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Waco revolutionizes rowing, propelling the Brazos river to national – and even international – prominence

Rowers on the Brazos river in Waco, Texas.
Waco Rowing Center
Rowers on the Brazos river in Waco, Texas.

The Waco Rowing Center is turning central Texas into an international competitive rowing hub through community involvement, youth engagement and strategic athletic initiatives.

Born and raised in the prestigious world of competitive rowing, Matt Scheuritzel has had a special bond with the sport since he was a child.

MATT: “It’s a unique sport, where you train for so many hours every single day. The life lessons that it teaches are just remarkable.”

After attending the Haverford School for Boys just outside of Philadelphia, Matt was recruited by Cornell to continue rowing. After college, his passion for the sport had grown, and he decided to pay it forward by becoming a coach.

But Matt had a vision for his career. He loved coaching kids in his hometown, but didn’t want to continue to train the same people who he grew up around, children who had also come from lineages of wealthy, prestigious rowers. He wanted to make a difference in the sport, to make it accessible for everyone.

So when his family was contemplating a move to Texas in 2020, Matt took a visit to the Brazos River.

MATT: “I identified the water, I thought it was really good. It was worth coming down here and taking the risk on that. It ended up being way better than I could have possibly imagined.”

After testing the water, Matt and his family made the move to Waco, and Matt took on the role of Executive Director of the Waco Rowing Center. Along with a board of community members, the center began to spearhead the upsurge of rowing culture in central Texas.

Aside from the Baylor rowing club and a handful of locals, seeing rowers on the Brazos in Waco was a bit of a rarity.

But the Waco Rowing Center is changing that.

The center has a new mission now; to engage the underserved youth in the sport, get more rowers on the Brazos by providing high quality equipment and draw in rowing teams from all over the world.

MATT: “I really believe Waco is one of those places where if you actually have something that you care about or a mission that is important to you, it's gotta be one of the last actual cities where you can make a difference.”

A rowing club existed in Waco before Matt arrived, but it lacked youth involvement.

MATT: “When I joined, you know, the board agreed to shift our focus more towards engaging the youth in the sport. Particularly the underserved youth. Kind of opening doors to an ivory tower sport. And it is an ivory tower. That's part of our mission, is breaking that down and giving more access via the sport.”

Rowing, with its competitive origins tracing back to 1829 England, has traditionally been a sport for the elite, confined to prestigious clubs, universities, and accompanied by pricey memberships.

It has become a symbol of privilege, with high costs reinforcing the notion that rowing is an activity reserved for the wealthy. This perception has been further emphasized by the sport's historical roots in Ivy League schools in the United States.

MATT: “When you have 100 years of rich white people forming a network, it is kind of a cheat code. And that's why for 10 years I coached and ran programming with amazing kids and we won a lot of championships and I loved it. But I got tired of seeing just mini Matt Scheuritzels.”

The Waco Rowing Center has made significant progress in achieving Matt's goal of making the sport inclusive to everyone in central Texas. The center has partnered with schools to train up athletes, and have already hosted two rowing regattas on the Brazos, the most recent one in November seeing a 15% increase in attendees from last year.

Mike Volegaar, Executive Director at the Waco Sports Commission, says Waco is on track to become the leading rowing hub in the state, and possibly the nation.

MIKE: “It’s been extremely exciting to be able to see the growth of this type of sport and opportunity and vehicle for continued education and economic impact. The teams that are coming in for these events, they are coming from all over. We had teams come from New Jersey that came for the regatta just here recently, but also from Kansas, Arkansas and Oklahoma. It’s going to continue to grow, because it’s been a secret for so many years.

Most people probably don’t know this but the Chinese Olympic team actually came here and trained here. So, if the Chinese Olympic team is coming to Waco, of all places to train, you think they probably know something. There’s a lot of other schools that have been coming here over the years to be able to practice and train on the Brazos river."

It’s just been a really good kept secret. We want that secret to get out.”

For 103.3 Waco Public Radio, I'm Autumn Jones.