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All In

BY JEN WHITING
IMAGE BY ADAM REIST

It’s March and your son is rowing at Harvard University as a lightweight under coach Charley Butt. As part of the Harvard parents weekend festivities, you’re invited to ride along in the coach’s launch. Now, the quiz portion of this scenario: What do you wear?

For Leslie Pfeil (pronounced “file”), the president of the Philadelphia Scholastic Rowing Association (PSRA), this was a question she knew the answer to. “There we were, the parents of the lightweight rowers, and Charley Butt, the Harvard coach, offers to take us along in the launch to watch the practice. Most parents showed up in heels and a skirt.” Pfeil pauses and her voice grows perfectly proud. “I was in a survival suit. I knew.” Pfeil smiles, the years she had spent volunteering at regattas on the Schuylkill River serving her well. “Charley looked at me and said, ‘Here. Sit next to me.’ I think he could tell I’d been in a launch before.”

Pfeil started her career in rowing without touching an oar. She, like so many parents who watch their child get drawn into a sport that has few boundaries, knew that she wanted to be a part of this beast of a sport that her daughter was drawn to. “I was trained as a journalist, had worked for newspapers for many years, and then was the communications director at the Baldwin School. When my daughter went out for crew as a freshman, I went to my first regatta. I laugh about this now, but I remember being surprised by how big it was. I was used to going to middle school field hockey games.” Pfeil now runs the organization that puts on a spring regatta series in one of the most storied rowing cities in America: Philadelphia. 

The Philadelphia Scholastic Rowing Association is an 80-member organization whose programs compete in the Flick Series each spring. The Flick regattas take place over five weekends in March and April, when the Schuylkill River is populated with high school rowers from the 80 member schools, as well as rowers from smaller clubs and guest schools that may not be members. The series is followed by a sixth regatta, the City Championships, which is limited to the member schools. All six regattas are volunteer-run, bare bones affairs. “The first Flick is pretty early in March so there may only be 800 or 900 kids,” Pfeil explains. “By the second regatta, we’re at 1,300 and by the third regatta there’ll be over 2,000 rowers. The fourth and fifth regattas in the series will host over 3,000 rowers, and then the City Championship event levels off back at 2,500 participants.” All told, the regattas hosted by PSRA will see upwards of 12,000 entries racing the 1,500-meter course.

“My ‘aha’ moment happened in a launch.” Pfeil, now a full-time volunteer with PSRA, explains why she is motivated to spend her time running a regatta series for high school rowers. “From shore, I used to watch the events and say, ‘Oh, isn’t that lovely.’ But then, the first time I got into a launch and watched it up close, I saw how hard the kids are working and I really wanted to support it. Not just at Baldwin, where I was working and where my daughter was rowing, but in general, because for many of these kids, rowing really does change their lives.

“Rowing helps kids understand the value of hard work. Hard work doesn’t guarantee success, but you can’t have success without it. I watched as my daughter’s team helped her develop this mentality. And the camaraderie, there’s something special about that.” Pfeil slows down a bit as I scribble in my notebook to keep up. “Most high school teams don’t cut people so the athletes can get that experience. I hear so often from kids who have come back and greeted me long after they’ve graduated to tell me that their fondest memories are of being on the crew team. I think rowing also teaches humility. You have to depend on each other. You have to all be together. You learn a combination of humility and accountability—important lessons, especially today.”

Pfeil’s path to the position as the president of PSRA, the organization that runs what might be the largest scholastic regatta series in the world, began when she started volunteering in the late 1990s at events run by the Schuylkill Navy. “In 1996, I volunteered at the Stotesbury Regatta and then I learned how to manage a finish line in 1997. And that’s how so many of our volunteers get started. They’re parents who want to be involved, and they volunteer during the regatta their kids are in. And then, hopefully, they stick around. Without our volunteers, we simply couldn’t do this.

“PSRA has roughly 80 teams as member schools. Some schools have just a few kids. But during the Flicks, we also have what we call orphans, kids who go to an unaffiliated school that doesn’t yet have a team. They can row alongside the other crews just by paying dues. The Flicks are like scrimmages—floating starts, no medals. We try to run them fast and cheap. We attract kids from areas that don’t have a lot of rowing. Of our 80 members, about 10 of them have tiny teams [of] just a few rowers. And since we allow non-affiliated rowers to race, sometimes it’s just Mom or Dad with a single on top of their car. We try to support them because so often these folks don’t have another outlet for their kid’s rowing. 

“Some people ask us why we bother, why not just limit the scrimmages to the member schools.” Pfeil speaks quickly, as if she’s running a board meeting and knows her volunteers have families and dinners to get home to. “It’s all about getting kids to row,” she says, simply. “It’s important to promote that. Sometimes teams start with just two kids. They grow. It’s all about the kids having the opportunities. It’s easier to walk on to a high school team than a college team.” Pfeil, a mother of two rowers who rowed in high school and also in college, is passionate about scholastic rowing, likely because she witnessed her own children blossom as rowers and then, after college, as coaches themselves. “If you’re talking about spreading the word and getting people into rowing, high school is the best place.”

With such a large membership base, the competition is fierce. The Flick scrimmages turn into events that often form the bulk of a team’s season, allowing many of the local schools to compete on a regular basis without the cost of overnight travel. “When we moved to a two-day event for our City Championships to ensure we could get all the races in, that was tough on the schools that have to travel from a distance because it incurred the cost of an overnight stay,” Pfeil explains.

I ask Pfeil about the work the PSRA does outside of the Flick series, and her role in it as president. “PSRA allows our member schools to have a voice, to be heard at the national level, when it comes to scholastic rowing. One thing this job [as president of PSRA] has evolved into is being an advocate for high school rowing. I really want to be supportive of high school coaches.” Pfeil lets out a knowing exhale, “Most high school coaches have a full-time job and a family. It’s really a calling for them to do this. We try to be supportive, to advocate for them and their athletes. An organization like PSRA is able to have a voice because we represent so many schools.”

Pfeil’s background as a journalist and communications director positions her well as a coordinator of the PSRA member schools. “When I first got involved with PSRA, we were working to strengthen our relationship with USRowing. We try to keep our members informed of upcoming changes from USRowing and also to give them a chance to have a voice in the conversation. I think they appreciate that.” 

Pfeil became a member of the PSRA board in 2005. “I was asked to be on the board as secretary, or something.” Pfeil chuckles in a way that would be understood by those who have volunteered before; sometimes you wear so many hats, you forget a few of them. “When the president stepped down in 2011, I was elected president.” I ask Pfeil about her experience in what was once an all-male environment—the old days of Boathouse Row. 

“When I became president…” she slows here, looking for the right words. “In Philly there are a lot of people who have a legacy. John Kieffer, the vice president at the time, and Paul Horvat, the president and now commodore of the Schuylkill Navy, talked me into it. I asked them, ‘Will people accept me?’ I didn’t have a rowing background, my family wasn’t a part of the history of Boathouse Row. I wanted to make sure people would accept that. John and Paul assured me I would be more than welcome, and they were right. People have been very supportive. Clete Graham—the person who really got me involved in volunteering in the first place—is a very inclusive person. I always say that I blame Clete for my becoming president. 

“I was the first woman to be president of the PSRA—this is still a very male-dominated sport—but they wanted me to take the job. I was hesitant at first, which is kind of funny because I’d been involved for so long before becoming president. But everyone has always been respectful.”

Pfeil has been president of the PSRA for nearly 10 years. “My real legacy,” she says, with the ease of someone who understands the inner workings of a volunteer organization, “is that I worked to improve the operations and the governance.” She smiles, “Anyone who knows me knows that I value a good set of bylaws. Becoming a 501c3 and establishing strong bylaws is important for the future of the PSRA. It isn’t flashy, but a lot of times with volunteer organizations, those things are missed. We file tax returns, we do financial management. It’s very boring stuff but it’s critical for the future.”

While Pfeil was working to solidify the Flick series’ future by ensuring the “boring stuff” was covered, she valued the work of Dotty Brown, the author of Boathouse Row, who wrote about the history of the Flicks. “Dotty researched the history, establishing that the series started in the mid-1950s, with five or six of the Philly schools.” At that time, only the private schools were racing on Boathouse Row and the series, dubbed the Flick Horvat series [named after two founders], made it possible for other schools to begin scrimmaging against each other. The spring season then culminated in the City Championship, exactly as it does today.

“They didn’t keep records that we can find. I wish I could find the exact year it all started, so we could have an anniversary celebration.” Pfeil lets out another laugh, deeper this time. “I can’t even get it out of the men… they always just say, ‘Back in the day…’ And until the 1970s it was all boys. The girls started in the ‘70s.”

Pfeil has witnessed firsthand the evolution of Boathouse Row and Philadelphia scholastic rowing. She has seen the change in the number of athletes, the way the rowing population is now represented by a growing number of schools, and by both girls and boys. She’s seen what was once an all-male network embrace a woman at the helm of the organization that is at the heart of scholastic rowing, not just in Philadelphia but at the national level, too. 

And now, as she looks toward the future, she knows her next job as president is to find her successor. “I’m looking for a successor,” she says, without flinching. “Not that I don’t like doing this, but we need to find a new president. We need to keep going, to keep pushing forward. The challenges are nearly always financial—permits, ambulances, porta-potties, police, shuttle buses—every year the cost of those things go up and we try to keep the entry costs down. We’re no frills for a reason, and we don’t have sponsors.” She catches herself here. “Not that we wouldn’t take one, we just need a volunteer to manage that relationship.”

Pfeil stops and I can feel how passionate she is about the organization and what it does for scholastic rowing. “We are grassroots rowing,” she says, as slowly as she’s said anything all day. “It’s just rowing, just racing. Nothing fancy.”

Pfeil tells me, again, how important the “metropolis” of volunteers that run the Flicks are. She explains that the volunteers are led by an organizing committee comprised of people who wanted to do more than simply volunteer on race days. “These people meet on a regular basis throughout the year, each person managing their area of expertise. They are essential to the regattas. Dockmasters, finish line managers, transportation, the list goes on and on.” In the lightest voice I’ve heard from Pfeil, she quips, “This is going to be on my tombstone: To run a regatta, it doesn’t take a village, it takes a metropolis.” As Pfeil and the PSRA board begin looking for the next president, maybe they should label the position differently, to attract people with the skills that Pfeil has demonstrated in her tenure. Perhaps, instead of looking for the next president, they should be looking for the next mayor of scholastic rowing. 

“It truly is a metropolis of volunteers that makes the Flicks happen. I was behind the scenes for so many years, but since being president, I’ve learned a lot about managing people.” Pfeil pauses, then speaks earnestly. “It’s so important to listen. You’ll hear a good idea from the person it is most important to. I can’t just live in my own world. I need to let the people I’m leading have a voice.”

Pfeil is always at work, always thinking of the upcoming events. Since it’s spring, I can feel a sense of urgency in her voice. “You know what this is really about?” she asks me, returning to her journalistic roots. “In my background I didn’t have competitive sports. In high school, I was a ballerina and a baton twirler. When I saw rowing, I fell in love with what the sport did for kids. I love the Boathouse Row community. We are folks of all ages and we come from different walks of life.” 

“I always hear parents say that they miss the days they spent on the river when their kids were rowing. I tell them they can still have those days. Come on down to the river. We can’t exist without people who love volunteering for rowing. PSRA… the Flicks… they wouldn’t happen without our volunteers.”

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