CHATTANOOGA ROWING’S FOUNDING FATHER

When William Raoul first dipped his oar in the Tennessee River in the early 70’s, 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. Mr. Raoul 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. 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), 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.

Foundation years (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. Robert had stroked the US 4- to a World Championship 1986, surprising East Germany in dramatic fashion.

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Also in 1989, 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. In 2006, 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.”

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.

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.”

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