Rice University’s rowing team held its first practice at a newly-constructed dock on downtown Houston’s Buffalo Bayou on Saturday, marking the first time in years in which Rice Crew has been able to practice on the water in Houston.
According to Water Coach David Alviar, the new facility heralds the beginning of a new era for Rice Crew in which they will be able to practice much more effectively than in previous years, when rowers and coaches had to drive out of Houston to Clear Lake in order to have water practice.
"It will allow the team to be competitive like other teams are," Alviar said. "We will be able to practice at the level that they do."
Land Coach Michael Matson also noted that the challenges posed by practicing at Clear Lake had put the team at a disadvantage.
"We've been going an hour and a half round trip [to Clear Lake]," Matson said. "Students have been paying the gas themselves, driving at about five o'clock in the morning on Highway 45, returning during rush hour traffic –– it's been a big sacrifice."
Varsity captain Timothy Threatt, a Will Rice College sophomore, described former practice conditions as demanding.
"It was kind of a strain on me because not a whole lot of freshmen have cars, and even fewer are willing to commit that amount of time, that amount of energy, that amount of gas to taking a team an hour and a half round trip," Threatt said. "I'm excited about the fact that it's [now] a lot closer."
According to Alviar, the idea to construct a permanent mixed-water sport activities center on the Buffalo Bayou originated eight years ago with his predecessor Chad Shaw. Shaw cooperated with the Army Corps of Engineers to build some of the basic facilities needed at a location near Tony Marron Park, 10 minutes from campus by light rail. However, an interruption in coaching led to the abandonment of the project until four months ago, according to Alviar, when he and Matson decided to revive it.
Alviar and Matson worked with two local organizations, the Buffalo Bayou Partnership and the Texas Dragon Boat Association, to raise funds and build boat storage and a dock, which Alviar said were finished three weeks ago.
"[We] created what looks like a doomsday prepper's bomb shelter right now," Alviar said. "It's not the most glamorous thing, but it exceeds anything that we had before in terms of functionality and accessibility... and the swath of water is amazing."
According to Alviar, the facility still needs a ramp and some security measures to be completed. The facility is owned by the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, according to Alviar, but Rice has a 99-year lease for its use.
In the long term, Alviar and Matson hope to work with the other involved organizations to develop the facility into a public water activities center. According to Alviar, plans are being developed for a boathouse that would hold 60 to 80 boats, including specific space for Rice Crew and the Texas Dragon Boat Association, along with a public kayak and paddle board area.
"[Opening the facility to the public] would be the next stage," Matson said. "Essentially what we have now is built with the mindset that this will last until we get there... This venture, all in we're talking 30 to 40 thousand dollars, next step were talking a million, a million plus. So that's the next big step."
The plans for a public boating center face the challenges of dealing with issues of liability and accumulating funds. According to Alviar, the project is three to five years away from becoming reality. Rice Crew has become involved in a challenge to row across the Atlantic with the goal of raising money, but Alviar said more support from Rice will also be important.
"The main thing that's needed is fundraising," Alviar said. “Rice has made strides in listening to this, but they have not invested in it.”
Alviar and Matson said they believe rowing deserves more recognition in general from Rice.
"It's the oldest collegiate sport, and we don't give it any respect," Matson said. "By and large, it is part of the college tradition."
For now, with the new Buffalo Bayou facility ready to use, Alviar and Matson said that they are looking forward to a year of developing the team.
Threatt also said he is enthusiastic about the team’s prospects after Saturday’s practice.
“I think it was a great first water practice,” Threatt said. “It was exciting to see the eagerness of the new recruits to learn as well as the energy that the experienced rowers brought to the table. We start full-fledged water practice this week, and Saturday was a huge stepping stone towards getting the novice and and varsity rowers ready to race in the coming months.”