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Rowing the Mighty Mississippi

Olympic rower John Pritchard (left) and crew member Chris Gate row out from Hub’s Landing and Marina in Hastings on Monday morning to begin a nine-hour trek south toward Lake City. (Republican Eagle photos by Michael Brun)1 / 3
Blisters cover Pritchard’s fingers from the difficult journey that started Aug. 2 in north-central Minnesota. The team rows for 25 to 30 miles a day before taking a much-needed rest.2 / 3
The Richmond and Doreen — named after people Pritchard met in Ghana — sit docked Monday morning in Hastings. Each boat is more than 27 feet long and weighs 450 pounds. 3 / 3

HASTINGS — With the sun quickly heating the morning air, John Pritchard helped load supplies Monday into a pair of wooden Victorian skiffs docked at Hub’s Landing and Marina.

Joined by a team of crew members and supporters, the 56-year-old London native led the three-seat rowboats south past Red Wing as part of a 2,300-mile trek down the Mississippi River to raise money for a youth charity.

“I absolutely expected to be on my knees by now because this is a pretty relentless schedule of 25 to 30 miles a day,” Pritchard said Monday while preparing for another nine hours on the water. “I’m feeling tired and I don’t mind stopping, but I feel strong.”

Pritchard, an Olympic silver medalist and former Cambridge Blue rower, is the U.K. chairman of Right to Play, an international organization that uses sports programs to educate and empower children living in adverse environments.

His goal is to raise $1 million for the organization through the voyage dubbed the “Mississippi Million.”

Along with online donations, Pritchard also opened seats on the boats for each two-day rowing stage, giving donors the chance to participate in the historic attempt.

“I am inspired by John Pritchard’s passion and leadership of this exciting initiative for Right to Play,” said CEO and founder Johann Olav Koss in a statement. “No one has ever attempted to row the length of the mighty Mississippi and we look forward to cheering him on all the way to New Orleans.”

Pritchard said the stars of the journey have been the 27-foot-long skiffs, which were handcrafted in England with African mahogany and English oak at a price tag of $50,000 each.

“Everywhere we go, people just flock over to see them,” he said.

With more than 20 days completed so far, Pritchard said the group has faced its share of challenges, including last weekend’s humid weather and a few dead ends along the way.

“How people did this in the old days I simply have no idea,” he said. “We have GPS coming out of our ears, and even then we get lost.”

The physical exertion of rowing for hours on end also means participants have been struggling to eat as many high-calorie foods as possible.

“If I manage to continue eating between 5,000 and 6,000 calories a day, I will only lose another 40 pounds,” he said. “Butter is my friend.”

The group will continue south until reaching New Orleans around Oct. 25 — some 85 days after launching Aug. 2 from South Clearwater in north-central Minnesota.

Power of play Right to Play was founded on the idea that having fun is important for all children, regardless of where or into what conditions they were born.

“Through playing sports and games, we teach children essential life skills that will help them overcome the effects of poverty, conflict and disease so that they can create better futures and drive lasting social change in their communities and beyond,” according to the Right to Play website.

The organization started in the early 1990s after Koss, a Norwegian speed skater, travelled to Eritrea in the Horn of Africa as a humanitarian ambassador for a group called Olympic Aid. Koss spoke with a boy there who showed him how he fashioned a long-sleeved shirt into a makeshift ball.

The image carried with Koss to the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics, where he won three gold medals. Koss pledged the bonuses he received for the wins to Olympic Aid, while also calling on Norwegians to donate to the organization for every gold medal won by the country during the games.

All told, the initiative raised more than $18 million, the organization says. Koss used the funds to return to Eritrea with a shipment of sports equipment.

Olympic Aid became Right to Play in 2000, and continues to organize sports programs in more than 20 countries. It boasts an estimated 13,500 volunteer coaches and 600 international staff.

Touching journey Like Koss, Pritchard said he found inspiration through a personal connection with a child.

While on a recent trip to Ghana with his wife and 10-year-old son, Pritchard met Richmond, a boy with Down syndrome living in a school for the disabled.

Richmond was too small to play games with other children, but he took a liking to Pritchard and his digital camera. After running around and taking photos, Richmond returned the camera and gave Pritchard a 20-minute hug.

Later that night, as Pritchard hugged his son, he said it made him realize there was no one out there to hug Richmond at bedtime.

“It was at that point I decided to do this thing,” Pritchard explains on his website about the decision to row the Mississippi River for Right to Play. “I’m going to tell them that there is one small, beaming boy in the middle of Africa that has caused this extraordinary undertaking to happen.”

Pritchard named one of the skiffs Richmond in the boy’s honor, with the other named Doreen after a woman in Ghana who runs Right to Play programs.

Follow Pritchard and his team’s journey at

Michael Brun

Michael Brun joined RiverTown Multimedia at the Red Wing Republican Eagle in March 2013, covering county government, health and local events.  He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls journalism program.

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