Rowing under the Midnight Sun

Visiting coach has Soldotna club pulling together

Practice started a little late on Mackey Lake on a recent Monday as eight rowers adjusted oars, discussed who should ride in which shell (boat), and chatted with each other about the weather, mosquitoes and other staples of Alaska in the spring.


Their new coach, a Polish-born Californian, perched on a lawn chair in a aluminum motorboat growing impatient with the delay and the cloud of bugs by the shoreline.

He readjusted his baseball cap over his long grey hair several times before shouting "Figure it out!" and motoring away from shore to run the one rower on the lake through a series of drills.

Soldotna's Midnight Sun Rowing Association started their new season with Jan Mazgajski, a former member of the Polish Olympic rowing team and coach for the Long Beach Rowing Association.

While Mazgajski's thick accent results in several "What did he say's?" throughout the practice, several rowers agreed that his expertise was pushing them to new levels.

It was a good day for rowing, one of the many summertime days the rowers enjoy before facing the increasingly cold temperatures as they practice for their traditional trek to the Lower 48 where the sport takes off in the fall.

The surface of Mackey Lake was still and glassy, reflecting the sun and occasional cloud before being shattered by the slap of oar blades on the water and soft grunts of rowers pushing to remain in unison with one another to achieve the uniform stroke Mazgajski tried to coax out of them.

It's not easy. 

Each rower, while trying to match strokes with one another, must maintain a fluid stroke movement and keep their blades hovering just a few short inches above the water, without touching, before dipping back in as the rower powers through to propel the boat.

Mazgajski is constantly talking to the rowers, but only remembers to raise a megaphone to his lips a few times, so there are sometimes some missed instructions.

He is impatient, but carefree with this instructions and laughs as he talks about the difference between rowers in Europe and the United States.

"Nothing. They all complain," he said with a laugh as he brushed off discussion of practice being over and explained that the two four-seat boats would run through a couple more drills before calling it quits.

"He's such a character," said Jacqueline Van Hatten, a second-season rower. "But, he knows his stuff and we're all being stretched with the skill-building."

As he talked with one of the rowers in a solo boat after running her through several grueling two minute drills that left her panting near the shoreline, she said she was done.

"I'm drawing blood here," she shouted. "I'm not in that good of shape."
Mazgajski is undeterred.

"No, No, No, I don't want to hear that. If you say that to yourself you lock yourself in," he said. "The physically demanding is nothing compared to the mental. The mental will take everything out of you. Tranquilize your mind."

She smiled and agreed to one more drill before Mazgajski turned to work with the two larger boats.

"Maintain the power, the speed of the boat and the rhythm and the rate," he said before starting the two off to race to the other side of the lake.

Several members of the team said the sport was a full-body workout.

"It's incredibly low impact," Van Hatten said. "It strengthens my upper back and my arms which is what I need."

She explained that she'd been in a car accident in which she was rear-ended by a Mack truck and the resulting damage to her neck and back was severe.

"Since I've joined rowing it just strengthens everything," she said. "It makes me have no pain."

Van Hatten said the team has competitions in July and August to prepare for and there were rowers on the lake on an almost daily basis.

She said the team, currently 15-strong, usually practices through September, although Mazgajski is scheduled to leave in October.

The sport is a multi-faceted draw for her.

"Being on the water is beautiful and when you get that rhythm of the boat going, it's perfection," she said. "It's so neat to hear everything in sync and just glide through the water."

Rashah McChesney can be reached at


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Author’s note: The Clarion first published this column on Aug. 11, 2006. It has been edited it for brevity. — LP

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