All Together Now

Teamwork, crew and community propel Casitas Rowing.

By Mark Storer

Photo by Hope Wilkinson

Members of the adult men’s master team test their mettle against the paddle.


he thrill of victory and the agony of defeat visited Lake Casitas in 1984. But the resounding echoes traveled down through the years when the women’s 8 rowing team earned the gold on this otherwise quiet fishing and recreation reservoir, home to campers, boaters, anglers and, of course, crew.

Casitas is the stuff of legend, too. Featured in a book called Assault on Lake Casitas, Brad Alan Lewis wrote about his overcoming extraordinary odds not just to win a gold medal 1984, but to challenge the Olympic system through innovative techniques he developed himself.

It is these bits of history on the water just above Ventura that called to Eric and Wendy Gillett, founders and coaches of the Lake Casitas Rowing Association whose members, varied in their abilities, work together to learn a specific skill set that builds muscles, health, character and, on occasion, obsession.

“Rowing is really an interesting combo,” said Wendy Gillett. “It’s the ultimate team sport where you have to pull your weight to make the team better. At the same time, you also have to be there in your seat doing your thing, asking yourself what you can do to make yourself better.”

The Gilletts met at Orange Coast College where Eric was on the rowing team when Wendy joined as a coxswain (the person at the front of the boat who calls out rhythm and pacing and keeps time). 

“I knew I was going to marry him the day I met him,” said Wendy. They’ve been together ever since. “It was one month into my freshman year and on our third date, he proposed,” said Wendy. “When you know, you know. He said he wanted to coach rowing when he grew up and I said I wanted to work with kids.”

The Gilletts made a decision that they would dedicate their lives to giving back to the sport that had given them so much: introducing them to each other, providing them with a shared passion, and even earning Eric a number of championships and medals. 

“We were living in Orange County and we knew it was too expensive to stay there,” said Wendy. “So we drove up the coast and we were driving through Ventura and had to stop for gas.” As they filled up the car, they pored over a map and Eric realized that Lake Casitas was just up nearby Highway 33. “He shouted, ‘I read that book! Assault on Lake Casitas,’ and got so excited,” she recalled.

In other words, they knew. They settled into Ventura to live what Wendy calls “a beach lifestyle,” and followed the call to create their own assault on the lake.

The Lake Casitas Rowing Association began in 2008 with nine members: six children and three adults. “It began to snowball so fast,” said Wendy, “that in two or three years, both of us stopped working. We couldn’t keep up.” Now, this “little tiny thing that we wanted to start” has become a 160-member, full-time vocation. 

“It’s the community that did this,” Wendy said. “People want to do this and they want to give back and share with others.” 

One quarter of the students who row are on scholarship at Casitas Rowing. The annual cost for a school year of rowing competition, including travel, transportation, race fees, etc., is around $3,400. Summer camps run around $150 a week for kids; adults can try a month of rowing for around $50.

Krysten Menks, 23, who now lives in Massachusetts and is working on a graduate degree, started rowing when she was a 14-year-old freshman at Ventura High School. 

“I was going to be on my high school basketball team,” said Menks. “But I had to leave for a summer when they were doing training before school started.” Menks said she was kicked off the team.

During a club exposition at school, Casitas Rowing had a booth and Menks met the Gilletts. “I went home and told my dad I was going to try it and he asked, ‘What’s rowing?’ ” But Menks said he dutifully took her to Lake Casitas that weekend and she took her first class. “I was horrible at it, but I loved it. I knew I was in the right place,” she said.

“There’s something about rowing where you’re working together,” said Menks. “Everyone has to work together. I know it sounds corny, but it really is the ultimate team sport. There’s no one star on the team.”

But the team allows for competitors to show their stuff, too. Menks was picked up on a full-ride scholarship to crew for University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She was injured in her freshman year and red-shirted, but the university allowed her a hardship waiver and she continued on for a total of five years at UMass.

“The whole team was just so welcoming here,” said Menks from her home in Massachusetts, where she recently married her partner of several years. “It was easier to make the transition knowing I had this group of people that was so great to me.” Menks earned two bachelor’s degrees, one in kinesiology and one in psychology.

Menks said that the Gilletts functioned as a second set of parents for her as she rowed her way through her high school years and on into a college scholarship. “It was just me and my dad, so Eric would pick me up and take me to practice, and Wendy was always there to talk to and really gave me so much. I could never repay them for it all,” she said. “I never imagined I could be where I was without Eric or Wendy or the master rowers that were there for me. They kept me on task, helped me reach higher goals.”

Don Tanhauser, 82, of Moorpark and a prostate-cancer survivor, started rowing at the age of 75. “I grew up in Wisconsin and rowed in a rowboat out on the lakes, did a lot of fishing,” he said. “So rowing brought back memories for me.”

Tanhauser said that when he started, he wasn’t nearly as physically active as he knew he needed to be. “I had a hurt back. I couldn’t lay flat on a bed or on the floor. I started rowing and my back got a lot better,” he said. He also lost 35 pounds and lowered his cholesterol level. He makes the trek from Moorpark up Highway 33 fairly regularly now. “I row three times a week, sometimes more.”

Tanhauser likes to row as a single, in what’s called sculling. “I can’t blame anyone else that way,” he said. “I like team rowing, too, though.”

But it’s the singles where he has really shined. Tanhauser began stacking up medals and awards for fastest times both with teams and as a single. He started using indoor rowing machines, called “ergs,” short for ergometer, and the Gilletts encouraged him to compete within the indoor rowing championship tournaments. “Three years ago, I competed in Long Beach and beat the qualifying time, eight minutes, 30 seconds, so I went to the championships in Boston and I won there.”

In fact, Tanhauser has won first place for the last three years running in Boston. “1,300 athletes show up in the morning and there were 43 of us who beat the qualifying time,” he said.

The list of stories goes on in many directions. The Gilletts didn’t just pursue a passion: They built a community around a love of rowing and invited everyone from all walks of life to join the team. “We wanted to start a nonprofit because we wanted to give back,” said Wendy. “We didn’t want it to be the Eric and Wendy Show. We wanted to create something that would last and be something that would continue after we’re gone.” With rowers on the water seven days a week, from middle-schoolers to octogenarians, surely there is room for more legends at Lake Casitas. 

Casitas Rowing


The junior men’s team practicing on a picturesque early morning on Lake Casitas.

The young and proud members of the juniors team.
Photos by Eric Gillett.


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