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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 (www.crowdfunder.co.uk/rowith) 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!

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.

Recruitment
“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.”

Repack
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

Vicarage
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.”

Perfectionism
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.

Logistics
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.

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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! 

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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?

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.”

Passion
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.

Improvisation
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

Coordination
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.”

Promotion
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.

Pioneering
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!”

Experience
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

Toprow New York takes off

Toprow New York takes off

Toprow is expanding. This week we will start with the first lessons in New York City. American Mel Abler is responsible for the course and has recently visited our location in Amsterdam. What did she learn and what is she planning on doing in New York?

Mel (25) was born and raised in Wisconsin and got into rowing during her time in college. “Due to my small stature it was pretty clear I was only ever going to be a coxswain, until I found out about the lightweight category. That was when I started training to be able to achieve that new goal. When I moved to New York I never stopped”, she tells us enthusiastically over coffee in Amsterdam.

Part time job
Abler started as a part time rowing instructor with Row New York, a center not only for learn to row courses, but which also offers Junior and master rowing courses. Meanwhile she is completing her PHD in physics at Columbia university, which she skillfully juggles along side her coaching tasks. When Toprow took over the learn to row courses, they immediately found the perfect instructor in Abler.

Opportunities
“Toprow’s idea is that of teaching anyone and everyone how to row. That is something I agree with. The opportunities to start rowing in New York are very limited. There are very little good rowing stretches and the real estate is very expensive. Aside from college rowing, you can hardly ever get your start in rowing. There are no regular clubs like those on the banks of the Amstel.”

Crossfit
Abler points out that there are more ways to expand. “A lot of people have come in contact with rowing at college, so they will know about the sport. It has also become a popular exercise in the gym, mainly in sports like Crossfit. Crossfit uses the ergometers quite a lot and people doing this would very well like to try to do this in an actual boat.”

Sculling
Over the past week Abler has shadowed some of the instructors in Amsterdam during
different classes. “I have joined an experienced crew in a trip down the Amstel, which was amazing. I also joined some novices in a row into the city, there are so much opportunities in Amsterdam. In America we mainly row sweep, but I’d love for more people to learn how to scull.”

Lite boat
Not only is the water way better for rowing, but also the materials they use. “Over in New York we do not have any boat types in between the big beginner boats and the racing style boats. Thankfully TopRow shipped two of their Lite Boats over, which is definitely going to help. But the amount of boats over here allows you to accommodate many more rowers. That is something we are not yet ready to do.”

 

rowing new york

 

Coaching
She also noticed some differences in teaching. “In New York we are used to being on top of the technique. The instructors in Amsterdam let the rowers row more, really covering a distance. Maybe that has something to do with the approach. I understand that people come here to row and just move and socialize. I am used to be expected to teach constantly.”

Level
In the novice crew Abler paid attention to their level combined with how long they had been rowing “I was actually afraid the level of the rowers here would be quite different than in New York, but thankfully that is not the case. The level was about the same. That does not mean it is not good to learn from each other and see where our differences lie.”

Continuation
Abler will be starting with the first lessons this week. How this will take shape is something she does not know exactly yet. “The first entries for the novice course have been noted. But besides that, nothing is set in stone. In the winter rowing will not be able to continue due to the temperatures here. Otherwise we might rent a hall in Manhattan to erg together.”

TopRow New York

The American dream

The American dream

For some years there’s been a trend in Dutch rowing. Talented juniors are leaving to the United States to continue their rowing and studying there. Toprow spoke with three of them – all from different universities and different years. What attracts them, is there a difference in rowing culture and how do they combine University rowing with their ambitions to row for the Dutch Rowing Federation?

“I went to America for the experience. It was a big step to leave The Netherlands at such a young age and to build up a new life on the other side of the world”, says Maarten Hurkmans, who won a gold medal in the eight at the 2015 Junior World Championships in Rio de Janeiro. Then he went to the University of California. “That’s why I had my doubts. Niki van Sprang, a Dutch international and former rower of ‘Cal’, helped me a lot. He definitely gave me the last push.” Hurkmans says that an advantage of rowing is that you are part of a team, so getting to know people isn’t a problem. “I was placed in a house with some guys from the rowing team. I soon felt at home.”

Eastcoast – Westcoast
Gert Jan van Doorn, who was scouted by Cal’s biggest opponent at the Westcoast, the University of Washington, tells a similar story. “It is a combination of their interest in your rowing capabilities and the impression they make. I first went for a weekend to see what it was like. The sky is the limit then, you can even take your family, all paid by the university.” Especially California and Washington are doing everything in their power to recruit the most talented rowers.

Bart Roovers, who – at the age of 19 – almost rowed at the Olympic Games in the lightweight four, made a different choice and went to a university highly regarded for their study Physics. That meant rowing at a lower level. “For me, the most important thing is to have a good diploma when I finish university. But I also I had good feeling about the coach here at Pennsylvania. That’s paying off now, we’re winning races we didn’t win before.”

Competition
According to all there is a big difference in training mentality compared to the Netherlands. “Everything is way bigger and that is quite motivating”, says Roovers who used to train with a small team in Leiden. Van Doorn adds that another benefit of a large group is that there’s more competition. “We are continuously switching boats. Every training is a competition and you really have to push yourself. Physically you become hardened. In the Netherlands nobody trains at 5:30u in the morning, for us that’s daily routine. I never thought I would say this, but sometimes I even appreciate these sessions at sunrise.” This training regime pays off. All three of them improved their personal best time on the rowing machine with ten to fifteen seconds. Van Doorn even did it in one year.

Both Van Doorn and Roovers praise the professional way of coaching in America. Not only within rowing but also in their studies. “There’s always a mentor available who can help with planning lectures and exams and as an athlete you have priority when enrolling classes. And there’s a gigantic dining-hall where we can have dinner immediately after training sessions. That’s impossible in Holland. Our Dutch coach, Willem Jan de Widt, tries to do it in the run up to the World Under 23 Championships as well. But there is no team to help him”, says Roovers.

Collective
Hurkmans mentions another difference. “Everything we do is about the team, the collective. In the Netherlands coaching is much more individual focused with more focus on technique and with a lot more finesse. I’ve never heard a Dutch junior coach telling me that I had to push harder. They assume that you already push yourself to the limit and that you don’t need the encouragement. That might be a good thing but still I believe I got mentally stronger in the States.” The rower thinks that the combination of both styles is perfect. “Holland is the perfect place to improve your rowing technique and I’m not afraid to lose that when I’m back in the States. Our coach is very pragmatic, he loves it when my technique improved over the summer.”

The Netherlands
Despite the fact that the rowers only finish their American season end of June, they can still combine it with their ambitions to row for the Dutch Rowing Federation. Hurkmans is even selected for the national eight who is competing at the World Championships in Plovdiv. “I’m very lucky that the Dutch head coach supports my decision. He even came by this winter to see how we train in the States.” Roovers and Van Doorn were chosen for the U23-eight, despite the fact they had missed some selection races. “That was a windfall. I could have accepted if I wasn’t selected. I definitely want to grow to the international top, but I still have plenty of time left to go to the Olympics when I’m back from four yours of studying.  We’re still very young”, says van Doorn.  Rovers nods in agreement.

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