Sarah White, 27, and Ryan Dillon, 28, met in a yoga class at Oregon State University.

Members of the OSU crew team, they loved rowing — and eventually fell in love with each other.

When they wed in the fall of 2009, they did not have the typical bridal registry. Instead, they asked all their friends and family to make a donation to the rowing program’s $2.5 million Boathouse Project. They included an insert in their wedding announcement and a letter on their wedding Web site.

“Ryan and I have done pretty well acquiring stuff without help,” the insert read. “Therefore we’ve decided to use this opportunity to give back. Collectively there’s nothing that has meant more to Ryan and I than the thing that brought us together in the first place — Beaver rowing! Please consider contributing what you would have spent on a gift to the OSU Boathouse Project, or if you feel inspired please consider giving more.”

They raised $5,000.

“My lasting friendships were student-athletes, mostly rowers,” Sarah Dillon said.

“(Rowing) taught me all of the life lessons on a personal level,” Ryan said. “It really helped me get through school. Guidance from some of the coaches and teammates all really contributed to my success in school.”

It’s a historic program, one of the oldest in the Pac-10. Started as a rowing club in 1926, the men’s team had a varsity program in the late 1960s, followed by the women in the 1970s, according to men’s coach Steve Todd.

“Rowing is considered an elite sport,” Sarah said. At OSU, the program offers a unique opportunity to compete with no prior experience.

At 6-foot-4, Ryan was an accomplished athlete at tiny Waldport High, but he didn’t expect to participate in collegiate athletics.

“You can get walk-ons to compete at a Division I school,” Ryan said. “It’s kind of unique in the rowing world, too.”

Ryan rowed from 2000 to 2003, including three years in the varsity-8 boat. Sarah rowed from 2002 through 2005. Ryan’s roommate, Joey Hanson, won a gold medal at the 2004 Olympics in Athens in a men’s eight. His teammate, Josh Iman, won a bronze in the men’s eight at the Beijing Olympics.

While OSU has fielded nationally competitive teams and Olympic rowers, the team is challenged by ancient facilities. On the east bank of the Willamette River, the team’s training facility is housed in a rickety barn built in 1907.

The first phase of the Boathouse Project aims to raise $1.3 million to rebuild the workout area and men’s and women’s locker rooms. After two years, the campaign has garnered $587,743, said Doug Wright, regional director of development at OSU. The second phase has a goal of $1.2 million that will be dedicated to building a new boathouse.

“OSU needs a new boathouse because our current facilities are outdated and verging on unsafe,” said Emily Ford, coach of the women’s varsity team. “The rowing teams are part of the most competitive rowing conference in the country, and these upgrades will help us to continue to attract top athletes to our programs.”

“The three programs that are similar to OSU — Washington, California and Stanford — all have significantly better funding than Oregon State. And that’s our competition. Washington just built a $12 million boathouse. That’s our competition,” Sarah said. “What we’re trying to do is relatively modest.”

Modest and meaningful.

“We wanted to remember (our wedding gift) as a meaningful gift,” she said. “Being part of something greater than just yourself. What you’re doing is making a contribution.”

“I was deeply touched by Sarah and Ryan’s gesture,” Ford said. “They set a great example of how our young alums can get creative in order to donate to the project. Many people have been impressed with them.”

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