Rowing started as a club sport at Gonzaga in 1984 with a few guys, a Jesuit priest and two wooden boats on Lake Arthur. As time went on, the club moved to a boathouse that was basically an aluminum frame on the Spokane River.
In 1990, with rowing becoming a Division I sport, the team finally built its own boathouse on the river just a 12-minute drive away. The new building was basically the bare bones for what the team needed. It had heating and insulation, but with no running water, the athletes had to use portable toilets.
Today, the men’s and women’s rowing teams have a combined total of 90 athletes, and the teams’ needs were beginning to outgrow the boathouse on the Spokane River.
On Oct. 12, after more than two years of fundraising, planning, and building, the long-anticipated Johnson Family Boathouse had its grand opening and GU rowing gained a new home. Around 250 people were in attendance, ranging from donors to alumni to athletes and coaches.
The new boathouse is located in the city of Medical Lake at Silver Lake Camp, roughly a 20-minute drive from campus. It’s equipped with state-of-the-art tools including heated floors, a dedicated boat dock, locker rooms for the athletes and private ones for the coaches.
Marisa Wortman, head coach of the women’s team, said she has immense gratitude for one thing that many people take for granted — running water.
“We are able to wash our boats and our equipment so much better now that we have the functional use of being able to have running water,” she said.
At a small school like GU, a boathouse of this scale is something that isn’t common. Before coming to GU, Wortman coached at the University of San Diego after attending school at the University of Tennessee. At USD she realized the advantages larger schools have with their rowing facilities.
“We had an amazing private boathouse right on campus, which was a strong reason for why we were so successful,” Wortman said regarding the University of Tennessee’s rowing program. “University of San Diego made me aware of what smaller schools have to deal with.”
Men’s head coach Dan Gehn has been with the GU men’s rowing team since fall 1994. He rowed in college at the University of Wisconsin, and then was the freshman coach for six years, before coming to coach GU’s team.
After years of dreaming about a new boathouse for the program, the athletic department gave him the go-ahead to start planning out the new project. He was given the task of trying to find the location for the new boathouse, along with deciding which features would be included inside the new home for the rowing teams.
Gehn found a 500-acre property for sale on Silver Lake during his search. After about half a year of building a relationship with the sellers, they agreed to sell a sliver of land for the rowing team to use.
The new boathouse was made a reality by the Johnson family, a family with no connection to GU, but one that is very passionate about rowing. Their name became the namesake for the new building.
The old boathouse on the Spokane River is still in use. On Oct. 19, GU hosted Washington State University at The Head of The Spokane Regatta at that location.
“We get the benefit of the old boathouse as well,” Wortman said. “Being able to practice on such versatility is something we don’t take for granted.”
Alexa Jadallah, a senior and three-time WCC coxswain of the year, has been a member of the women’s rowing team since her freshman year. She had been rowing out of the old spaces since then.
“My freshman year we rode out of a little park,” Jadallah said. “We called it ‘trash camp.’”
She first heard rumors of a new boathouse around two years ago. She said that the waiting process was nerve-wracking, and that she was worried that she wouldn’t ever practice with the new facility available to her.
“They said it would be done last fall, then they said by Thanksgiving, then by February, and we thought it honestly wouldn’t be done,” Jadallah said. “I thought I would never be able to row out of it.”
With the updated amenities, Jadallah is thankful for everything that donors have contributed to the program.
“Our other location has everything we need, but this new boathouse is on a whole ‘nother level,” Jadallah said. “The whole Gonzaga men’s and women’s teams are really thankful for the alumni and athletic department for giving us everything we need and more.”
Although the project is complete apart from some embellishments that will be added in the near future, there is still some fundraising needed to fully complete it.
The entire rowing team along with the coaches are ecstatic about the new boathouse, and are excited to settle in at the new location.
“It’s an outdoor sport,” Gehn said. “Having a home to come in and out of makes the athletes a lot more comfortable.”
At the end of the day, this new boathouse is more than just a fancy new building to row out of — it provides an opportunity to recruit more talented athletes in upcoming years and gives both teams the amenities to be better than they ever have in the past.
“A senior said it best,” Wortman said, “There’s nothing holding us back from being the best we’ve ever been.”