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This rowing club is surprisingly competitive for being in a landlocked state

Grace Malacrida started the program 11 years ago to offer something unexpected in Colorado

DENVER — Finding your place in life isn't as simple as a duck to water. But, out on the water of Cherry Creek Reservoir, athletes like Rachel Junge are finding their place at the end of an oar.

"I ended up falling in love the first time I set foot in a boat," Junge said.

The Rock Canyon High School senior is a member of the Mile High Rowing Club. Coach Grace Malacrida started this club 11 years ago to offer teens a water sport in a place with very little water.

"The people who are new, they always ask the same things like are you out in the kayaks and paddleboats or whatever?" Malacrida said. "They think we're Dragon boats."

Malacrida is a former college rower at Rutgers University on the east coast where Crew is more popular. She draws teens from high schools around the Denver Metro area who want to learn the sport and discipline of competitive rowing in 2-person, 4-person, and 8-person boats.

"I get a lot of former swimmers who find they actually prefer being on top of the water," Malacrida said.

While she does get interest from athletes of other sports, Malacrida says many of her club members over the years have been people who never tried any sport before, but fell in love with rowing.

"One of the most common questions I hear when people ask, 'oh, do you row, like what the heck? How do you do that in Colorado?' " Junge said.

Junge used to be a competitive rock climber until she followed the advice of a friend.

"A friend of mine actually told me, he was like, 'you know Rachel, in the rowing world they love really tall girls,' " Junge said. "I'm like, 'cool, I'm a tall girl so that's perfect.' "

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As the boats make their way around the reservoir, Malacrida follows along in her motorboat calling out commands from a bullhorn.

"You know when you're paying attention to the boat, their idea is to row together and by rowing together, it's everything -- hands movement, the body movement, the placement of the oars in the water," Malacrida said.

The coach says her athletes challenge teams who practice year-round in the water in between multiple competitions each year.

"We take on crews from Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Arkansas," Malacrida said.

The club can only practice when it's relatively warm and they work all year long just to row in one regatta.

"At first, I was concerned that we didn't have enough competition, but honestly, the isolation works for us," Malacrida said.

When her teams compete in their one regatta, the Central Youth Championships in Oklahoma City, Malacrida says her teams often win and send athletes to the National Championships. She says this is an unexpected way for teens in Colorado to earn scholarships. 

"In our 11 years, I've had over 70 go off and row in college," Malacrida said. "From Alabama to Harvard to Cal, Stanford."

For Junge her plan for college does not include competitive rowing. But, she definitely loves it as her plan right now.

"There's so many different things going on everywhere like in my life, but when I get here, it's like nothing else matters," Junge said. "I'm a rower and that's not something you hear often at all."

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