When John and Hannah Huppi met in 2007, they had three things in common: They were both from Washington — Hannah from Washington state and John from Washington, D.C. — they were both freshmen at Tulane University, and they both had an interest, but no experience, in rowing.
Ten years later, the Huppis are a young married couple who, having just competed in the World Rowing Championships in Slovenia last month — where they came in fifth — are continuing their daily mission to spur the popularity of rowing in the Crescent City.
“In 2014, when I took over the New Orleans Rowing Club, we had four boats and six members,” John Huppi said. “We now have 20 boats and over 55 members.”
Drawing members from as far away as Mandeville, Slidell and Baton Rouge, the New Orleans Rowing Club can be found skimming along Bayou St. John at 6 a.m. every Tuesday and Thursday and 8 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. The nonprofit organization invites men and women of all ages to enjoy what John refers to as one of the rare “lifelong sports.”
“Rowing is something you can pick up in high school and continue to do into your 70s and 80s,” he said. “It’s unique in that it’s both an endurance and power sport that is also low-impact. We have a lot of people that are drawn to it as a good way to get their exercise in even with things like knee or back injuries. Plus, you get to be outside and on the water. It’s so calming, so peaceful.”
John was drawn to the sport after years of playing baseball left him with a back injury. Hannah was previously a distance runner. By their junior years at Tulane, John was captain of the men’s team, and Hannah was captain of the women’s team.
Dedicated to the sport that gave them so much, including each other, the Huppis started thinking in 2015 about the future — both their own and the future of the sport in their adopted city. It was just a year after taking over command of the New Orleans Rowing Club that the couple decided to start the first high school rowing team in New Orleans.
“It had been something we’d thought about for a while,” John said. “We’ve really put down roots in New Orleans. This is our home, so we thought if we ever want to have kids, well, we’d want them to have a good team to get involved in, so we created one.”
John, now a professor of real estate at Tulane University, and Hannah, vice president of a real estate photography business called IMOTO Photo, now serve as head coach and first assistant head coach of the New Orleans Rowing Club’s High School Rowing program, which offers a learn-to-row program, along with spring, summer and fall competitive rowing programs. The program is open to any area teen age 13 to 18.
“The program is really attractive to students who are looking for a team environment and also may be looking to improve their chances when it comes to college admission and scholarships,” John said. “There are some great opportunities for rowing scholarships out there, and rowing is popular for both men and women at most prestigious schools.”
The Huppis head up the high school team every Tuesday and Thursday on Bayou St. John from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. and again on Saturdays from 8:30 a.m. to 10 a.m. The club has 12 members.
The hope is to instill a lifelong love of the sport in rowers who may find themselves at the New Orleans Rowing Club after college, itching to compete again, just like the Huppis did.
“Hannah and I married last year, and while we were planning the wedding, we decided that we really wanted to go to Europe, and we really wanted to get back into competition shape, so we set our sights on two big goals: the national championships in Tennessee this past August and the world championships in Slovenia this past September,” John said. “We started training really hard, and we took gold at nationals.”
At that point, John and Hannah were curious to see how they stacked up against athletes from around the world.
“We rowed in the mixed double group for the A age category — ages 27 to 35 — and came in fifth. It was incredible,” John said. “We were in this picturesque little mountain resort in Bled, Slovenia, rowing on Lake Bled. The lake has this island in the middle of it with this huge castlelike cathedral, and in the background were the Slovenian Alps. There we were, rowing with 250 other U.S. athletes along with competitors from all over the world.”
Still high off their European adventure, the Huppis are gearing up for the next competition — in November, 24 members of the New Orleans Rowing Club will be competing in a race in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
“There are large rowing communities in Florida, Tennessee and Texas,” said John Huppi. Louisiana, not so much, but the Huppis are working on that.
“The plan is absolutely to make it to the world championships again next year,” said John Huppi. “How could we not when it’s going to be right in our backyard — Sarasota, Florida?”