After discovering she had three herniated disks at age 27, University of Michigan alum Helaine Knapp was determined to find an effective, low-impact workout. Her doctor suggested rowing, but she said she initially associated rowing with the untouched machine at the gym or in her grandfather’s basement. Knapp decided to challenge this stigma.

Now, following the success of its first two studios in Manhattan, CITYROW – a rowing fitness boutique founded by Knapp – will open its third location in Ann Arbor at 401 E. Liberty this spring.

“I was really frustrated and kind of kept going back to the rowing thing like, ‘Is there any way to make this sexy and cool and chic and available for everyone?’” Knapp said. “And so that was sort of the impetus behind CITYROW, because I knew there had to be a better and smarter way to work out.”

Knapp and John Rotche, another University alum, partnered together to franchise the business and create its newest location. Referred to Rotche by a mutual friend, Knapp said her uneasiness toward franchising was immediately relieved after a phone conversation with Rotche.

“I didn’t know anything about franchising — I just thought of McDonald’s or Subway,” Knapp said. “I talked to John Rotche, and by the end of the phone call I was hooked, because the way he talked about franchising was this luxury, rich experience and taking care of people who are investing in your brand.”

After consulting with trainers and former rowers, Knapp and her team members developed a high-intensity interval workout for rowing and strength training.

“There’s a microphone, there’s kick-ass music, and they’re going to lead you back and forth on the machine and the mat, doing a combination of workouts,” Knapp said. “We also teach everybody how to row in every single class.”

Though Rotche said he was not expecting much to come from his first phone call with Knapp, he was instantly hooked by her ideas and conviction.

“What she was able to do is she took the old rowing concept and (it) was reborn in a very cool and trendy way,” Rotche said. “I fell in love with the branding. I loved the simplicity — I love that it’s so focused on one thing.”

Prior to her injury, Knapp had no interest in rowing. While fitness experts have known the immense benefits of rowing for quite some time, rowing is just beginning to gain mainstream popularity. LSA sophomore Lilia Duncan had never rowed before arriving to college, but last year she tried out and walked on the women’s rowing team.

“I think that rowing provides a training plan like no other,” Duncan said. “I think that if you’re really looking to get your whole body in shape and your whole body toned up, it’s a great workout.”  

Though busy with the rowing team herself, Duncan said she knows many of her peers are always searching for trendy, effective ways to work out.

“I know people are constantly looking for new ways for fitness like SoulCycle, like so many people are into that,” Duncan said. “I guess it’s cool because going to the gym over and over again kind of gets boring, and having a little twist to try something where it could actually be applicable to going in a boat and actually doing it – I think that’s a cool experience.”

After decades of experience in franchising, Rotche founded Franworth, a franchise development company based in downtown Ann Arbor. Franworth partners with emerging brands, such as TITLE Boxing Club and Sweetwaters Coffee & Tea, to combine their franchising expertise with the brands’ knowledge of their products.

“Helaine knows how to run a boutique, high-end, trendy, cutting-edge, cool, vibrant boutique fitness out of New York,” Rotche said. “But does she know how to expand it globally in the franchise space? She doesn’t have that experience, nor do I have the experience of running a rowing boutique.”During her undergraduate career, Knapp struggled to find a fun place to work out and de-stress with friends. After moving to New York after graduation, Knapp “fell in love with boutique fitness,” and said she hopes to bring this joy to the Ann Arbor community.

“I’m very excited because I would have loved this on campus,” Knapp said. “I would have loved a place that could be a community of like-minded people that were doing something that’s good for our bodies — and our minds.”

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