Rowing award surprise for volunteer
Wernher Verbraeken had no idea he was in contention for an award from Rowing Canada Aviron.
The 52-year-old native of the Netherlands is well known in local rowing circles, helping co-found the Niagara Falls Rowing Club where he serves as vice-president, to go along with a long and impressive history coaching and competing.
Verbraeken was named as one of several 2020 COVID Champions, a distinction created to recognize individuals who went above and beyond to support their club and their members throughout the pandemic.
“I found out after I had gotten the award,” said Verbraeken, who was nominated by Niagara Falls Rowing Club president Tony Arcuri. “It’s one of those things where you just go about your business and you don’t really think about things like that and then somebody at your rowing club nominates you.
“It was a bit of a surprise.”
Verbraeken was chosen after volunteering to cover vacated club positions, as well as taking on new roles formed due to the pandemic, redesigning programs and club protocols, and maintaining repairs on the boathouse and dock, amongst many other tasks.
Verbraeken felt it crucial the club find a way to get the rowers back on the water as soon as it was safe.
“The whole thing starts back in May when Rowing Canada and Row Ontario started looking at allowing rowing to open,” he said.
Verbraeken, Arcuri and club members Jim Hyman and Jane Hyman, who are both nurses in the intensive care unit in St. Catharines, met to try and come up with a plan that was both safe and practical.
“We sat down with us all these guidelines from Rowing Canada and Row Ontario and provincial and local public health and (thought) let’s see if we can out our own set of procedures that can conform to all the guidelines and start getting the kids back on the water,” Verbraeken said.
Initially, Verbraeken admitted the task was very daunting.
“We read through all the guidelines. You don’t want to go against any of the guidelines and get anyone in trouble or sick,” he said. “It turned out the main important items are items we are hearing about every day still almost a year later — wear masks, keep your physical distance from each other and sanitize every single thing anyone touches before the next person touches it.”
Verbraeken, who has both Canadian Secondary Schools Rowing Association and Royal Canadian Henley Regatta medals to his credit as a competitor, said all the hard work paid off.
“We had a great summer. We had so many kids and adults rowing it was great. Everybody stayed safe and everybody respected the rules. It was fantastic,” he said. “I bet you we still had close to 100 members rowing. It was unbelievable.
“It’s a fantastic feeling. We were overwhelmed when we heard we weren’t going to have any rowing because of the pandemic.”
Verbraeken feels it was particularly important to get the younger athletes back on the water.
“I’d like think adults are a little deeper in their toolbox as far as being able to cope with this sort of stress,” he said. “I was really worried about the kids. They don’t have the life skills or big, deep toolbox to deal with stress and anxiety and isolation.
“It was really nice to be able to open up the club. We were getting e-mails constantly from the parents thanking us. It was really nice to hear.”
Going forward, Verbraeken is cautiously optimistic there will be racing sometime in 2021.
“It’s really my gut, but I can see there being some racing in the fall. If there is any racing in the summer, it will be pretty limited to physical isolation in boats —singles, maybe doubles. I don’t see the big crew boats of fours and eights coming back in a big rush. I think it’s going to be a very slow, safe reopening of rowing.”
For now, Verbraeken is coaching virtually.
“I’ve got a small group of really keen athletes who are training over Zoom,” he said. “They have rowing machines at home. These kids are very keen on racing as soon as racing is allowed again.”
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