Warsaw Head draws new spotlight to rowing in Poland

Warsaw Head 2018. Photo: Tomasz Stankiewicz
TWDW (Towarzystwo Wisła Dla Wioślarzy) Rowing Club organised Warsaw Head’s debut with help from co-organizers, Warsaw Rowing Club and the Pro Bono Foundation.

On 16 June 2018, 30 rowing crews from Poland, Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, and Great Britain converged at Saska Kȩpa Beach for the first Warsaw Head International Rowing Regatta. Spectators and athletes alike crowded on the sand, enjoying the sunny day and sight of boats on the Vistula River. With 9-10 members per crew and additional staff members running the tournament, the number of participants in the event totaled nearly 350. The event also drew the attention of Gazeta Wyborcza, TVN, TVP, German TV, Polskie Radio 3, and Tok FM radio.

The competition format of Warsaw Head was modeled after the annual Head of the River Race in London, a race for 8-man crews that spans 6.8 kilometres in length. However, due to low water levels on the day of the event, Warsaw Head was forced to shorten the course down to roughly 4 kilometres. Despite being smaller than prestigious international regattas with up to 500 crews, preparation for the event was demanding. TWDW (Towarzystwo Wisła Dla Wioślarzy) Rowing Club, which organised Warsaw Head’s debut, had to rent enough 8-person boats for the competitors, and in Poland, boats are scarce. The boats needed to be rented from different cities across Poland, and many were quite vintage. The oldest ones dated back to the 1980s, while the newest boat was manufactured in 2008.

In addition, half a year’s worth of full-time work went into the organisation of the tournament. TWDW was helped by two co-organizers: the Warsaw Rowing Club, a competitive rowing club in the Żerań district of Warsaw, and the Pro Bono Foundation, a NGO in Warsaw that develops programs supporting education, culture, and tradition in Poland. Securing a location and inviting crews to Warsaw for a brand new event was a huge logistical challenge. About 700 invitation emails were sent out to crews across Europe, but only 30 responded “yes.” This is a trend that occurs in new sports events; invitees usually avoid attending the first year and monitor the success of the event remotely, using that success to gauge whether or not to attend in subsequent years.

Warsaw Head 2018. Photo: Zdzisław Biernacki

The Warsaw Head Regatta was designed not only to be competitive, but also simply for everyone. From MAABC (Mortlake Anglian & Alpha Boat Club), which had a Bled World Masters champion coxswain in their midst, to amateur clubs that rowed recreationally, “everyone” just about described the tournament, creating a positive atmosphere for lively sport and new comradery. Some crews even dressed up to celebrate the spirit of the competition. The LOTTO-Bydgostia men’s masters team rowed in black top hats, bowties, and white dress shirts, while the TWDW women’s masters team wore festive flower crowns out on the water. These crews regularly dedicate a lot of time and effort to preparing for local and international regattas throughout the year.

“We were inspired to enter this competition because it sounded like a really interesting opportunity to come to Poland and row on a new river, and gave us an opportunity to look forward to train for a race this summer… we always try to do one international race every year. On average, per year, we probably do about 12 races, and most of those are in Cambridge,” said Darcy Weaver, a representative of the Cantabrigian Rowing Club in Cambridge, UK. “We row about twice or three times per week, and then we do our additional gym training on the side.”

“We thought maybe we would find a couple of people who would like to become a crew and take part in the competition, and we found sixteen people willing to do the trainings and take part. We knew that this would be an amateur group, but we thought it’s good teamwork as an exercise helping people to become a better team… we are not here to win; we are here to take part in a competition, to be on the water with others,” said Małgorzata Dezor, the head of marketing of the Linklaters in Warsaw. “We only started to train two months ago, so we had about 8 trainings by now, and we are just really beginners.”

“We want to help out our brothers in arms… we organized the Head of Prague as well, and we wanted to attend Warsaw Head to help them build up the team,” said Ondřej Gabriel, a representative of VK Blesk in Prague, Czech Republic. “We usually train about two times per week, but it’s mostly individual.”

Wiking Berlin team at Warsaw Head 2018. Photo: Jeremiasz Ojrzyński

The host, TWDW Rowing Club, was founded in the Saska Kȩpa district of Warsaw in 2016 by Daniel Cousens, Tadeusz Robinski, Maria Szumowska, Tomasz Wiśniewski, and Jacek Ojrzyński. Due to the heavy presence of professional rowing and lack of amateur rowing clubs, Cousens and Robinski were searching for a place where rowing could be enjoyed as a hobby. Szumowska, Wiśniewski, and Ojrzyński were on the rowing team at the University of Warsaw, and they held a mutual dissatisfaction for the quality of equipment, training, and funding in the Boat Club. Together with Cousens and Robinski, they decided to create TWDW, a club focused on recreational rowing and high-quality engagement with the sport. Currently, TWDW is home to about 100 members, and they accept all people regardless of age or experience level.

Before WWII, rowing was very popular in Poland — the first sports organisation in the country was a rowing club established in 1878, Warszawskie Towarzystwo Wioślarskie. However, after WWII, rowing was associated with aristocratic origins, and the Communist Party did not allow the continuation of amateur rowing. Since then, only professional rowing has prevailed in Poland, and it was TWDW’s dream to strike that barrier down and reestablish recreational rowing. Since the creation of the club in 2016, a few other professional clubs have followed suit and created amateur sections as well.

For a relatively new club that has already amassed 100 members in the last two years, TWDW is a promising bridge to the rebirth of amateur rowing in Poland. While amateur rowing is already well-established in western European nations like Great Britain and Germany, Poland is now on its way to joining them. With 30 crews participating in Warsaw Head in its first year, the growth of recreational rowing in Poland will hopefully continue to leap forward.

Warsaw Head 2018

Poland Today is a media patron of Warsaw Head 2018.

Taylor Chin is an American intern journalist for Poland Today. She has lived abroad in Russia, Great Britain, and Poland and has a degree in Slavic Languages and Literatures from Princeton University.

A “head race” is a rowing competition in which the rowers are racing to complete a course in the shortest amount of time. This is why events often have names like “Warsaw Head” or “Head of Prague.”

The Difference Between Amateur Sports and Professional Sports: In amateur sports, athletes perform recreationally or without earning anything in compensation for training and competing. In professional sports, athletes are often paid, sponsored, or compete for an official national team representing their country or region. These are general distinctions between the two; however, exact specifications sometimes differ across countries and sports.

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