Boys and girls from a mix of ethnic backgrounds were given the rare opportunity to pull back an oar and execute a stroke.
Some loved it, some not so much, but it was a start – and how badly rowing needs it.
Rowing found itself on the naughty step this summer, the misbehaving pupil of Britain’s Olympic classroom; the best-funded sport producing just two medallists at the summer Olympics in Tokyo, in contrast to the urban uprising of sports like BMX and skateboarding.
If rowing is to undergo a revival and reclaim its place at the front of the Olympic class, then it needs its top end to perform just as much as it needs children like the 17 in Leeds to come back and try again.
One man putting as much effort into attracting a new and diverse generation into the sport as he did into rowing in the four-man and eight-man boats over a 15-year career, is Andrew Triggs Hodge, the three-time Olympic champion who grew up in Hebden, Wharfedale.
Earlier this year, Hodge took on the role of director of corporate engagement with London Youth Rowing, which in partnership with Henley Royal Regatta Charitable Trust (HRRCT), took its Active Row programme out of the capital for the first time this week, choosing Leeds as the area to grow.
Building on the work previously done by RowLeeds, Active Row Yorkshire manages the community engagement portion of the existing programme and works with Leeds Rowing Club to provide access to on-water rowing.
The programme is set to provide indoor rowing machines and coaching support in at least 17 secondary schools across Leeds and aims to target at least 500 young people within the first two years.
Within three years they want to be working with up to 30 schools in the area.
“It’s ironic to see the amount of development going on at grass roots, the work the clubs are doing, London Youth Rowing, the support we’re getting from Henley Charitable Trust and the boat race, and to then see British Rowing struggling so much,” says Hodge, a man clearly hurt at seeing his sport suffer this summer.
“It’s a tough journey for them, but they can be proud and happy about what’s happening at grass roots level and hopefully that shows there can be a brighter future for the sport.
“The athletes they’ve got are fantastic, the team is physically stronger than it’s ever been, they’ve got everything there to win gold medals.
“But this is now an enforced period of transition, they just need to learn – like the system did 40 years ago when it transitioned from being a non-performing sport to a high-performance sport – they have to learn that all over again.
“One thing they can rest easy on is that charities like London Youth Rowing and a few others round the country are forging ahead, opening the sport up to a whole new generation, whole new communities and helping to transform the sport at grassroots level, which we’re proud to do.
“There’s already some cool stories coming out about young people getting involved, it’s just a journey and it happens to all sports. We’ll keep doing our bit and hopefully rowing will claim its position as a gold-medal sport in this country.
“But if we don’t have that pinnacle of the sport performing, especially when they’re capable, then we’re not demonstrating the full journey of the sport.
“It’s been too long that the bottom of the pyramid hasn’t been in place, and we’re just learning to correct that. The revival of rowing is possible, we just all need to do our bit.”
Hodge witnessed one of those ‘cool’ stories in Leeds on Thursday. “One kid who had the better scores had a bit of swagger towards the end,” laughs Hodge, “but already we see we need to get him involved in a more ambitious programme to keep him invested in it and then he can get more out of it.
“This is about giving kids more than just rowing, it’s about life skills.
“I believe rowing delivers on life skills a lot better than other sports; they can then take that teamwork into the classroom. If it’s a project at school you’ll be working in teams; if it’s work, you’ll be in teams, so them being able to see that and work that through from having a lot of fun on a rowing machine can help them do a better job in school.
“A lot of the kids were really giving it their all. You give them a bit of feedback and you see the smile on their face, and that’s what it’s all about for me.”
The pathway beyond the indoor rowing machine is time in a boat on Roundhay Lake with Leeds Rowing Club.
“Rebecca Clephan coaches the project across Yorkshire,” continues Hodge. “With the Active Row project, Leeds Rowing Club and GB start-up in Leeds, it’s really exciting to see how rowing in Leeds is going to be transformed over the next five, 10 years.
“Arguably it could be one of the biggest rowing centres outside of the Thames Valley. There’s investment going in, a performance pathway and you’ve got London Youth Rowing at the bottom of the pyramid introducing rowing to hundreds of kids.”
Clephan said: “Active Row is all about getting kids who are inactive into sport. We’re looking for kids who may not have found their sport yet and want to try something new.
“We’re also awant to change rowing into a truly inclusive sport for absolutely anyone who wants to have a go.”