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Righting the Ship One Stroke at a Time

BY ANDY ANDERSON
PHOTO BY ED MORAN

Will 2020 be the year in which our sport finally makes serious efforts to reach out to populations that have historically been excluded? There are encouraging signs that this may be so. There aren’t many boathouses where you will see a lot of Black or Latinx faces. The paucity of Black or Latinx coaches has also sent a message that rowing is not a sport for everyone. But as we reassess what is happening in rowing, there is some promise in the air. USRowing made a strong statement on the issue on early June. It is too long to reprint here but a few sentences stood out.

“USRowing stands in solidarity with Black Lives Matter and rejects racism and discrimination of any kind. We recognize that our past efforts have not been enough, and we commit to making diversity, equity and inclusion a priority. But a commitment with no follow-through is not leadership. It is not action.

“We got it wrong. And we recognize that we have gotten it wrong for far too long. The murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and so many others before them, have initiated a long-needed national dialogue and call to action on the subject of race in our country, from which we have been notably and unacceptably absent. USRowing apologizes to our membership and to the rowing community for our lack of engagement over the last several weeks and for the lack of leadership to help diversify our sport and to proactively combat the systemic racism and oppression that the Black community faces every day.”

Even before the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent protests around the country, the fact that no one was rowing in the spring of 2020, that no one was racing, caused many in the rowing community to examine the state of our sport. The marvelous film A Most Beautiful Thing, Arshay Cooper’s riveting story of how rowing on an all-black high school team helped him find brotherhood, beauty, and peace was brought to the screen by Mary Mazzio, an Olympic rower herself, who returned to her rowing roots for the first time since 1999’s A Hero for Daisy. Seeing black men talk about what they had gained from rowing helped bring new urgency to making rowing more diverse, equitable, and inclusive.

That’s not to say that these efforts weren’t already under way. It’s not news that we don’t have many non-white faces in our boats, whether it is shells or launches, or in our boardrooms or boathouses. There is a growing number of rowing programs that focus on making our sport accessible to under-represented communities that don’t come into rowing through the traditional school or college routes. All start-up rowing programs need solid funding, volunteers, and good leadership. As we head into 2021, there is reason to think that the needle is moving, that real progress is coming. Here are some of the positive signs that change is coming, that the push for diversity and inclusion will begin in earnest. They are the action needed.

A Most Beautiful Thing

Had Covid not intervened last March, Mazzio’s film would have been released in 20 major cities, with premieres in dozens of cities around the country. There were some big names from the professional sports world who were among the financial backers of the film, and they would have been on hand to help roll out Arshay Cooper’s story of growing up on Chicago’s West Side and how his chance meeting with Ken Alpart, a former Penn oarsman, inspired Cooper to join a nascent Manley Career Academy high-school crew. Cooper is a force of nature, someone whose personal warmth and passion for inspiring change and social justice make you realize that this man gets things done. It’s not surprising that he and Mazzio–also an undeniable force who had made previous films that focused on social justice–were able to attract high-profile support.

The film is narrated by Chicago native Common, a Grammy-winning musician and Academy Award winner who also signed on as an executive producer. NBA basketball all-stars Grant Hill and Dwayne Wade added their energy and support to the production side, as did hip-hop artist 9th Wonder. In addition to scoring the hip-hop soundtrack for A Most Beautiful Thing, 9th Wonder is also producing a soundtrack album to be released soon on Amazon. All four of these men are known for their philanthropic and community-based action. It’s not hard to see what drew them to the project. The authenticity of Cooper’s story, a boy who witnessed drive-by shootings and who had to walk the tenuous line between neighborhood gangs but who found a band of brothers at the Lincoln Park boathouse, immediately draws in even the non-rower. As Grant Hill told Mazzio, “This is a rare portrayal of Black men in a positive light.”

Cooper and Mazzio remained positive throughout the period of the postponement of the film’s release due to Covid. They had confidence that their film would find an audience. Many rowing teams had planned to attend the theater showings. As their seasons were canceled, rowers across the country bided their time. When George Floyd crashed into everyone’s consciousness after his killing by police in May, the film’s message became even more crucial. Plans to open in theaters, however, were shelved as the pandemic wreaked havoc on indoor gatherings and Mazzio and the team had to pivot to streaming platforms. When the film became available toward the end of July, it immediately garnered “must see” reviews. It ignited crowds that wanted more than a movie experience. They wanted change.

The impact of the project has been deep and profound outside of our sport as well. A Most Beautiful Thing was featured at the 2020 NAACP convention and will be shown to the Congressional Black Caucus with the goal of introducing new legislation to address trauma in underserved communities. The film also has become a platform for corporate executives, university presidents, and community leaders to facilitate difficult conversations not only about access and opportunity, but also about privilege and the obligation of privilege.

The philanthropy in the wake of the project has stunned both Mazzio and Cooper. Executive producer Bill Hudson, with a leadership gift, created the A Most Beautiful Thing Inclusion Fund, a fund that is under the umbrella of the George Pocock Rowing Foundation in Seattle. Fifty cents of each dollar of profit from the film and its tie-ins go into the fund. The fund now boasts a list of advisors that include all five Black Olympians (Anita DeFrantz, David Banks, Aquil Abdullah, Pat Etem, and Alex Osborn) along with significant commitments from Hudson Boat Works and Concept2.

Why so much attention? It’s not just about rowing. The film has moving interviews with the men who say that rowing saved them. It’s about trauma remediation in underserved communities. “It’s about the urgency to give back,” Mazzio said.

“None of us can diversify the sport–everyone has to,” Cooper said. “It’s like rowing. I can’t do the work of eight people; we need eight people doing the work.”

The Row New York Model

Amanda Kraus, recently chosen to be USRowing’s CEO, started Row New York in 2002 with eight girls, eight ergs, and a dream. Kraus had captained the team at the University of Massachusetts and knew how much she had gotten out of the experience.

“Everyone who loves the sport and the values that it teaches can tell you what they got out of it: patience, hard work, delayed gratification, team building,” she said. “It is great for kids. Why are we not sharing and spreading the sport as widely as possible?”

While in graduate school, she coached at Community Rowing in Boston with the G-Row program–dedicated to getting underprivileged girls onto the water. “It was something really special to be able to provide opportunities for those girls. Holy cow! I thought that rowing changed my life, but this is so much bigger for these kids.”

When she completed her degree and moved to New York City, her husband said, “You should start a program in New York.” But despite no money and no place to row (it’s always been tough to find good water to row on in New York), they knew it was an idea that needed to be pursued. They started erging, borrowed a boat from UMass, and Row New York began to take off. Donors, both individual and corporate, and volunteers began to help out. Kraus and her growing group of supporters found a place to row, bought equipment, and developed a board of directors, primarily people who, like her, wanted to give back to the sport that had done so much for them.

From the beginning, it wasn’t just about rowing. Row New York has always had an academic-support component and a preparation-for-college program. The group is justifiably proud of its extraordinary statistics. One hundred percent of their seniors graduate from high school, with 99% of them going on to college. Seventy-four percent compete at the New York State championship regatta. In the 18 years since its inception, Row New York has grown into a model for a community-based rowing program. Over the years, it has expanded to include boys, adults, veterans, and adaptive crews. It currently serves 2,200 New Yorkers annually from boathouses in Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn. Fifty-three percent of them come from households with incomes of $30,000 or less, and 84 percent of the participants row for free.

There are a number of well-funded, well-organized community-rowing programs like Row New York around the country. But not every club can be a Row New York. There are countless programs that draw upon smaller populations and have more modest goals. The key to finding success with these programs is to realize that not one size can fit all. There are all kinds of opportunities to reach out and get people on the water.

The Head Of The Charles/Philadelphia Gold Cup

An example of how smaller grants can make a difference to a program is the new initiative from the Head Of The Charles Regatta, our country’s single-most important regatta, and another important regatta, the Philadelphia Gold Cup. Both have been making contributions to under-resourced rowing communities for the past 10 years. With 2020’s forced inactivity, they decided to up their game and partner, pooling resources to create an annual grant program with a budget of $100,000. The grant will “support rowing organizations that are committed to building and sustaining diversity in our sport.”

The Head Of The Charles/Philadelphia Gold Cup will award six to eight grants of $5,000 to $20,000 in early November. As Blair Crawford, chairman of the HOCR said, “It is long past time for the sport of rowing to honestly confront its lack of diversity and implement concrete actions to attract, mentor, and retain a diverse set of athletes, coaches and supporters. Establishing this fund is just the beginning phase of our intentional and sustained commitment to supporting greater equity in rowing.”

Over 20 programs from all over the country applied for grants. The grant-review committee was comprised entirely of rowers of color who, in addition to deciding who would receive the funds, will continue to serve as mentors to the programs throughout the year. These grants are meant to establish relationships within the rowing community, not to be one-shot deals. A decision was made to fund a variety of existing ground-level programs, ones that have strong ties to their communities. The aim is to help programs that are more than “walk into the boathouse, row, and go home.” Sport is more than exercise; it can be a tool for change in society. It can change lives and help in the development of young men and women.

The grant program hopes to build a network of programs with these aspirational goals. “We hope that these pilot-year grants will inspire community groups in the future that want to add rowing to the work that they are already doing with young people of color,” said Daphne Martschenko, one of the grant committee members. She rowed at Stanford and was the first woman of color to race in The Boat Race in 2015, winning with the Cambridge crew in 2018 of which she was president.

 “What I find so inspiring now is that initiatives like The Rowing in Color podcast are amplifying and empowering the voices and work of communities of color in this sport,” Martschenko said. “What I think is important to recognize is all the people and efforts that were under way long before our grant committee. Their time in the spotlight is long overdue.”

Like all of the grant-review committee members, she is giving back to the sport that has been so important in her life.

Courtney Wilson, a Riverside Boat Club member, past race director of the Head Of The Charles Regatta, and member of the grant-review committee, said, “Each grant recipient will be matched with a mentor who will help facilitate community-building and be available to help out. We want these programs to be sustainable and will work to build relationships among all of the recipients and other like-minded, more established programs.”

A person of color herself, Wilson noted, “I have always felt at home in rowing and want to share the experience with people who look like me. It can be hard to be the only person in a boat or at the boathouse who looks a certain way.”

USRowing

The announcement in late August that Amanda Kraus had been chosen as the organization’s CEO was exciting news. Her hiring by USRowing clearly shows the direction in which the organization wants to move. Her job will be to continue to support rowing at its highest levels while also reaching out to new populations. “Outreach is important for a few reasons,” she said. “As long as we keep looking in the same places, we are missing out on a pool of talent, one that if we can tap into will help us produce better results on all levels.”

The vast majority of rowers do not become national- team athletes, and Kraus knows that USRowing has to be about much more than finding talent for our highest levels. Rowing needs to be more accessible. She becomes passionate when speaking about what rowing provides.

That USRowing has acknowledged that its good intentions have not led to significant action is an important development. The creation of a permanent Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Committee is a step in the right direction, as is the impending hiring of a staff member to head DEI work within the rowing community. In announcing the formation of the standing committee, the press release said, “USRowing aims to create an inclusive culture.” USRowing has made ambitious statements about working to exemplify diversity, equity, and inclusion at all levels in rowing. With Kraus at the helm, there can be little doubt about the sincerity of the commitment. She is a proven person of action.

Get Them in Middle School

Mike Teti, the National Team men’s coach, is as big an evangelist for rowing as there is. “If our sport doesn’t start looking like America,” he said, “it’s going away.” He echoes Arshay Cooper when he talks about what got him into rowing. “I was from a blue-collar family in Philadelphia, and a buddy on the football team convinced me to try rowing. I’d never even seen the river before and I just couldn’t believe how great it was to be out on it, to be in such a gorgeous place. It had the peace that Arshay talks about. Kids ask me all the time how I got to be an Olympic rower. I didn’t start out with that as a goal. I just really liked the guys and being out in the boat.”

It seems odd to hear a coach who has his guys row hundreds of miles and do countless meters on the erg say, “What we don’t want to do is get kids to spend hours on ergs, and then half an hour getting an eight out on the water and adjusting the rigging. Sure, we’ve all been through that, but that’s boring. We’ve got to get kids into boats right away. Maybe take them out in a double with someone experienced. Make it fun. It doesn’t have to be every day. Get them in middle school and let them make a commitment to it later. But get them on the water.”

He points out how many people want to help to expand rowing into new areas. “People want to help. They want people to experience what we did. It’s easier to raise money for this than it is for the National Team.”

Make the boathouse a comfortable place 

I asked Arshay Cooper what he would do if he were in charge of rowing.

“If I were in charge, the first thing I would do is make sure that the top of the ladder was diverse. You know that you have achieved success when your diversity committee looks the same as your board of directors. Kids have got to see that they can go places, that they can become coaches, referees and officials, program directors. Even though rowing was good for me, right away the people at regattas didn’t look like me, and that was a problem.”

He has plenty of good advice for anyone planning to diversify and include under-represented minorities at boathouses.

 “Before you recruit kids to come down to the boathouse, make sure that the boathouse is ready for them. Tell the kids who have been there who is coming and why. You’ve got to make the boathouse a comfortable place. I’ve seen boathouses where black kids come in and the white kids are wondering why they are there. You’ve got to make it comfortable for everyone. When I was rowing in Chicago, it was almost a whole year before the white kids talked to the Manley kids.”

“Before you recruit kids to come row at your boathouse, make sure that the adults have had D&I training. Retention is more important than recruitment. You’ve got to build partnerships with the community, with the parents. Too often, to a parent, it can feel like you are there just to take their kids. Talk to the parents about what their kid and they can get out of this. Go to school fairs and meet parents.”

What might an American rowing program that was truly inclusive, that reaches beyond the traditional strengths, look like? Think about NCAA basketball and football. The University of Kentucky maintained all-white basketball teams until 1969. And the University of Texas won the national championship in football that same year with an all-white football team. Collegiate basketball and football are on a completely different level today. All-white rowing teams? We have them still. We look like sports looked 50 years ago. Imagine what the inclusion of non-white athletes might do to rowing. Collegiate women’s sports are now an important part of the athletic landscape. We’ve made great progress in gender equity. It’s time to move on racial equity.

Of course, we would like to find and develop sources of great athletes that could propel our national teams to even more success. But rowing’s diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts have higher goals. Rowing brings people together. Like all team sports, it is suffering under Covid, but the collaboration and life lessons that rowers learn are second to none. Let’s spread its message far and near. This could be the start of something big.

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