The Midwest is teeming with field sports, and while many may not consider rowing a popular activity in Illinois, there’s a duo of women in St. Charles who’ve quietly rounded up area high school students to form a crew of tenacious athletes.
And they’re starting to break world records.
Back in 2013, when she was shuttling her own son to and from the northern suburbs to practice with his rowing team, St. Charles resident Chris Meldrum knew there had to be a saner alternative to logging hundreds of hours every month in her Honda minivan.
So Chris did what any other determined modern mother would do: she did a little research, found a spot on the Fox River where she could launch a boat, and started her own competitive junior rowing program.
“We started with four high school boys rowing, and I sat as the coxswain [pronounced cox-en],” Chris explained. “It was horrible, me calling out orders to these kids, one of which was my son.”
Meldrum’s role in the boat was coxswain, the person in charge of the steering and navigation for the rowing crew.
“We needed more members, so I reached out to a friend whose daughter was rowing in Barrington, and we almost had a team,” Meldrum said.
She started to get the word out that rowing was not only an alternative sport for kids who weren’t looking for traditional field play, it was for teens who were not really sure what they wanted, but knew they wanted to work hard and be part of a team.
The new St. Charles Rowing Club’s field of play was on the Fox River just off Ferson Creek Park in St. Charles.
Next, Crystal Lake resident and USRowing referee Melissa Palmer got wind of Meldrum’s team and hopped on board with her own daughter, also a rower.
“Chris is amazing at rallying the crew and getting them to work harder than they’ve ever worked before,” Palmer said. “She’s making a huge impact in the lives of these kids.”
The girls on the team now dominate the numbers, and consist of students from St. Charles, Geneva, Aurora and neighboring cities such as Crystal Lake, Naperville, Wheaton, Bartlett and as far as Barrington. This April marks the anniversary of their first competition [called a regatta], when the team traveled to Champaign, Illinois, to participate in the Illinois Junior Invitational Championship.
And they won.
The strong team dynamic grew as did the camaraderie on roster.
“Melissa and I want to show these kids how far their abilities can reach,” Meldrum explained, “because I don’t think they can always see how their athletic skills and emotional strength can be bigger and better than they ever thought it could be.”
Palmer agrees with Meldrum, confirming that the group of young women they’ve recruited over the years are in this sport for each other.
“We work a lot on understanding the dynamics of being a great team player, despite the fact that these girls are crammed into a very small space,” Palmer said.
“Yes,” Meldrum agreed. “We want the team to look at each other and say, ‘I’m going to help you perform better’ not ‘You suck.’”
Suffice it to say, the leadership on the St. Charles Rowing Club team reflects the sense of humor in Palmer and Meldrum. In fact, they are straightforward and happy to open their oars to anyone interested both in person and in the presence they put out online:
“SCRC was birthed on the Fox River by the hometown crew. We are neither exclusive, elite, privileged or arrogant. Rowing is an incredibly rewarding sport; extremely difficult, yet immense in the rewards through hard work and determination it can offer.”
The combination of dedicated coaches and determined young women has proved a powerful combo, as crew members Mary Jaskoviak and Anya Landrowski have broken several American and World records already in 2019.
St. Charles Canoe Club secretary and paddling coordinator Karl Teske trains at the same center as Meldrum’s club, and says the community needs to hear more about the success of the St. Charles Rowing Team, and how people can support them.
“Anyone can write a check to create opportunities for kids, [but] Meldrum and Palmer are dedicated to participating and leading these young people, showing them that there’s other ways to build leadership skills and better athletes.”
Teske, an enthusiastic supporter of paddle sports, went on to say hosting regattas would be a huge opportunity to not only bring tourists to Kane County and boost the economy, but improve the image of St. Charles as a viable rowing location in the Midwest.
“There’s a need for this type of recreation and sport,” Teske states. “The leadership skills, hard work and sense of belonging Meldrum promotes are something many kids are looking for and not necessarily finding in their respective communities.”
While the team is growing, flourishing and breaking world records, a challenge is brewing that needs attention.
“We need a permanent space on the river,” Meldrum explained. “Rowing is not an invasive sport to the environment, and we are diligent about being stewards of the Fox River.”
Currently, the team launches from a private residence near the Red Gate Bridge on the Fox River in St. Charles. When the team can’t get on the water or they are conditioning, they use the Campana building on Fabyan Parkway in Batavia.
The sport of rowing, as a whole, promotes lifelong health, wellness and ongoing leadership opportunities. To date, Meldrum and the St. Charles Rowing Club have sent 24 team members who have gone on to become collegiate rowers and scholarship recipients.
Meldrum’s humble mission of promoting an understanding and appreciation for rowing and training young women and men to be presented with opportunities to compete and grow as athletes is rapidly picking up momentum.
“If it wasn’t for the tireless dedication of our outstanding rowers and support of parents, school districts, local businesses, St. Charles Park District, Kane County Forest Preserve, Resolute Racing Shells, Wounded Warrior Program, Team Red, White & Blue, grants and donations, we would not be able to enjoy the growth that we have been so fortunate to experience,” Meldrum said. “And we’ve just begun to realize our potential.”
For more information about the St. Charles Rowing Club, visit its website at www.saintcharlesrowing.com.
Elizabeth Rago is an Illinois writer and author living in St. Charles. Her online community, “The Modern Domestic Woman,” tells the stories of women around the world, as it hones in and celebrates the simple everyday things that make us tick. You can find more of her writing at themoderndomesticwoman.com. Feedback can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.