're 16 or 60."

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