When William Raoul first dipped his oar in the Tennessee River nearly 40 years ago, he could hardly have envisioned the wave of change that would result from his passion for rowing in Chattanooga. Hailed the founding father of the Chattanooga rowing movement, Raoul devoted his golden years to learning how to row and develop Chattanooga’s very first rowing club. Sadly, he passed away in 1997, but he would no doubt smile now at the way rowing has grown to become an integral part of Chattanooga’s lifestyle.
By Greg Thompson
Full PDF here.
From the time Raoul established the Lookout Rowing Club (LRC) in 1974 through the present day, the impact that rowing has had on Chattanooga’s culture and economy is undeniable. What began as Raoul’s passion for rowing has grown into a much larger vision, one that positively impacts the health and well-being of our community while adding millions of dollars to our economy.
Today, Chattanooga is home to one of the nation’s largest annual regattas, a college team (UTC) coached by a former Olympian, an extremely successful adult rowing club, and an adaptive rowing program for mentally and physically challenged rowers. It’s also home to four high school aged rowing programs: three scholastic teams (Baylor, McCallie, and GPS) and Chattanooga Junior Rowing, which has a mix of private, public, and homeschool students.
Building a Strong Foundation (1970s-1980s)
In 1974, TVA engineer Jack Fish and UTC professor Terry Carney joined Raoul in founding Lookout Rowing Club, Chattanooga’s first community rowing club. Carney, who was appointed LRC’s first coach, had significant rowing experience, having rowed at MIT after a high school career for the prestigious Kent School team.
Fish recalls that Raoul first spotted the name “Lookout Rowing Club” in a newspaper article that said the club had actually begun in 1876. Raoul decided to honor the tradition by adopting the name when he launched LRC.
“When he was 57 years old, Bill taught himself how to row,” says Fish. “When he was at Dartmouth during his college days, Bill would go out in a canoe and watch the rowing team. He always thought rowing was very neat, and he never forgot what he saw at Dartmouth.”
LRC’s initial membership, about 15 people, was a combination of adult rowers from the community and UTC faculty and students. The club continued to grow, and in 1983, UTC started competing in regattas under Carney. When Carney’s professional duties at UTC grew too great to continue managing the team, former U.S. Olympic rower Robert Espeseth was hired in 1989 to take on the team.
The same year, LRC founded public charity Chattanooga Rowing, in part, to sponsor junior rowing in Chattanooga. During its early years, the junior program was managed by the parent organization and made up mostly of students from CSAS. However, when interest grew among students from other schools, it later broke off as an independent program under the leadership of Jack Fish.
About seven years ago, Chattanooga Junior Rowing birthed its own program for mentally and physically challenged rowers, thereby accomplishing the very last goal of LRC’s founders. “We set out to do three basic things,” recalls Fish of the early mission of the Lookout Rowing Club. “We wanted to build, maintain and operate a rowing facility. We wanted to operate a juniors program, and we wanted to operate a program for mentally and physically challenged rowers.”
Today, Lookout Rowing Club comprises over 200 persons from Chattanooga and Chattanooga Junior Rowing has around 60, with approximately 20 from Notre Dame High School. Both groups have access to eight-man boats worth approximately $160,000, 20 erg machines, and 100 oars (oars alone are worth $350 apiece).
Striking Olympic Gold (1990s)
As the countdown to the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta approached, Chattanooga was gaining tremendous credibility within the rowing community. Through his Olympic and National Team contacts, Espeseth learned in 1993 that the U.S. National Women’s Rowing Team had a serious interest in moving their training site closer to Atlanta. Meanwhile, Chattanooga’s rowing leadership was moving closer to the completion of a state-of-the-art rowing center and boathouse to replace the barges on the Tennessee River that served as the home to the Lookout Rowing Club’s boats for many years.
The effort to build the William C. Raoul Rowing Center and the campaign to bring the U.S. National Team to Chattanooga fed off each other. William Raoul’s dream was realized when the final hurdles were cleared and the center was opened in 1993. That same year, the U.S. Women’s Team adopted the center for its training center to prepare for the 1996 Olympics.
“The city really did step up to support the team,” explains Espeseth. “It was fun to go to Atlanta and watch the team, knowing that they had trained in Chattanooga.”
The Tennessee waters prepared them well. In 1995, the women’s eight, four, pair and lightweight pair all won gold medals at the World Rowing Championships in Finland. Then at the 1996 Olympics, the U.S. Women’s Rowing team took two silver medals.
Landing Head of the Hooch (2000s)
Entering the new millennium, Chattanooga’s rowing leadership had proven that the city knew what it took to host a sizable regatta. In 1992, the Lookout Rowing Club started the 300-boat Chattanooga Head Race and each year thereafter successfully organized and marketed the event.
In 2004, the Head of the Chattahoochee regatta, founded by the Atlanta Rowing Club, reached its capacity on Lake Lanier and race organizers began to look for a new venue. At the same time the 21st Century Waterfront on the Tennessee River was actively seeking a signature event.
With the support of then Mayor Bob Corker, the Chattanooga Visitors Bureau made a strong pitch for moving the race to the Scenic City’s Downtown Waterfront. “We saw the caliber of people we were dealing with. It was one of those perfect matches at the beginning,” CVB president and CEO Bob Doak explains on landing the regatta, now the second largest in the country. “We had to raise $200,000 to build docks and get equipment in place to pull this off. We felt it was a good investment. We knew it had potential to grow into something large, but this really did live up to the old adage of plant an acorn and an oak tree will grow.”
At that time, the regatta averaged a little over 1,000 boats and 3,800 participants. It has since more than doubled in size. Last year, the regatta attracted around 12,000 attendees and had an economic impact of $4.3 million. This year, the Chattanooga Visitors Bureau is expecting around 16,000 attendees and an economic impact of $5.2 million.
“We found a great partner in Chattanooga,” says Daniel Wolff, Atlanta Rowing Club director and director of the regatta. “Chattanooga has the perfect venue with the 21st Century Waterfront and they provide tremendous support for the race. They keep improving every year.”
“For a sport that started back in Chattanooga with just a couple of guys rowing in singles to now host the second largest regatta in the U.S. is just unbelievable,” says Espeseth. “I wish that Mr. Raoul had still been around to see the Head of the Hooch when it first came here.”
Juniors Row Toward College Scholarships (Present)
As the director of Chattanooga Junior Rowing, which became independent from LRC in 1988, Jack Fish has decorated his office with photos of rowers who have landed college scholarships or earned spots on U.S. Junior National Teams. There are at least 10 pictures on Fish’s walls, and many of them are group photos. At one time, Fish notes that he had eight rowers from his program on college scholarships.
“Of those of us who were there at the beginning, I don’t think that any of us realized the potential for the juniors,” says Fish, whose program has grown from four kids in 1988 to 62 in 2013. “Helping kids get scholarships is where I believe I have made a difference. It’s come a long way, and the thing about it is, I have to believe that it’s going to continue to get better.”
The Junior Rowing program, which does not include the teams from Baylor, McCallie and GPS, is now at capacity. Within the last year, Fish has handed off the coaching duties to six of his former juniors who had earned college scholarships through his program.
“When you think about things, it takes six of us to do what was one man’s job,” says Lauren Miller, one of Fish’s handpicked coaches. She is a Chattanooga Christian graduate who earned a rowing scholarship and a degree from the University of Alabama. “He sent a lot of kids to college. He’s taught us that this is a sport that can take you to college. He has also taught us that this is a life-long sport. There’s a lot of responsibility with coaching and carrying on what he has built.”