Rowing News (December 2005)

Diversity at the Dock

Rowing News (December 2005)

From humble beginnings, a few young rowers brought the traditionally white, upper-class sport to a diverse group of inner-city high school girls in the form of Row New York. This isn't your typical New England prep-school squad, but two years later, 100 percent of their seniors went on to college.

By Kate Siber

"Look at these muscles!" bellows Shari, 16, at her tall, dark-haired boyfriend, as she flexes with one arm and grapples with the other for the railing of the 7 train, quivering as it races through Queens, New York.

"Have you ever been in a race?" demands Emily, 17, hands on hips, head cocked, of another teenage boy. The male duo is looking a little helpless, as the girls happily boast about their newly chosen after-school sport: rowing. Outside, the dark forms of projects and empty warehouses quietly loom as the train whizzes past and evening arrives. The interior of the subway car, however, is a much louder affair, as it is overtaken with the voices of exuberant teenage girls, homeward bound after a two-hour crew practice on Queens' Meadow Lake.

This isn't your typical New England prep-school squad. This is Row New York, the nonprofit brainchild of a former UMass crew captain and one of the city's few high-school rowing teams. The program combines one or two days of academic instruction, including SAT tutelage and college admissions guidance, with four or five days of rowing and land-based training, in the hope of improving underprivileged high-school girls' athletic and academic abilities—and their chances of going to college. The underlying philosophy is to bolster the participants' self-esteem, but the program is far from condescending or coddling.

"We're done babying you," says head coach Previn Chandraratna in his getting-down-to-business voice before a Friday afternoon practice in mid-September. A group of girls, standing around the program's six boats in their workout clothes—basketball shorts with track-grease stains, spaghetti-strapped camisoles or baby T-shirts, Converse All Stars or Pumas—listen intently. "We're done with telling you 'this is how you do it, this is how you do it.' If you aren't doing it now, someone else will." In a program as intimate as Row New York, Chandraratna, 29, assumes many roles: no-bullshit coach, academic tutor, and sympathetic older brother.

He reads the line-ups of two fours—this is early season and the new recruits haven't joined yet—and orders them out on the water. The sky is opaque with cloud cover and the humidity indicates imminent rain. The girls crack only a few jokes before laying hold and maneuvering the boat sideways, avoiding the opposite wall, out of the boathouse's tiny doorway.

"You do what you've got to do," says assistant coach and academic director Anna Brock, watching the riggers barely clear the doorway. "That's kind of the motto of our program: You do what you've got to do." If that means inching a boat sideways through a cramped door originally designed for sailboats, so be it. If it means that most of the rowers don't know how to swim and the program must hold intensive swim classes, so be it. If it means that the coaches must speak with over 1,000 girls at seven different schools to attract less than 50 to the fall tryouts, so be it.

Meadow Lake is located almost at the end of the 7 train's line in Queens. Sandwiched between the Long Island Expressway, the Van Wyck Expressway, and the Grand Central Parkway, it lies directly under the path of hundreds of planes using two of the country's busiest airports, John F. Kennedy and LaGuardia. But it is surrounded by pleasant Flushing Meadows Corona Park, where middle-aged men and little leaguers meet in the evening to play softball or baseball, families push strollers and trail toddlers, and there always seems to be an ice cream truck, with its tinkling jingle, lingering in a parking lot.

On this certain Friday, the doings of the park and the encroaching highways disappear as the two fours race six times, back and forth, on their 1,200-meter stretch of lake, switching seats and battling for spots in the varsity eight. One four becomes rushed and loses only for the other to fly and die on the next piece. One wins by a landslide only for the other to win by a few seats the next time around. Coxswains yell and count, lose their points then regain them. There are devastating victories followed by finishes too close to be definitive. This is what any high school program could be doing on a humid early-fall day. Sobered and exhausted, the boats come in to the dock one at a time.

Washing the boats on the dock, the girls are again bubbly and high-spirited. When Chandraratna kneels down on all fours and rolls and arches his back to demonstrate the suggestive "cat" yoga stretch, all sixteen girls erupt in giggles. From then on, they chatter, sing, fondly make fun of each other, and, on the subway, flex their muscles for the other passengers until each gets off at her respective stop. "Bye! Bye! Bye!" the remaining girls yell as the doors close and they speed away to their far-flung homes.

As teenage girls, they're not unsimilar to their counterparts at Exeter, St. Paul's or Community Rowing. They look forward to overnights before regattas and sing Madonna songs at the top of their lungs in the vans on the long drives. They gossip together. They show up to practice every day, they take erg tests, they get nervous before races. They fret over school, friends, boys, crew.

"I think certain challenges are universal, as a teenager," says founder and executive director Amanda Kraus. "And some of them obviously aren't." Many of the girls have to contribute to their family's income or take care of younger siblings. Some travel more than an hour on the subway to get home every night from the depths of Queens. Other girls attend rough or unsupportive public high schools, where it's easy to fall through the cracks. Many girls' fathers and mothers are missing. About a quarter of their fathers and less than a quarter of their mothers graduated from college, so many will be the first in their families to go to university.

"These girls continue to inspire me," says Kraus. "I know some of the things they go through at home and they still manage to make a commitment to the program and to each other. It's some heavy stuff and not stuff a 15-year-old should have on her plate."

Row New York is black, white, Hispanic, West Indian, Haitian, Cuban and Native American. More than a quarter of the girls weren't born in the United States and nearly two thirds of their parents were born elsewhere—in Chile, China, Jamaica, Ecuador, Brazil and England, to name a few. But at crew practice, once the book bags are dropped and the Catholic-school uniforms and street clothes are swapped for gym shorts and sneakers, backgrounds cease to exist.

"They deal with huge family responsibilities, financial crises," says Chandraratna. "We've seen everything from issues involving teenage pregnancy and abuse to one girl's friend murdering someone. On the other hand, they're really no different than any other crew I've ever coached. You know, people are people and they're tough. Between the hours of four and six o'clock, it's just rowing."

Chandraratna, who coached Columbia's freshmen heavyweight men for four years after a two-year stint at Community Rowing in Massachusetts, says that the girls are easily as invested as college novices, even though their bodies haven't had time to develop all of their strength. At home, they chat online about rowing and scan Row2k for information on regattas and results.

"At races, we've had dock masters say that they've never seen girls who are so enthusiastic," says Kraus. Kraus, 31, worked at G-Row in Boston, a nonprofit rowing program for public school students, before she decided to open a similar program in her hometown, New York. Having rowed at University of Massachusetts, she wanted to share the experience with people who might not otherwise have the opportunity. Not only could it help build girls' motivation and self-esteem, she believed it could help them get into college. Kraus didn't have any equipment, any money or any idea how much work it would be. Her first step in 2003 was to put $5 into an account at Chase, which she called a non-profit, or at least a start.

After the first tiny pilot programs in the spring and summer of 2003, Kraus hired Coach Chandraratna and they agreed on their goal, in terms of rowing: make the team competitive. Though the infant program would face certain anomalous challenges—like the fact that many of the recruits were unaccustomed to and frightened of water—they wouldn't compromise athletic standards.

"When we started the program, we said don't lower the bar," says Kraus. "We thought it would be insulting to lower the bar. It's not that we look to win every single race, but to head in that direction. The girls thrive on that. They have great pride in what they do." And, though socioeconomic level and race are moot when they're on the water, Kraus sees being competitive as part of an important point: to proudly represent themselves as minorities in a world historically dominated by the white and wealthy.

"The sport of rowing really is blind to race or class or demographics," says Kraus. "As in all sports, it's about how hard you're willing to work and how much you can work together." At a race in Philadelphia this year, Kraus caught a few of the girls counting something. When asked what they were counting, they replied, "black people!" They weren't sure if they had counted three or four, including themselves. Though it was somewhat of a joke, it hit upon a less humorous truth.

"We're not trying to hide anything with them," says Kraus. "We'll jump in with them when they say, what's up with this being such a white man's sport? We tell them they are single-handedly diversifying the sport. I think that they like that we see them as role models for the next generation of rowers. It's a delicate balance—you want them to fit in and be appreciated as athletes and not just 'that group from New York City.' At the same time, you can't pretend the differences don't exist."

So far, there really are no differences, in terms of willingness to perform. In their first spring of racing in 2004, the novice eight won the Long Island Sprints, the Bay Shore Invitational, and dual races against Pelham and Cold Spring Harbor. They also made the finals in Northeast Regionals in both 2004 and 2005. This year, they'll compete in the Head of the Charles for the first time.

In two years, Row New York has grown from a single $10,000 grant to a $250,000-a-year non-profit with three full-time staff members, as many as three part-time staffers, and over forty 13- to 18-year-old participants. Last year, all 11 graduating seniors went off to college, to institutions like NYU, Syracuse, and Ithaca College. Though Kraus started the program with the relatively straightforward philosophy that rowing could teach participants the virtues of commitment, teamwork, and challenging oneself—and therefore improving other parts of their lives—the program has ended up accomplishing much more than that. With weekly academic and SAT tutoring, college admissions guidance for the seniors, and the almost family-like supportive atmosphere of the program, Row New York is accomplishing an even greater goal: realizing potential. Those students who might have dropped out of high school are graduating. Those who never thought they'd go to college are going to college. Those who thought they'd go to a local community college are going to top-tier universities.

Perhaps it's due to the fact that rowing teaches lessons that are useful throughout life. It may also be that Row New York goes beyond athletic competition. In addition to training and academic work, occasionally Row New York's organizers will host guest speakers, like Olympians Chris Aherns, who rowed a practice with the team, and Ali Cox. An orthopedic surgeon came in to talk about careers, a nutritionist spoke about athlete diets, and a Rutgers rowing coach answered questions about recruiting. Through the program, groups of upperclassmen have visited colleges like Columbia, Hofstra, Boston University, Northeastern, and University of Connecticut. If they weren't rowing, they'd be working or studying, doing activities involved in their church, hanging out with friends, or joining other teams. But most will testify that participating in Row New York has helped them perform better in school and be more organized, motivated, and goal-oriented, especially in comparison to many of their peers.

"Rowing is about learning teamwork, character, finding your limits and learning how to deal with failure," says Olympian Chris Aherns, a member of Row New York's board of directors. "This isn't about creating national team rowers, though I imagine if the group continues, there will be one of two people who reach that level. It's about rowing at its best, when people are enjoying themselves. Rowers pull a lot of lessons out of rowing that they use later in life." There are also unique opportunities in an unprofessionalized sport like rowing, says Aherns. A girl getting a college scholarship through rowing or even having a better chance in admissions because of her commitment to the sport are far better than in more ubiquitous sports like basketball.

Even in a sport as ultimately team-oriented as rowing, Row New York is all about cultivating the individual. These girls certainly have individuality—and they don't hold back from vocalizing it. They are more sure than most teenagers about their interests and what they would like to do with their lives, even though they have different reasons for joining crew. Participants join to try something new, to be active, to be unique, to meet friends, to help prepare for college, or sometimes because they were inspired watching Olympic rowing on television. For a sophomore named Tania, it was in her heritage—she and her older sister Carol are from the rowing center of Valdivia, Chile—and she wanted to lose weight.

"My mom said, you know, you don't look so nice, you gotta lose some weight," she says at a Monday afternoon academic session, wearing large hoop earrings, eyeliner and eye shadow that make her look older than her 16 years. "Now I can't not do it. It's addictive." At first she was terrified of lightening, the creepy crawlies in the boathouse, and to row all eight. Now she daydreams of racing in the Olympics.

"Everyone goes to the store and buys a basketball, football, soccer ball," she says. "Rowing is unique. You have to balance your social life, your school life, your home life, your rowing life. A person who rows has to have standards and goals." She says that she asked her boyfriend if he was proud to have a girlfriend who rows. Later she caught him showing one of her Sport Graphics photos to his friends.

Shari, a junior at Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, joined Row New York because some older friends convinced her—well, didn't give her much of a choice, she says—to come to the tryouts.

"My boyfriend said 'Don't join rowing, you're going to end up like a hulk!'" She ignored him. Now she'd like to attend New York University for acting and dreams of writing, producing, and starring in the first Hollywood rowing movie.

"In any other sport, you have stars," she says, in her unselfconscious, enthusiastic demeanor. "In rowing, once you're out there in the race, it's all you. Not one person shines, it's the whole boat. And afterwards, no one can tell you they're better than you because you can be like, 'I pulled just as hard as you.' If we get last place or first place, I don't care. I just want to pull my heart out."

Amanda is the quiet overachiever who has a latent sarcastic wit and occasionally flaunts a gap-toothed smile when prompted. She arrives to practice every day in her sky-blue-and-white Catholic-school uniform, her muscles incongruous in the simple lines of her clothing. On top of crew, she manages to be editor of the school paper, maintain a top grade point average, and attend business-school programs during the summer. A senior this year, both Harvard and Princeton are flying her out for recruiting visits.

Monique, a tall and athletically built junior, would likely excel in any sport if given the chance. As a freshman it took her a while to adapt to the sport. Now, she owns it. She's gutsy, doesn't overthink and has a tough, no-fear attitude. With a raging competitive drive, she's as intimidating as she could be for a high school junior sitting in stroke seat. Her latest erg score was a 7:32, by far the best on the team, and colleges have already started calling Chandraratna with recruiting interest.

Though their stories and backgrounds vary, the girls all seem to appreciate Row New York not only for teaching them a unique skill and getting them in athletic shape, but for introducing them to friends they never would have met otherwise. As it does for many, rowing has become a way of life for them, not just an after-school sport.

Amanda Kraus continues to write grants and gather the donations necessary for the smooth running of the program—Row New York covers everything from equipment, practice space, and transportation to uniforms and snacks. At some point, she hopes to bring even more rowing, in the form of Harlem or Bronx programs, to New York, a city oddly barren of rowing opportunities.

"I don't think it's going to be dramatic or happen overnight, but I think Row New York being at one regatta changes the face of that regatta," says Kraus about the program's position in the rowing world. "Rowing is a sport that should be accessible to public school students." Still, for now, it's about the individuals at hand and teaching them the discipline and grace of the stroke. Without a doubt, the girls have assumed the roles of rowers flawlessly.

In a survey about the program, all of the participants were asked, after more than 70 questions, if there were any other comments they'd like to add. One anonymous response seemed to sum up the experience of rowing for many people, suggesting how the girls of Row New York have seamlessly fallen into the rower's obsession: "Row New York is such a smart idea because without it, I wouldn't be able to find a crew team."

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