Members of the crew
Philadelphia City Rowing helps District youth break physical and cultural barriers.
by Avi Wolfman-Arent
Philadelphia City Rowing, a nonprofit that offers District high schools free access to competitive rowing, helped Masterman High School senior Deblyn Lawrence find her voice.
They liked what they heard.
Lawrence knew next to nothing about the sport a year and a half ago when a friend encouraged her to join PCR. One day, early in her tenure, the girls' varsity boat was without its coxswain – the member of each boat that yells instruction to the other rowers.
A coach asked Lawrence to sub in, and she recalls that even though the electrical amplifier in her boat wasn't working, "they could hear me all the way down the river."
Soon after, Lawrence was cox-ing the varsity boat in competitions. Today, only a year later, she's team captain.
"The first time I got on the boat, my biggest shock was just being on the water. … I just thought it would tip," Lawrence says.
"Now that I'm on it every day, it's like ground to me."
Hers is a sentiment expressed by many PCR participants, most of whom had no prior knowledge of the sport but have come to embrace the full-body, stamina-testing challenges that rowing provides.
Thanks to PCR, scores of District students like Lawrence, representing 18 different schools, are gaining exposure to a sport long defined by its exclusivity, and they are pushing past both physical and cultural barriers in the process.
Launched in 2009 by former Columbia University rower Libby Peters, PCR's signature initiative is a free, year-round rowing program offered to about 80 District high school students, many of whom would not be able to participate otherwise. By removing the $1,000 to $2,000 fee that most private school students pay to row crew, PCR hopes it can get the city's less-affluent youth on the water.
During the fall and spring, PCR competes in local regattas against private and suburban schools. Summers and winters are for training and instruction – both vital since almost none of the students who have entered PCR have prior rowing experience.
Additionally, throughout the year, PCR provides one-on-one tutoring for students in need of academic support.
Offering such a costly program free of charge is made possible through private donations and partnerships with both the School District of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Department.
Any student who is interested in the program can simply visit the PCR website and fill out a form electronically.
The District donated some hand-me-down boats that it obtained from Princeton University and had been collecting dust at the Navy Yard for over a decade. The Parks and Recreation Department loans PCR its boatyard, a small, fenced-in plot of land on the south end of Boathouse Row. It's a modest space compared to the stately structures along the Schuylkill River's east bank, but it's a start.
PCR Executive Director Terry Dougherty hopes the organization will have a boathouse of its own in the next three to five years, one that will double as a community space for people who are looking to try the sport.
It's an ambitious project requiring, by Dougherty's estimate, a $6 million investment. But with the progress PCR has made since its launch two-and-a-half-years ago, it would be unwise to doubt her.
Waves of success
Much of PCR's progress has been on the river, where its teams have already gone from underdog to champion.
In the program's early days, simply completing a race was no small feat. The original members still reminisce about a race in which a particularly bad sequence of strokes sent Qadir Fisher, a junior at Engineering and Science High School, overboard.
"I just remember being in the water and thinking, '[Isn't anybody] going to stop?'" Fisher recalls.
"I wasn't worried about being embarrassed. I just wanted to finish," he says.
They did, with a drenched Fisher in tow, earning the admiration of the other participants and displaying a down-but-not-out determination that would serve them well in the future.
In 2011 the PCR upstarts captured the city championship in the boys' novice eight division and were winners in four of five events in the local Manny Flick series, a string of competitions held annually among Philadelphia high schools.
And as word spreads of PCR's successes, more and more students want to join.
In spring 2010, the program enrolled 44 students representing 12 city schools. By this spring, membership had grown to 80 students.
More than just the victories on the water, PCR's growth reflects the tremendous sense of community the program inspires in its participants.
"I really feel like this is my second family," says Central High School freshman James Garcia.
"And it's really nice," says Masterman sophomore Oriana Marcial, "because you can always depend on the other people around you."
Eight oars, one goal
Rowers do depend on the people around them, probably more than athletes in any other sport. Success requires perfect cohesion, and there is no hiding weak links. If one member of the boat cannot stay in rhythm, the entire team suffers.