RR Interview: The inspiration behind ‘The Rowing Podcast’, and the future of Olympic Sport in the US, with Matt Rung

Rung coaching with Washington at the IRA National Championships

IRA champion with Cornell Lightweights, and former First Assistant Coach and Recruiting Coordinator at Washington, Matt Rung has an impressive track record in rowing. But it wasn’t until recently that he decided to add podcasting to his resume. Earlier this year, Rung started The Rowing Podcast, which offers in-depth, personal conversations with rowing luminaries (Mike Spracklen, Jan Harville, Steve Gladstone, Dave O’Neill, to name a few). It’s both a salve for those in need of positive vibes, as well as a much needed call to action for the rowing community as a whole to tell our stories, and bring new people into the fold.

Matt and I caught up about the origins and development of the podcast, and how to develop a new narrative for the sport.

Bryan Kitch:

What were some of the reasons for starting the new podcast, and why did you decide to take up the aegis? Was it both a response to the Covid lockdown, and a coping mechanism? Or what was behind that?

Matt Rung:

I think that’s a really fair assessment actually [laughs]. I think it was a combination of things—actually, before the Covid response, I was visiting with Mike [Callahan], sometime around late fall, just watching some rowing, just to check it out and see how everyone was doing. I’d been throwing around the idea of a rowing podcast for a while. It occurred to me—well, there’s a handful out there, but for me personally, I’ve always enjoyed stories. When I was younger and just trying to get better at rowing, I used to listen to the older guys who had rowed before me, hearing about races they’d done, mistakes they had made, some of the just kind of funny, ‘talking shop’ kind of stories—I always felt like I learned something from hearing their stories, and that there was an opportunity to have a platform that focused on those types of discussions.

So, the idea had been kicking around in my head for a little while. I’d been asking folks, well, what would you think about that, etc. And then, when Covid hit, it was kind of like well, a couple things happened all at once. I didn’t think of it initially, when everyone got locked down, but as it went on I felt like anytime I was reading the news, I was reading something that I didn’t want to read. It was all pretty negative, people pointing fingers—nothing about folks coming together. And this isn’t rowing related [editor’s note: Well, technically, this is RowingRelated #jokes], but I imagined that being in that constant negative headspace puts you in a weird emotional state. So, for me, even though I had been out of rowing full time or professionally for a bit, I still checked Row2k, or Rowing News—and RowingRelated, you know, for sure [laughs]. And, there wasn’t really much happening at the time, since there was no racing, obviously, because the seasons had all been canceled.

So, I’m sitting here, not even in it—I’m not one of the people on the national team, or on a collegiate rowing team, and even I’m feeling the effects. I just imagined those folks who had their seasons canceled, or who just saw the Olympics that they’d been training for put on hiatus. And I knew they must be really feeling it. I felt like there was a need for something positive, and it needed to happen right now. We needed some sort of stories that would bring people together, or bring some sort of motivation, and if nothing else, just bring a smile to your face talking about rowing. I didn’t feel like too many people were cranking those kinds of stories out at the time (or now), so I thought, you know I’ll just do it. I can totally figure this out—I’ve done enough stuff similar to this at work, I bet I could put something together. And that was pretty much how it started—on a weekend I did some shopping around for a platform that would work for recordings, and different editing software, basically how you can do it for cheap [laughs] but still have a level of quality. I threw together some questionnaires and frankly, just started making calls to friends—it started with either [Chris] Kerber or Yaz [Farooq]. (I’ll have an episode for Yaz coming out soon—I just finished my interview with her.) But yeah I just started calling people, and got on LinkedIn and just started messaging every rower I could think of, whether they were a connection or not. So, I think the motivations were partly pre-Covid, but definitely accelerated by it. It’s kind of a funny thing, I know a lot of people have said, be it business plans or whatever, that a lot of things have been accelerated by the virus, and that definitely was the case with this. It was just kind of like, hey, if you’re ever going to do it, this is the moment to put it out there and help if you can.

Bryan Kitch:

Yeah it’s funny—when I first started this website, I think the first thing I did was go through and think all right, who do I know that is on the national team, and get a couple interviews in here to kind of establish things. (Shoutout to Ryan Monaghan and Silas Stafford—I think they were two of the first back in 2010.) But when you first started, you mentioned you searched for different platforms or tools—how has your process evolved since then and when did you first start to really feel you were getting some wind in your sails [editor’s note: With apologies to Dr. Carlson of course // destitutus ventis remos adhibe]?

Matt Rung:

In terms of the evolution of it, from a technical standpoint, not much has changed at all. I’m happy to just tell people—I use Buzzsprout, which is a few bucks a month, Audacity, which is free, and a program called Ringr, which allows you to do higher quality recordings over the phone. There are other programs out there too, but really, that’s all you need. It’s funny—at the beginning, my gym membership was like, I’m not sure, $100 per month, maybe? The gyms are all closed—I thought, well, how about I dump that membership and put that money toward this, creating these episodes for people who might find some value or inspiration in them. Still, it’s like anything—you do the first few of them, and you realize, oh, I really need to do a warm-up interview, have a questionnaire, etc. These are things that might seem obvious, but it takes doing it a few times to really know how to sort out the approach.

As far as the wind-in-the-sails moment—the one that stands out the most, and I can’t recall her name at the moment, but I received an out-of-the-blue email (I’d set up an email for people to get in touch with me about the podcast) from this total stranger in Germany, at a rowing club—it sounds like she might be postgrad or rowing at a club? Anyway, she wrote to say she really appreciated the podcast, and that her whole club was hooked on it, really enjoying it—I was like, wow, that is awesome. Totally unsolicited.

Bryan Kitch:

Yeah, that’s the best—especially coming from halfway across the world.

Matt Rung:

Oh yeah—and that’s the fun thing about the Buzzsprout platform, and I’m sure there are a lot of platforms for analytics etc, but it shows which countries and regions people are listening from, and that’s kind of fun. You look through and you’re like, Denmark, the UK, US, Guam—and I was like, Guam? [laughs]. I’ve also gotten some nice messages from a fellow in Hong Kong, there’s a guy in Australia, a couple of alumni—and it just feels like hey, if people are noticing and I’m not really asking them to email me, then it’s helping someone. People are enjoying it. So, every time I get one of those emails, it’s a little lift. It’s like hey, ok, I’ll go back and finish that edit.

Bryan Kitch:

I think also it speaks to the truly international nature of the sport—I remember, I was actually at a power or sport conference, where they were talking about rugby in this instance, but the guy was saying, ‘well, the great thing about rugby is that you can turn up anywhere in the world with your kit, and people want to meet up and invite you to play.’ I felt like, it’s totally the same thing in rowing—I was traveling with my family about a year and a half ago in New Zealand, and you just rock up to any rowing club, and everyone wants to welcome you, give you a tour of the boathouse, there’s that instant connection that you get. You could be in Germany—or to your point, you could be getting messages from Hong Kong, or Denmark, wherever.

Also, I know I’m kind of skipping ahead on the agenda but this isn’t a podcast so we can edit it later [laughs]. I think this ties to the idea of the Olympic Movement, and something I did want to talk to you about was, seeing the contraction of some of these athletics departments, and the response to a covid-related tightening of economics—these kinds of connections, and moments that we’re talking about, they’re so important, especially right now. And the Olympic Movement in general is such an important idea—as well as those opportunities for kids at the university level. What are some things that we can do, both internally in rowing, but also just positioning ourselves as a representative of the Olympic Community, to elevate rowing and Olympic Sport at universities?

Matt Rung:

Sure, well—I’ve been out of the collegiate athletics scene for a while and I can’t really comment on the financial aspects of all of it. I think some of it is obvious in terms of funding for athletics departments, etc., but I don’t think I’m the best person to answer anything around that. But what I probably could say is that I think—and not to say that we are not necessarily doing this now, but that it might highlight the importance of it all that much more, with Dartmouth, Stanford, and GW, and a handful of other programs—that telling the story is really critical. When it comes down to it, I think that the sport, people often say that, watching it, you can’t really detect the internal struggle and effort when it’s being done really well. And that’s true—it looks beautiful and flowing. But I think a lot of the effort and struggles are really hidden, by the very nature of the sport. So, I think any opportunity that we can create to bring people from the outside into that experience inside the boat is a significant service to the sport. A really good reference would be The Boys in the Boat—that’s just one example. The thing that it did really well was that it made [rowing] accessible. Obviously it’s a great story, very cool, awesome history behind the program and that boat, but the best part of it was that total strangers to rowing would show up at the [Conibear Shellhouse] just to see the Husky Clipper, which is still hanging in the boathouse. People would come into the boathouse and say, yeah we flew here to see it after reading the book, and I was just like, wow. They hadn’t even rowed! They just read the book and were so inspired by it that they wanted to come here and feel a part of that history. And that’s just one example of hey, if we can tell the story, and we can give it to a bigger audience, people are going to lean in, and connect with it. And it doesn’t have to be rowers—it can be other athletes or high performance teams, or it could be investors, just fans, who just see that it’s bigger than they thought it was.

Another example is A Most Beautiful Thing, which is really making some headway right now—it’s another great illustration of how life changing rowing can be. It wasn’t an Olympic boat, it was nothing like that—it was a group of friends from Chicago who found common ground through the sport. And look at the power of that. This is the good stuff—this is where we have to get these messages out. So, the podcast is one way of trying to help in that respect. There are simple ways to do this, to get these stories out there. There have got to be more ways like that to bring people in.

To give credit to Mike [Callahan] over at Washington, my sense was that he was always trying to think of ways to make [rowing] exciting for people. All the livestream stuff over Facebook live, or doing night sprints on the [Montlake] Cut, a lot of the underpinnings of that were to make it accessible to a wider audience. To be in the moment, be in the race, and see it from a different perspective. And yes, it helped recruiting and all of that, but folks who had never even rowed would come down to the Cut to check out night sprints, and hang out with some buddies and watch it. And it became kind of a community thing. There are so many opportunities out there—it’s almost like hey, let’s screw up and take some chances and see what we can do. For me, again, I’m not on a team, so I’m not in as much of a position necessarily to do something about it, I just get out a laptop and a homemade soundbox, and make a podcast go.

Bryan Kitch:

It sounds a lot more professional than what I do, but I’ll take your word for it.

Matt Rung:

[Laughs] It’s about $20 at Home Depot—I’ll show you exactly how to do it, it’s wonderful. But I’m sure there are a number of people out there sitting on ideas—this is the time. Just go for it. Whether it’s writing a blog, starting a small rowing club of your own—you’d be surprised how much you can do with very little. 

Rung at work on one of the Husky shells

Bryan Kitch:

A little while ago—maybe it was like a year ago now—Meghan O’Leary posted something about why she feels elite rowing will never be popular in the United States. And sort of decrying the lack of coverage of certain stories. For me, it was a mixed bag because I felt like I had spent a lot of years doing exactly that, but it’s true to an extent, too—it is going to take telling these stories more, and better, and making them more widely available, relatable to a bigger audience. The hard part about it is, it more or less has to be done on a volunteer basis unless you work for one of the major outlets like Rowing News, Row2k, or Row 360. But to your point, right now, there is an opportunity to get out there and tell these stories, and also make a difference for future generations, because if these sorts of opportunities start to dry up for kids at the university level, it’s going to have a hard time coming back.

So, the next thing I was going to ask you about—what are some things that we could latch onto that could serve as a North Star, or a way to bring the rowing community together along with the wider Olympic Sport community to help stress the importance of these opportunities and preserve them?

Matt Rung:

This is a little bit of a challenging one…

Bryan Kitch:

Well, I try to ask the hard questions, Matt. [Laughs]

Matt Rung:

[Laughs] Ha yes, true—otherwise what’s the point! I guess, having been in the sport, when I started rowing, I started rowing at a club called West Side Rowing Club. And, probably, in a number of ways, even though I didn’t see it at the time, it was seen as exclusive to a degree. But I remember West Side for the brick walls, the rusted pullup bars, the smell of the place—that was actually what I loved about the place. When you strip it down, it was just about working really hard. It was a place you could come together with your teammates, and completely let loose—I know as a younger guy, getting to jump in a boat or on the erg, and just go ballistic and put as much effort into something as I possibly could for like an hour, two hours, three hours, that was really attractive at that time. So, that was my perspective on it—but I would say that, from the outside, rowing is still very misunderstood. What I mean by that is that it’s kind of obscure, in the sense that it’s often at a boathouse that is not necessarily anywhere near anything, out on some distant lake. You might hear about it, but not really see it. There’s t this natural buffer that could be acting as a barrier. And on top of this, I’m sure that the majority of the [US] population still views it as an elitist sport—I mean, The Social Network had that scene with the Winklevoss Twins at Henley [Royal Regatta], and that whole scene kind of sums it up. It’s got all the pomp and circumstance of Henley—and don’t get me wrong, I love Henley—but from the outside, that’s something others might look at that and think, well, that’s something I can’t be a part of. Maybe it’s founded in some sort of ethic that is exclusive and there’s no place for me, etc. Now, I don’t believe that is the case, but I can see how it might be viewed that way.

So, I think in terms of the Olympics, it’s important to band together around (and I feel like I’m writing a manifesto, but that’s not what I mean) that story and make sure to keep pushing accessibility as a priority. And I’m not saying people aren’t doing that already. But if you’ve got someone coming from a background where they’ve’ve never had any exposure to rowing, then their first impression should be that it’s about training really hard and coming together with others, putting differences aside and making the boat go. Those common themes are really well known within the sport (we hear it all the time, it’s kind of like rowing gospel), but conveying that—the intensity, the commitment, and the fun of it is critical. That’s another thing, too—it’s not just about pain or that it’s just a bunch of crazy people, it’s really fun. It’s really fun to make a boat go fast. It’s elevating. So, anything that helps accessibility, that helps folks who aren’t in rowing see it for those genuine, universal, great things that it represents—you’ll get people on board. Thinking about the next Olympics, and how to get people excited, a big component could be digging in and telling the stories behind the boat speed.. That’s one of the things that excites me about A Most Beautiful Thing—people are going to see that, and they’re going to see rowing really differently. I thought it was just prep schools, universities—no, it’s not. This was a Chicago city crew. So, anything that continues to highlight those deeper, personal elements of the sport is going to be beneficial.

I forget who said it—Al Rosenberg maybe. He was asked about how to be a better coach, and what he said was to make sure that you speak to people outside of your sport. That always stuck with me. Make sure you don’t get too stuck inside your own bubble. You’ve been around the same people, same ideas—even if you’re not actively trying to be this way, it’s easy to get stuck in a pattern. Go speak to the football coaches, the cycling coaches. Get outside of sport, and go see how a different business runs, get that kind of exposure.

Bryan Kitch:

That’s what binds people together so much about the sport. I remember my novice meeting at UCLA—I wanted to play a sport where I was wearing the university crest, not intramurals. The coach said at the meeting that ‘in this room are some of your lifelong friends that you haven’t met yet.’ That always stuck with me. Rowing people are the kind of people who show up and work hard together. Who know what it means to lay it all on the line for their teammates. Who are willing to take on things that they think they can’t do, just to see if they can prove themselves wrong. And over and over again, rowing proves to you that you can do more than you thought you could.

Also, thinking about the fun part of it—one of my favorite rowing quotes ever is the Jake Wetzel, ‘it doesn’t have to be fun to be fun.’

Matt Rung:

[Laughs] That’s a good quote, I like that.

Thanks very much to Matt for the interview! Photos courtesy of Matt Rung. 

You can check out his podcast wherever you listen to, well, podcasts (here’s the link on Stitcher). Also, we’re looking for more stories that help support the sport of rowing and Olympic Sport at this time—let’s connect on ideas for how to share the best of rowing with as wide a community as possible, and preserve as many opportunities to compete as we can. You can reach us at rowingrelated [at] gmail [dot] com.

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