TopRow NYC’s Debut on the Charles: In the Boat We Trust

TopRow NYC’s Debut on the Charles: In the Boat We Trust

TopRow NYC’s Debut at the Head of the Charles Regatta on October 19, 2019

“Bow 16, you have to yield! YIELD!” Perry Hamilton bellowed as we worked our way through the crowd under the Charles’ stoic bridges. With skilled expertise, Perry shepherded D.D. Meakin, Hilary Callahan, Jessica Sabat and me through the 55th Head of the Charles. Our backgrounds with the HOCR varied with Hilary, Perry and D.D. participating for the fourth, fifth and sixth times, respectively, and Jessica and me repping the noobs. Over the preceding months, we had prepared to do something I once only dreamt of doing. When finally on the Charles for my first time in 17 years, I sensed a buzz from 11,000 athletes eager to glide through the crisp New England weather.

TopRow NYC’s MW4+ boat during our pre-race pep talk. Mel (coach), D.D. (stroke, starboard), Kristi (3 seat, port), Perry (coxswain), Hilary (2 seat, port), and Jessica (bow, starboard), from left to right.

TopRow’s debut at the HOCR did not disappoint as far as HOCRs go: we passed and got passed by a few boats and even clashed oars while pinched by two boats through Anderson Bridge. We raced as one of the oldest boats in our event (a proud average of 49.5, ex-cox). Our row was certainly mentally and physically challenging, but those 21 minutes and 59 seconds were also a mere flicker in the body of our HOCR experience. Those 21:59 were the culmination of hours of trust building.

I gifted myself weekend rowing in New York in 2015 as a respite from the clamor of professional life. I also avoided joining the competitive team in part because of my college rowing memories. Over an otherwise ordinary post-practice breakfast at Wellesley College, my pair partner/roommate, Ashley Hartz, summed it up best: “We’re young, we eat healthy and work out…yet I feel like crap!” Among the competing priorities that naturally accompany Division III athletics, rowing eventually weighed on me. I quit when I felt myself constantly questioning my adequacy as both a rower and student. Wellesley’s mission, “women who will make a difference in the world,” is a terrifying mantra to embody—yet I couldn’t keep myself from trying.

After agreeing to try out for the HOCR MW4+ boat, these feelings often returned, like geese on a dock. This time, though, I was able to sweep away the inner dialogue by setting appropriate expectations for my teammates and myself. I learned to sanely balance rowing against other obligations. It was challenging, but not lonely, as my teammates also navigate the insatiable thirst for excellence both in and out of the boat. At times, we frustrated each other on the water, but always ended practice with constructive discussion and conscious recognition of the things we needed to master. In a 4+, minute movements can create misery for all. Tap down? Lean in? Swing together? We couldn’t simply check these off a list (as my Type A personality desires), but by spending many hours as a boat we built trust in the boat.

As one of the oldest boats in the MW4+ (40+) event, we had our work cut out for us!

In the final weeks before the Charles, we rowed fully in stride. I took joy in hearing the “choonk” of four oars feathering, watching our well-matched puddles eddy behind our wake, and flying in a boat with run. Our practice regatta at the Head of the Christina in Wilmington, DE felt natural and fun, until the end. No one had rowed this regatta before. After considerable sleuthing, landmarks were the best guidance our aptly named coach, Mel Abler, could give us. That afternoon, with all six of us in the back of Jessica’s car to Manhattan, we commiserated in realizing the words “where is that stupid second crane?” had crossed all four minds during the sprint. Even our minds were swinging as one!

The entire HOCR experience proved to be so much more than I had expected. Hours before the race, the six of us gathered in the corner of a babbling hotel lobby to meet for the last time. As a capstone to the long season, we gave each other compliments and small gifts (and a few tears). Regardless of the result, learning from and growing with this band of sisters made this HOCR unlike any other. In fact, I would not have shed my mental misgivings from college without “trusting the boat.” When I woke up on Sunday October 20, 2019, I scrolled through the congratulatory Facebook photos and comments to a thread where Jessica described her morning as “tangible liberation and let down all in one!” While we weren’t in the boat at that moment, our minds still swung together.

TopRow is an international organization focused on expanding the sport. Photo credits: D.D. Meakin.

Kristi Sue-Ako is a member of the TopRow NYC club. She works at Credit Suisse and lives in Manhattan with her husband, Rajat Bhatia, and cat, Opihi. She has rowed out of Peter Jay Sharp boathouse since 2015. When the water is too cold, she enjoys snowboarding with her husband through the trees.

TopRowNYC Masters racing as “The Swing Set”

TopRowNYC Masters racing as “The Swing Set”

We are less than a week from this year’s Harlem River Classic, a fundraising regatta in support of Row New York — a NYC-based nonprofit organization that combines rowing and academic support to help middle and high school students attending some of our city’s most under-resourced schools realize their full potential.

Cambridge-coach Astrid Cohnen: “This is an amazing experience”

Cambridge-coach Astrid Cohnen: “This is an amazing experience”

Last week, a womens-eight from Nereus won during a sparring session on the Thames of Cambridge, whom will face Oxford on April 7th in the annual Boat Race. This so-called fixture was organized by the Dutch-trained coach Astrid Cohnen, currently the assistant coach of the ‘light blues’.

“Imagine that our eight in Britain has won all they have started so far. We use the fixtures on the course of the Boat Race to practice competitive situations. Nereus was able to come up with six medal winners from the last World Cup under the age of 23, so I knew for sure that they would have a strong boat. That would help us. “Cohnen explains on the telephone from Cambridge.

“I also hope that this will show Dutch rowers that studying here isn’t a bad idea. Although the trend is to go to the United States with an athletic scholarship, here you can participate in an unique event and ditto program. For example, the women’s group is quite international with a fairly large number of Americans, a Swiss, Danish and a Spanish girl. Everyone who has studied here, will careerwise get to be where he or she wants to be. Companies are standing in line for people who have studied here.”

Her wish for a strong competition came true in London. Nereus-octet annihilated the women of Cambridge in the first part of the two kilometers. “We were not prepared for that and our rowing was bad representation of our current standard. But they recovered well and pushed through. On the second leg they were, despite the less than favorable position in terms of curves on the finish, only a quarter behind. They learn a lot from this, lagging behind can also happen during the Boat Race and then you need the right tools.”

cuwbc nereus 2019

Cohnen, who works in the Netherlands as a paid Skøll and Laga coach, is usually busy coachingthe lightweight men and women rowing a week before their Boat Race against eternal rival Oxford than the official event on April 7th. I was hired as an assistant to the American head coach Rob Weber. Occasionally I do ergometer training for the heavy women’s team and I am a kind of pastoral worker. I regularly check in with them and see how they are doing, have a cup of coffee here and there. My opinion is also valued with regard to setups and selections.”

Cohnen, born in Germany, is referring to the very ambitious study climate in combination with the heavy training regime. “In the Netherlands people already think that the study pressure is high. However, that is nothing compared to here. They also train twelve times a week. All our rowers are perfectionists and their own worst critic. They are highly focused on rowing, studying, navigating between classes, training locations and home.

According to Cohnen there are quite a few differences from her previous coaching job in the Netherlands. “First of all, a club like Cambridge has a much larger network. From board members to sponsors and influential ex-rowers. Many supporting groups want to help and share their advice about the teams. You must be able to focus on the goal at hand -putting the athlete first- and maintaining this goal. The logistics side is also much larger. In Dutch student associations, a board or a committee does most of the heavy lifting. Here we have to do everything ourselves: from the transport of the boats to taking care of repairs of the boat.”

Diving board
The former rower of Saurus and Skøll left for England for a fresh start. “I wanted to prove myself somewhere else. “In the Netherlands I had the feeling like some minds were made up about me and I did not want that for myself. I went to find the joy in coaching again. By going to another place with the same skill-set – in which I still have great faith in – I could start over and redefine my way of working and collaborating. Coaching in Cambridge is an amazing experience and I’m very happy that I created and seized this opportunity. If this leads to other opportunities I would be very happy, but for now my rowers and the Boat Race are the highest priority.”

TopRow New York: introducing Milan Kamphuis

TopRow New York: introducing Milan Kamphuis

Milan Kamphuis is TopRow New York’s Deputy Program Director, bringing a wealth of positive energy and creative solutions to our programs. We thought we’d help you get to know him. 

Milan began his athletic pursuits as a cyclist from ages 12 – 21.  While he was sidelined by a knee injury, a friendly stranger in a pub suggested he convert to rowing, given he’s so tall (Milan is 6’7”) and already in great shape. We’re glad Milan took his advice and participated in the 6 week rowing tryout at a university club – he loved the sport, was selected for the team, and has never looked back. Highlights of his rowing career include racing Varsity for 4 years, competing at the Henley Royal Regatta, and participating in the Dutch National Team selection process.


While working as a P.E. teacher in Amsterdam, Milan took a break from rowing before resuming the sport in a more recreational capacity. At the same time, he began coaching a junior girls program. He’s proud of all the work they did while he was their coach and after – one of the girls recently competed in a major European regatta! He also misses getting to run around with the kids he taught – being a P.E. teacher is a great way to stay fit while having fun. 

Milan loves sharing the joy of rowing with everyone he can, and bringing his skills as a P.E. instructor to the Peter Jay Sharp Boathouse. He’s passionate about both sports and teaching, and especially the character development people achieve through sports – teamwork, dedication, and mental toughness. Plus, he loves being outside and sharing his knowledge with our rowers! 


Milan notes that rowing can be an escape from the stresses of everyday life because you’re so intent on the details of your movement, it makes you feel healthy and strong, and the feeling of swing is just magical. What’s more, once you start rowing, you often find yourself hooked (as he did).  Because he wants to share this joy with everyone, Milan is leading TopRow’s partnerships with groups like ClassPass and EngineRm to bring rowing to as many people as possible. 

There are a few notable differences between rowing in the Netherlands and the USA. There’s a much stronger rowing culture in the Netherlands, particularly Amsterdam – there are clubs everywhere and people of all ages are constantly coming and going from the river. Rowing clubs often function as much as social clubs as actual athletic groups, and many have 600+ members at a variety of levels! Here in the states our cities and boathouses tend to be more spread out (with a few notable exceptions like Boathouse Row in Philly), which can make it harder to get to practices. This often means that Americans who chose to row are “all-in, 100% dedicated,” which makes them tons of fun to coach! Milan is excited to work with such committed rowers while bringing some of the relaxation and appreciation of rowing as a casual, fun activity to New York as well. 

Milan moved to New York with his wife right as TopRow New York was beginning operations, and we’re thrilled to have him leading our programs! He agrees that New York is the best city in the world, and loves getting to work in such a diverse place. He brings a vision of rowing that is accessible to all people at any level of experience or commitment and a desire to expand the New York City rowing community for many years to come. We have no doubt he’ll be able to do just that. 

Welcome aboard, Milan!

Would you like to know more about TopRow New York?

Amsterdam Light Festival tour: ‘An absolute must’

Amsterdam Light Festival tour: ‘An absolute must’

This year rowing centre Berlagebrug organizes the Amsterdam Light-festival tour for the fifth time. Every edition more than 1000 rowers have participated. TopRow spoke with one of the participants, Marie-Jeanne Diederen (51), from the Maastricht Watersport Club (MWC).

How did you become familiar with the Light-festival tour? 
“I only started rowing five years ago because of my son who really enjoyed it. Not long after I started, this trip was offered via MWC ‘s Touring Activities Committee. I just got my license, so it was super exciting to suddenly row on the narrow Amsterdam canals. Our rowing location on the Maas gives plenty of challenges with the current, but it is a completely different dynamic. I thought it was a fantastic experience and it made such a big impression that I returned every year since. Meanwhile, I organize it myself within the club.”

How do you organize the trip? 
“Partly because we obviously have to come from far away, we really make a trip out of it. We leave early in the morning so that we can be in Amsterdam at noon. Then they split up into groups for different activities. Especially for us it starts half an hour earlier than normal, so we can still eat together before we go back to Maastricht afterwards. The first time I went, we were with 20 people.
Now the number increased to 40, this is the limit though.  It has been fully booked within half an hour registration was opened. This year we even had 70 applicants. This is enormous on a membership number of 400 – of which 100 are active. People are very enthusiastic about it and recommend the trip to others. Even now we had something between ten to twelve beginners. I share the boats and mix everything together. Young and old. From race rowers, to beginners and other enthusiastic members.”

How did the trip this year compared to previous times? 
“It is always a bit different every year. The first time remains the best, because of the combination of the artworks and the fact that it was new and exciting. Last year’s edition wasn’t; it came across as chaotic. This edition, the artworks were significantly more beautiful again. One of the highlights were twenty enlarged illuminated fluffs that dangled above the canal. I also liked the ‘Stars of Van Gogh’. This involved an artificial version of the starry sky that Vincent van Gogh once painted for the famous painting ‘The Starry Night’. The artists try to remind us that we no longer see such a thing – especially in a city like Amsterdam where the night air is permanently polluted.”

How does the collaboration with the Rowing Centre go? 
“That went very well. Each boat is accompanied by a coxswain who knows the route, including the ins and outs of the artworks. It is also important that there is good manoeuvring, because it is quite busy on the water between the large tour boats. That always goes well. Of course, some are more enthusiastic than the other. For the first time, I was lucky enough to meet someone who pointed out the beautiful book called ‘The Boys in the Boat’. You have to have that luck. However I would recommend it to anyone. I now know friends from other clubs that also come every year.”

Catching up with: Morgan Hellen

Catching up with: Morgan Hellen

My name is Niki van Sprang and I am a (former) TopRow Amsterdam instructor and current Dutch National Team Member (Heavyweight men’s double). In this new rubric I catch up with former teammates from my time at the University of California Berkeley. Today we start with Morgan Hellen. When I first arrived in America Morgan often had to act and translator and English teacher as I was still struggling with the new language. What followed were for years in which we never raced a race without each other with as highlights a National Championship in 2016 and a Royal Henley regatta victory in 2015. Now I’m curious what he has been up to since.

Hey Morgan, thanks for taking the time for me. Let’s start with the most obvious: What have you been up to since our paths parted at Cal?

Since we parted ways, after our USA collegiate victory, I returned to Great Britain. Here I continued to row, initially with the GB development team. We formed an 8+ that raced Henley Royal Regatta in 2016 where we narrowly lost to the Dutch National team 8+ in a fantastic final of the Grand Challenge Cup! Following this I went on to stroke the GB 4- to victory at the FISU World University Championships in Poland. 

Off the back of these successes I was invited into the British Senior Men’s team to start training under Jurgen Grobler. A relatively short international career, where we crossed paths at a few international regatta’s, but essentially I struggled to return to the sport after a shoulder injury that required major surgery. Simply I wasn’t reaping the rewards for the investments I was making in the sport and decided in early 2019 it was time for me to hang up my oar.

I was very sorry to hear that, I always loved seeing you at the international races, as well as your family who have supported us at so many American races! So how was to transition into non athlete life? Was it hard to reinvent yourself?

Initially it wasn’t an easy decision to make and one that I spent a lot of time dwelling on. I gave myself some time away from the sport and went skiing, the truth is that I had missed out on a lot of life experiences and it was great to finally have some freedom from the gruelling 6-7days of training per week that I had been used to since my late teens. 

After the break it was now time to focus on the next stage of my life, and there has been only one thing in my life that I have felt as passionately about as rowing and that is entrepreneurship and having my own business! It was now my mission to follow this path and if there is one thing that rowing has taught me, its that hard work, works.

I am now developing an app that will hopefully give back to the rowing community. We want to bring audio-guided workouts directed by Olympic athletes! I wish I had access to this app back when I was on the rowing machine 5 times per week. We already won a business competition from NatWest (Big UK bank) and we are now focussed on the next stages of the apps development!

Would you say that you found a new passion or goal that managed to fill the gap rowing left?

Finding a new goal was exactly what was necessary. It felt strange to know exactly want you want to achieve and when that was going to happen to having a completely open ended goal. But now two thirds of the year later I feel confident in my decision and direction.

It’s comparable to rowing sure, I’m fully accountable for what happens in my life good or bad and the harder I work, generally the better the outcome. But it’s also very different to rowing because I was never the one writing my training program. These days I am completely in control of my own schedule, thats exciting! Right?

So tell us more about where the idea for Rowith came from and what it does?

Firstly I have always hated erging, I think everyone does. Its really hard, repetitive and boring! Secondly after finishing my rowing career I knew it wouldn’t be a good idea to go from training 6 days a week to absolutely nothing. I decided I was going to start running, I went on my phone and downloaded all the running apps out there. I came across one called the Nike Run Club and it honestly made me fall in love with running. Essentially, Nike provides guided runs from athletes and coaches. They coach and motivate you through the workout and I began to think wow this would have been perfect for the rowing machine!

I teamed up with Chaymae Samir my co-founder, also a Nike Run Club fan, to develop Rowith! Rowith is providing audio-guided erg workouts from Olympians and athletes from a variety of sports. It’s an amazing way to hear the athletes story, have them motivate and coach you as well as challenge the online Rowith community to workout with you.

So now the most important question: Do I have to become Olympic champion before you’re interested in me?

Haha! Niki I am certain you will be Olympic Champion so we definitely want you to give a workout! But all jokes aside it’s about telling amazing stories and we know you have a great story to tell. You are an amazing team guy and know how to get the best out of all your teammates, from the best to the worst guy. On top of this you held a few world records on the ergo so we’re pretty sure you know what you’re doing! Our members would love to hear your tips!

Haha thank you and yes I had weird hobbies as a kid… Whats the next step now for you and rowith?

Right now were raising money through our crowdfunding campaign ( we need to successfully close this campaign to helpmake Rowith a reality! If anyone want to find out more, you can read all about the app on the crowdfunding campaign page or follow @rowithapp on Instagram and Rowith on Facebook!

Alright last question already just for nostalgic reasons and you are not allowed to think too long: favorite memory together?

By far the toughest question as we share so many good memories together! Though I will have to say it will always be winning the USA National Championships with you. It was something we worked to achieve for 4 years. We raced every single race together and it payed off big time to finally get the win!

True that was a special moment! Thank you so much for taking the Time and good luck to you and Rowith!

TopRowNYC Masters racing as “The Swing Set”

TopRowNYC Masters racing as “The Swing Set”

New York City, despite its size, hustle and bustle and proximity to multiple waterways, is the site of just one rowing regatta. We are less than a week from this year’s Harlem River Classic, a fundraising regatta in support of Row New York — a NYC-based nonprofit organization that combines rowing and academic support to help middle and high school students attending some of our city’s most under-resourced schools realize their full potential.  
TopRow NYC, is partnered with Row New York. We use their boathouse and equipment and thanks to this collaboration we Masters can practice the sport we love — and marvel at a lot of gorgeous sunrises and sunsets! At our Peter Jay Sharp boathouse on the Harlem River, the teens come and go to and from practice six days a week. Their commitment is truly impressive. The returns are even more so. Row New York changes their lives. They combine the sport of rowing with academic support and college enrichment services to help kids living in under-resourced communities succeed in high school, graduate and get into college — many on athletic or academic scholarship.  
In 2018, 100% of Row New York seniors graduated high school, and 99% matriculated to college.  These impressive statistics are astonishing compared with the significantly lower graduation rate for far too many of New York City’s high school students. The majority of the youth served would not have access to this sport or these services without Row New York, and year after year, these remarkable student-athletes grow physically, academically, and emotionally.
Why should you donate?  Your donation will help Row New York pay for meals for during academic sessions, hire tutors, purchase MetroCards so kids can make it to practice and tutoring, maintain rowing equipment, travel to races, go on prospective college visits, get SAT prep, receive college and career guidance, and much, much more.  
TopRowNYC Masters racing as “The Swing Set” have already raised thousands of dollars for Row New York, and with Saturday’s deadline fast approaching are closing in on raising at least $10,000. If we succeed we could well get the privilege of naming one of Row New York’s boats. Since none of us are the Winklevoss twins (and yes, RNY has a boat named The Winklevoss) this would be quite an honor and achievement!
How can you help?  Visit The Swing Set’s Crowdrise page:
and make a donation by this Saturday, May 18th to help TopRow NYC help Row New York! (Be sure to watch the wonderful short video about Row New York!) When donating, you will be prompted to pick a team member to support. It doesn’t matter who you select, every penny will go to Row New York and the great work they do.
Learn more about Row New York by visiting
Rowing coaching at TopRow London: ‘We were pioneers’

Rowing coaching at TopRow London: ‘We were pioneers’

Last summer in London, TopRow opened a rowing centre near the river Thames. Amsterdam based coaches Willem Crul and Caitlin Smith were given the important task of setting up the first rowing lessons. A big undertaking for the young students.

“We took a leap of faith and it was worth the risk” says Caitlin excited in the cafeteria of Rowing Centre Berlagebrug (location TopRow Amsterdam). It was by chance that the 21-year-old Artificial Intelligence student came to London. “My original plan was to go to New York to pursue a minor and teach rowing classes as a side-job. Unfortunately, due to unforeseen circumstances that fell through. Jasper (Smink, owner of TopRow red.) offered me the chance to work in our newest London location for about a month or so. I tend to say ‘yes’ to a lot of things and good things happen when you say yes.”

Caitlin had a leg up on her colleagues since she lived in London until the age of 8. She was raised bi-lingual and could reside with her family in London whilst she was working there. The young history student and colleague of Caitlin, Willem, didn’t have the resources or benefits that Caitlin enjoyed. “Caitlin informed me about the opportunity and I was looking a summer side job” he says happily, continuing “In rowing, I noticed people share the same passion and interest. If I can help people and put a smile on their face, I have reached my goal. And the added bonus is that I get do this in London ha-ha”, he says smiling.

Strong current
“The strong current on the Thames river proved to be quite the challenge” says Caitlin. “Making the necessary preparations and giving the first lesson wasn’t exactly smooth sailing.” She continues “In the beginning I made the mistake of not knowing how far I could go down the stream before I realized it was time to turn around and head back. Also another challenge arose when I did not take the water-level into account which resulted in me hitting a sandbank. The rules of the water are a lot more complicated than in Amsterdam” she closes.

The challenges weren’t just on the water. “In Amsterdam we make use of, what we call, a rowing tank. Eventually we found a way to replicate this by going into the water ourselves and holding the boat on each side. This gave our learners a chance to get familiarized with the stroking techniques without the added pressure of making speed” says Willem.

Caitlin Willem

Aside from the challenges we faced on the water, the administrative part proved to be a challenge as-well. “The person responsible for this part went on his honeymoon as soon as we set foot in London. We received cancellations through e-mail which went to our Amsterdam location. By the time we would receive the information here in London, it was already too late. But we overcame this obstacle as-well by working closely with the London Rowing Club. This is also where our boats are stored.”

The rowing courses proved to be popular. “If you have never rowed in your life, you will not be able to join a rowing club like in The Netherlands. Here in London, the existing rowing clubs only take new members who are experienced rowers. TopRow fills the void for beginners and everyone wants to learn to row. Since then, other clubs have began offering rowing classes for beginners but its usually on a small scale and its hard to find these places. We started promoting our courses on a large scale and even got mentioned on the radio” says Caitlin.

Both Caitlin and Willem trained the new staff members before leaving London. “We wrote a standard protocol for new staff-members. I think the company runs smoothly now. Looking back on it, I think we were pioneering!”

Caitlin and Willem look back on their experience feeling fulfilled. “It was quite the undertaking for me being in London by myself. It has helped me be to become more independent. Near the end of our journey, I resided with a couple of students, which was a lot of fun” says Willem smiling. On the other hand, Caitlin enjoyed the solitude. “I have especially enjoyed learning first-hand how to set-up something and making it work. I know have more knowledge of how a company is built. That is something I will take with me for future references.”

Caitlin Willem

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