By: Colleen Saville
Photography: Row New York, Claudia Loeber, Chloe Rosario
Fifteen years after its founding, Row New York has grown into one of New York City’s most effective programs for teens from under-resourced communities. Less than 15 months from breaking ground at what will become Manhattan’s first-ever combined boathouse and academic learning center, they show no signs of slowing down.
When Amanda Kraus founded Row New York in 2002, she had humble but significant aspirations: To unite the discipline of competitive rowing with rigorous academic support for New York City’s underserved teens, preparing them to take on the demands of college with confidence, resilience, and grace. What started as a small, girls’ rowing program in Queens would grow to include Brooklyn and Manhattan boys’ programs, adult programs, competitive and recreational adaptive programs, school day adaptive rowing, veteran rowing, and so much more. Since then, Row New York has impacted the lives of thousands of New York City teenagers, many of whom have graduated college and rejoined the program as coaches. Now in its 15th year, Row New York has become one of New York City’s most effective programs for teens from under-resourced communities. Less than 15 months from breaking ground at what will become Manhattan’s first-ever combined boathouse and academic learning center, they show no sign of slowing down.
Row New York Executive Director Amanda Kraus began her rowing career at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, rowing under the leadership of three-time Olympian Jim Dietz. From there, she went on to earn a graduate degree from Harvard University in education while working part time as a rowing coach at Community Rowing, Inc. (CRI) in Boston. It was there that her early vision of what would become Row New York began to develop. “There was a new program that launched while I was there in 2000 called Girls Row Boston that was for girls from low-income communities in Boston, and I thought, wow, this is incredible. This is everything I am interested in and I was really excited about it. Working with those girls was more amazing than I ever thought it could be. I just felt like this marriage of competitive rowing and empowering girls from under-resourced communities was so meaningful. I saw such incredible change in those girls in terms of their confidence and fitness, and in working as a team; all of the important things.”
Over the past 15 years, 99% of Row New York’s seniors have gone on to college (compared to just 57 percent enrollment citywide). Institutions include the United States Naval Academy, Columbia University, and a number of competitive SUNY and CUNY schools.
When Kraus finished graduate school, she and her boyfriend (who would later become her husband) decided to move back to New York. She laughs when she describes the decision to return to her home state. “It was actually his idea,” Kraus says. “He said, ‘You love working at Girls Row Boston so much. Why don’t you start the same thing here in New York City?’ and I said, ‘That’s the worst idea ever, because we don’t have any money, we have debt to graduate school, and there’s no infrastructure [in New York City] like there is in a city like Boston or Philadelphia.’ And yet, I did it anyway. I started hitting the streets and trying to meet people who knew rowing, or were a little bit older and had jobs and some money and went to them and said, ‘I have this idea. I saw it work in Boston.’ I have time and no money, and they had money and no time. And in the summer of 2002, I got access to a lake in Queens and got the parks department to approve starting a pilot program. Our start was very modest.”
Roughly one year later in the spring of 2003, Row New York launched its first full-time after school program. Today, the program boasts a 100-percent graduation rate, with 99 percent of seniors matriculating to college after graduation (compared to just 57 percent citywide).
“We went in with a lot of humility, and let people know that this is a new sport, it’s different, and we are all starting from ground zero and learning together.”Amanda Kraus
One of the qualities that makes Row New York unique, both in and outside of the rowing world, is that this sports-focused youth development organization is free for nearly 80 percent of their middle school and high school athletes, allowing kids to participate in a truly comprehensive program that is as academically challenging as it athletically. Also, it is arguably the most diverse high school rowing program in the country, an organization that celebrates girls and boys of diverse backgrounds, cultures, and economic means, all who identify as rowers. Forty-six percent of Row New York’s student-athletes are first-generation college students, and 55 percent are first-generation Americans.
“When we first started, we had to go into the communities, and back then it was just those in Queens. We went in with a lot of humility, and let people know that this is a new sport, it’s different, and we are all starting from ground zero and learning together. We were asking for trust. ‘Trust us, this works, and your kids are going to get fit, and visit colleges, and get help with math,’ and to the kids we said, ‘You’re going to be surrounded by amazing people who believe in you and then you’re going to have these incredible teammates.’ And so there was sort of this ask for a lot of trust from the kids, and from the parents, too.”
Of course, it wasn’t easy; nothing worthwhile ever is. Earning these teens’ attention and getting them to try a sport so many had never heard of, practiced outside, in the cold and rain, was a big ask. Kraus continues, “That first year I spent a lot of time recruiting. In 2003 I set up two days of tryouts. I had talked to thousands of girls (at the time Row New York was girls-only; now they’re co-ed), and eight girls came to try out across two days. I had to recognize that that first effort didn’t work, and that it would be an evolution. Today, we have a waitlist of girls who want to come try out.”
Brooklyn is Row New York’s newest location, joining their existing Manhattan and Queens programs. Together, the three boroughs unite over 270 kids, who all train on the water from March through October, and then indoors from November through February. Year-long academic tutoring, SAT test prep, and college readiness support are the youth program’s foundation, while offering additional perks like swim lessons, hot meals during tutoring sessions, and workshops covering everything from nutritional education to reproductive health.
Kraus explains that academic excellence is instilled in Row New York youth athletes from day one. Middle schoolers dedicate two days per week to academics, and two to rowing. Rowing practices focus on both on-water and off-water expertise. Skills like learning how to carry a boat, to row on the barge, to both erg and care for the erg, as well as simply learning how to be young adults are specific areas of focus for these young athletes. Kraus says, “We teach them how to show up on time, and what to wear, and that you don’t drink soda, you drink water. We teach them what it means to be a good teammate. We care about and track social and emotional learning and growth. That starts with middle schoolers. They will work with tutors in preparation for high school applications, since in New York City students apply [to high school] in 8th grade.” In high school, Row New York kids maintain their academic focus, but also dial in on competitive rowing. Kraus continues, “Once they move into high school we’ll help them prepare for the New York State Regents Exams. We visit colleges and host college nights with parents. We provide writing help. The idea is that the support we provide is whatever the student needs at that time. We try to meet the kid wherever they are.”
During school hours, the facilities are still utilized through Row New York’s partnership with District 75, a New York City school district made up of 57 schools that are designed to teach and help students with special needs. Each day, the Queens boathouse staff hosts physical education classes for District 75 students both on the ergs and in barges on the water. “The idea is to allow other programs to use the equipment during the day,” Kraus explains, “and the city pays for that programming, which helps fund our youth program.” Row New York recently partnered with Top Row, a Dutch company, to run adult programs out of their Manhattan boathouse. These programs also help advance their mission-based youth and adaptive rowing, enabling more Row New York advocates to spread the word about its mission. Many of the adult rowers offer career and business mentorship to high school students in addition to giving back financially.
Speaking of giving back, Row New York’s alumni network is strong. In fact, many of the program’s alums have rejoined Row New York after college as coaches. Breanne Fitzsimmons, the Queens youth program manager, describes her experience as a coach with this distinct group. “Last week all of our recent graduates visited. One woman goes to NYU and came to practice. That same day another woman who rows at Iona came back to visit, and the next day an alum from York College even got into a boat with us,” she says laughing. “I really love to include our alums who are still enthusiastic about rowing. In fact, more than half of our coaching staff are alumni.”
Fitzsimmons herself is a graduate of American University where she first learned how to row. “It was a club team, “ she says, “so it was a very good experience seeing how an entire rowing team is run and understanding all of the challenges that come with it. While I was rowing at American University, I started assistant coaching at the high school team that shared our boathouse. A few years after I graduated, I was still in Washington, D.C., still looking for work, and applied to Row New York. When I read the job description I thought it was too good to be true. Maybe three months later I got a job at a law firm, and Jennie [Trayes], who still works at Row New York, must have held onto my resume as she reached out to me about an open position coaching the novices in Queens. I knew I would regret not giving it a shot, so I dropped everything and moved up. I’ve been there ever since.”
Nearly seven years later, Fitzsimmons is now one of Row New York’s leaders and is coaching varsity athletes. Having the perspective of both a novice and varsity coach, she explains the complexities that come with both positions. “I started as the novice coach and now coach varsity athletes, and from that I can say that there are distinct challenges for the kids at both levels. As their coach, I am at the academic session every week. It’s a great opportunity to bond with them and to help them with their homework, but it’s also a way to be dialed in to what’s going on at school.” She explains that because of the application-based nature of New York City high schools, kids often will meet entirely new groups of friends as freshmen. The rowing team, she explains, helps maintain a level of consistency in their young lives. “Being here for so long,” she continues, “I’ve picked up on the little red flags that pop up and help manage them. If kids are overwhelmed, or are having a hard time with a certain class, we have them go to academics twice per week, sometimes three times per week, or we’ll reach out to their counselors and teachers at school to understand what’s going on, and to ultimately determine if the student needs support. It’s a huge component of my job, and it’s an important one, because the idea is to get them very academically proficient so they can be prepared for college and everything they will face there.”
Fitzsimmons’ sentiments align completely with those of her current student-athlete Daniela “Dani” Reynoso, an 11th grader at Row New York in Queens. When asked about the ways in which Row New York supports her academically, Dani is quick to describe the advanced placement (AP) courses she’s eager to take this fall. “Honestly, right now I’m super excited for the AP courses that my coordinator has given me,” she says. “Her name is Nikki, and she’s been helping me out especially because I have three AP classes. She gives me little packages of study guides that help me keep up with my work, and she asks me where I’m at, if I need help. They’re always there asking, ‘Do you understand this assignment? Do you want us to get you a textbook? Do you need a computer?’” Dani says laughing.
Just 16 years old, Dani has already been rowing for roughly six years. She began as a coxswain in middle school, playfully admitting that she had no idea what rowing was when “they came over and wanted us to try out for rowing,” that she was “very scrawny and skinny,” and had to convince her mother let her try out. Dani says laughing, “I thought, hmm, let me try this, you know? I’m open to new things. At first my mom did not let me try out. She said, no way, you’re not going. And eventually she budged, and I tried out, and now I’m here!” We might recall Kraus’ earlier description of the first recruitment cycle. Clearly, today there is interest and demand.
of Row New York’s student-athletes are first-generation college students, and 55 percent are first-generation Americans.
When asked what she loves about rowing, Dani says, “I love the way the girls make me feel when I come here. They make me feel cared for, and everyone pays attention to each other, everybody always knows how to make each other feel better. On the water, I love how we work together, it all clicks,” she says. “Even when we have a bad row, it’s easy to talk to each other. We’ll say things like, you were coming up to the catch a little too early and we just let each other know.”
Dani goes on to describe the friendships she’s made at Row New York and what they mean to her, as well as the ways in which she stays in touch with girls who have graduated, and how her teammates have become her family. “None of us go to the same high school, but I see them more than I see my family and my school friends. Especially when we have States and Regionals. I feel like these girls are my sisters, and sometimes it’s annoying because we do every little thing together, but I feel so loved all the time” she says. Row New York’s mission statement suddenly feels palpable.
Row New York’s future is bright. By the end of 2019 they plan to break ground on their new boathouse and academic learning center in Manhattan, designed pro bono by world-renowned architect Norman Foster. They will continue to nurture student-athletes like Dani, and affect the lives of so many youths in New York City. When asked what rowing and racing has taught her about life, Dani says, “It’s taught me that not everything is going to be as you expect it. I’ve had races where we crashed into mud or rocks, but we still rowed our race and sometimes even placed. I don’t know how it happened, but it teaches you that no matter what, you have to get back on course and go for it. No matter what happened previously, you go for it.” Perhaps we could all learn something from Dani.