Rowing Recruits a New Crew

Boston-area kids gain fresh experiences by signing on to a sport traditionally `for the elite'

MOVE over basketball, a new sport is on the rise in Boston's neighborhoods: rowing. The centuries-old water sport is being introduced to communities by Yo!Row!, a program that teaches the fundamentals of sliding-seat rowing to middle and high school students who might not have the chance otherwise.

"Rowing is better than basketball because you use more of your body to row," says Timothy Stewart, a high school freshman in Yo!Row! He's sponsored by the Mandela Town Hall Health Spot, part of the Mandela housing development in Boston. Timothy says he wants to pursue rowing because "it can get you into college real quick."

Yo!Row!, short for Youth Rowing, was created two years ago by the Charles River Regatta Trust Inc., a nonprofit Boston corporation that promotes rowing - or "crew" as it is often called - and is trying make the sport more available in the Boston area. One of the Trust's founders, Dan Bakinowski, estimates that Yo!Row! has touched several hundred Boston-area youth.

"Until our program, 90 percent of the high-school-aged kids who were on [the Charles River in Boston], if not more, were all prep school kids," explains Yasmin Farooq, the Yo!Row! coordinator and a member of the United States Rowing Team. Now, she says, youths from all over Boston are showing a natural talent for the sport.

"The main goal of the program is not just to teach the kids how to row, it's to teach the kids how to deal with different real-life experiences through rowing," Ms. Farooq says. She cites teamwork, trust, and overall fitness as benefits that accompany participation in rowing.

Former Olympic rower Anita DeFrantz says, "Having an opportunity to try the sport of rowing is so unlike anything else they're likely to encounter in their lives. It is wonderfully expanding for the youngsters.

"They learn that they can actually move on water, which is just a miracle [to them], and they learn that they can work together with people who they may not have ever tried to work with in quite that way," says Ms. DeFrantz, who is president of the Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles, an organization which focuses on children in sports.

One eighth-grader, Nhatha Dinh, recalls her team's first experience on the Charles River last year: "At first we were really messed up because everyone wasn't rowing at the same time, and [the boat] was rocking back and forth, but then we got it together." Nhatha rows with the West End House Boys and Girls Club in Allston, a Boston neighborhood. Teamwork is important, she says, because "if one person messes up, the whole boat loses the race."

Mo Merhoff, director of communications for the United States Rowing Association, says that youth rowing programs like Yo!Row! help shed the widely held perception that the sport is only for the elite.

"Certainly, Olympic medals are very important to us, and medals at World Championships," Ms. Merhoff says, "but I would rank the success of programs like these as up there at that level. It is crucial to the growth of the sport. We've seen phenomenal growth over the last five to 10 years, but we need to be able to bring the sport to a grass-roots level."

Through year-round outreach activities at local housing developments, malls, and youth organizations, members of the US Rowing Team, who live and train in the Boston area, introduce rowing by demonstrating the use of rowing machines called ergometers or "ergs."

YO!ROW! offers a free, three-phase youth training program each January. Students first train on ergs, then in local indoor rowing "tanks," and finally in shells on the water. Each phase lasts about two months.

Last year, Yo!Row! got the World Indoor Rowing Championships, the "CRASH-B Sprints," to create a "youth relay" category so that Yo!Row! could compete. The CRASH-B's are held in Boston each February, and individuals battle for the best erg times.

"Competing makes you enthusiastic to do it more," says Timothy who "erged" his way to first place with his Mandela Health Spot teammates at a competition in Hull, Mass., a few weeks before their second-place finish at the CRASH-B's.

The Mandela Health Spot group was introduced to the tank in March. Twice a week, Massachusetts Institute of Technology crew members coach the youths at MIT's Pierce Boathouse in Cambridge. (This being an Olympic year, the US Rowing Team has had to cut back on its involvement and rely on volunteers to help coach the Yo!Row! participants.)

The MIT moving-water tank resembles a swimming pool with an attached shell that runs down the middle and seats eight. To simulate boat speed, the water pulses through the tank at different rates set by adjustable controls.

"I thought it was crazy. I didn't think we could row in that," says Ricky Chen, a middle-school student from the West End House, of his first encounter with the tank last year. Ricky says the tank was different from the erg because there was an oar and "water splashing all over me."

Rowing has more to offer young people than just exercise, it can also be a way to get a university to notice you, according to Rodney Pratt, crew coordinator and coach of men's crew at Boston University.

"The sports that have the most push in high school, or are the most popular, are football and basketball. If you row ... you are unique," notes Mr. Pratt who has previously coached high school students.

"I definitely think that if it wasn't for crew, I wouldn't have made it even this far," comments Miriam Wolfe of her position on a waiting list at an Ivy-League school.

Miriam is a high school senior who has been accepted at other universities at which she says she would row. She got involved in sliding-seat rowing through Yo!Row! and the Hull Lifesaving Museum Youth Rowing Team in Hull, Mass.

"It's an incredible team sport," says Miriam, who learned how to be a coxwain. "It's the kind of sport that you don't have to be huge, you don't have to be anything specific, you just have to want to do it."

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