TAMPA — Eric Lamontagne played all sorts of sports — football, baseball and basketball — but it wasn't until he went off to college in Deland that he found his true calling.
"I started rowing and was immediately hooked," said the 25-year-old coach of the Tampa Athletic Club's rowing program. "If you are looking for a total body workout, nothing else compares."
Rowing, or "crew" as it is sometimes called, has a strong following in the northeast U.S. and among Ivy League schools. Tampa has long had its own rowing scene, thanks to the sheltered waters of the Hillsborough River.
Competitive rowers, straining in their sleek, tippy boats, are a common sight on the river near the University of Tampa. The seawalls protecting the urban center are covered with names and insignias of college crews that come to race every year.
The eight-oared shell, used in major collegiate and Olympic competitions, maybe the most familiar type. World-class eight-person teams usually can cover a 2,000-meter course in five minutes. These boats are called "sweeps," and each crew member uses just one oar.
An accomplished individual sculler, a rower who uses two oars, can cover the same distance in about seven minutes. When you watch the boats whiz by from the shoreline, rowing can look effortless.
But top individual scullers will stroke 32 to 34 times per minute. Jump in with an eight-person crew, and the number will go up to 48 strokes per minute.
"In a typical race, you will expend as much energy as you would if you played two, back-to-back basketball games," Lamontagne said. "And contrary to what most people believe, most of it is in your legs, not your upper body."
Lamontagne rowed for Stetson University and then kept at it in law school. Now, degree in hand, he has chosen to coach, both with the Athletic Club and at nearby Plant High School, rather than practice law.
"I am loving what I am doing," he said. "This is where I want to be."
Last weekend, Lamontagne and members of the Tampa Athletic Club team held a free Learn to Row clinic on the Palm River, east of downtown Tampa.
Though master's rowing groups have been plying the Hillsborough River for years, the Tampa Athletic Club is a relatively new development, started in 2011 by a few enthusiasts who wanted to provide an outlet for newcomers to get into the sport.
Suzanne Marks, treasurer of the club, says she started rowing about 3½ years ago, inspired by a friend. She quickly fell in love with the sport, which provided the only kind of cardio workout she has ever enjoyed.
She confirms that the sport requires more leg strength than anything else, and also is a great core workout.
"It wraps everything into one exercise session. You get cardio and flexibility and resistance training, with the added benefit of it being a social activity,'' said Marks, 51. "We have this gorgeous river, and such a beautiful location.''
For the last few months, the group has been working on getting the word out to people looking for a workout that's challenging, but within reach for a wide range of ages and fitness levels.
Despite the cold, windy weather, last weekend's learn-to-row clinic was a hit, with 13 people turning up to learn the skills behind what Marks calls the ultimate team sport.
In fact, she said, the biggest surprise for newbies may be how integral everybody in the boat is to how it sets in the water and how smoothly it moves.
"If it's wobbling, you can't blame any one person. You have to be exactly in time with each other,'' she said.
For people new to the sport, the club will schedule another weekend-long introductory event. Once you've got the hang of it, you can join the group for regular morning, evening and/or Saturday workouts.
"When I'm done with a workout, I'm not sore, I just feel good,'' said Marks, who enjoys morning rowing sessions before starting her workday as a property manager.
John Lewis, a 47-year-old marathoner from Temple Terrace recovering from a running injury, came out to the introductory session, tried it and decided that rowing would be an ideal form of cross training.
"I was really surprised," he said. "I went out thinking it would be all arms, shoulders and chest, but if you do it the right way, it is a great workout for the legs."
Lamontagne said the sport is ideal for weekend warriors trying to overcome injury, or somebody who is trying to find an alternative to swimming, biking, or any of the other more traditional fitness activities. It's a sport that appeals to both men and women — most of the Tampa Athletic Club's 20-some members are women — and can accommodate different levels of fitness.
"It is low impact," he added. "It is a great way to improve cardiovascular fitness.''
And as you get more fit, it's a sport that keeps up with you, he said.
"You will get out of it what you put into it."
"It is a sport for everybody," Lamontagne added. "We have everybody from doctors and lawyers to the neighborhood pizza guy coming out. On the water, everybody is equal."
Times staff writer Charlotte Sutton contributed to this report. Terry Tomalin can be reached at [email protected]