STORY BY MADELINE DAVIS TULLY | PHOTO COURTESY CRI
Rowing is a sport that too often is the purview of only the most privileged among us. Boathouses can feel, and most often are, inaccessible to the general public. Oftentimes, people will grow up mere miles from vibrant rowing communities and never have the opportunity even to be out on the water, let alone partake in the sport.
Some organizations across the country are working to address this obvious problem and open wide the doors of our sport to all those who might like to give it a try. That mission is precisely what has driven Community Rowing Inc. to spearhead these efforts in Boston with their Let’s Row program.
In Boston and Cambridge, students grow up on the banks of the Charles River, home to hundreds of junior, collegiate, elite, and masters rowers from some of the most historic school and club programs in the rowing world. Most of these young people, however, have no clear path to rowing. They’ve never sat on an erg, stepped into a boat, or even been out on the water.
Let’s Row aims to remedy this by inviting “individuals of all backgrounds, abilities, and experiences to grow through rowing.” By partnering with local public middle schools, Let’s Row creates pathways to rowing and cultivates accessibility and inclusion. The program achieves this through several initiatives, but the core is getting ergs and rowing coaches into physical-education classes throughout greater Boston.
These efforts are not new. Row Boston, a scholastic rowing team for high-school and middle-school students in Boston public schools, was founded in 1998 by Holly Metcalf. Originally called Girls Row Boston, the team was incorporated into CRI programs in 2005 to foster greater growth.
Over subsequent years, this program expanded to include the Middle School Indoor Rowing Program in 2014. This eventually took clearer shape and by 2022 evolved into the Let’s Row program that exists now.
Although the concept is simple, implementation is anything but. CRI coaches bring ergs into sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade PE classes in Boston public schools. Over eight weeks, the students are taught the fundamentals of the rowing stroke, incorporate erging into different training sessions and competitions, and are introduced to the basics of sports nutrition. Not only are students introduced to rowing but also they get a crash course in teamwork and grit. The curriculum is supported by and integrated into existing PE pedagogy, and PE teachers are an essential part of implementing it.
The scope of the program is impressive, and growing. Let’s Row was in over 35 Boston public schools last year, with roughly 7,500 students participating in the in-school portion of the program through PE classes. Ergs are placed within each school and are available to students as part of their regularly scheduled PE classes, thus eliminating the need for extracurricular programming. This year, the program will expand to include Cambridge schools as well, bringing the total number of schools to 40.
CRI also sponsors field trips for schools interested in exposing their students to rowing firsthand. The Harry Parker Boathouse has hosted 30 such trips, during which students learn the basics of the stroke on land, load up the barge, and then go out for a row on the Charles.
Schools have the opportunity also to take their students on a field trip to the Head of the Charles Regatta. At CRI’s tent by the Eliot Street Bridge in 2023, students toured the regatta site, took part in a short erg competition, enjoyed a catered lunch, and heard from a few speakers, including State Representative Michael Moran and Ted Benford, CRI’s executive director. For many local children, this is their first time being on or even near the river. Said Benford: “The entire point of the field trip is to give the kids an experience they wouldn’t otherwise have access to.”
The program culminates in the Let’s Row Championship, the nation’s largest indoor rowing regatta. The event, formerly known as the Youth Erg Trials International, or YETI, is open to all Boston public-school students and will expand to include Cambridge schools next year.
The 2023 event was the largest yet, with 1,200 students from 25 different schools participating in the relay-style competition. Unique in the rowing world, it combines competition with joy and camaraderie.
The competition consists of four-minute relays for co-ed teams of four students, one student per grade. Participants range from fifth grade to high school, and most have participated in the in-school portion of Let’s Row. The championship includes adaptive athletes and last year featured three para relays.
The venue is the world-class TRACK at New Balance, and the atmosphere all day is high-energy. A large screen tracks the races, CRASH B-style, and it gets loud. Really loud. Many schools come prepared with teams, coaches, and coordinated T-shirts. All come ready to give the event their best shot and meet others who are doing the same. All this is done at no cost to the participants or their schools.
“The point is to have a really fun day for the kids,” Benford said. “It’s also a good precursor to get kids and parents thinking about their summer plans.”
The middle-school program and championship make up the heart of Let’s Row, but the reach and aspirations of the program are larger—to “create pathways to rowing for individuals of all abilities that can lead to lifelong wellness.”
In addition to in-school programming, field trips, and championships, CRI has tried to create a way for alumni to participate in rowing regularly with its Let’s Row Scholarships, which offer financial aid, transportation, snacks, and more.
Students who’ve gone through the Let’s Row program are invited to graduate to CRI’s summer Learn to Row program and eventually its competitive teams for youth. For many, a significant barrier historically has been access to a boathouse. The Let’s Row Scholarship program aims to knock down that barrier and several others.
Transportation can be an obstacle, especially for middle- and high-school students. In response, CRI runs buses and vans from all over Boston to the Harry Parker Boathouse for Learn to Row programs in the summer and Row Boston and youth competitive programs during the academic year.
To address nutrition, CRI created the Fueling Station, which provides snacks such as energy bars and electrolyte powders to everyone in the boathouse. Roughly 80,000 snacks have been given out to those who’ve walked through CRI’s doors.
Recently, Let’s Row started the Let’s Row Fellowship, a paid summer program for PE teachers from Boston-area school districts. It consists of 400 hours of hands-on learning for four to six teachers during which they learn about sculling, sweep, and para rowing and earn a USRowing Level 1 coaching certification. The initiative teaches teachers how to teach rowing and forges relationships with local educators, building an additional bridge to communities and furthering access to the sport.
Let’s Row stands on three pillars: relationships, community, and health and fitness.
Once barriers to entry are lowered, rowing creates a level playing field, and relationships can flourish around a common interest and mission—rowing—divorced from many of the social and cultural divisions that exist elsewhere.
“Kids are not sequestered along socioeconomic lines,” Benford said. “Their relationships are centered around the activity. There aren’t a lot of areas in people’s lives where that can happen in ways that aren’t contrived. When you go to a soup kitchen, you know who’s serving the soup and who’s eating it.”
By building high-quality programs and long-term engagement with local residents, Let’s Row aims to transform the Greater Boston community.
Few understand this long-term community involvement more personally than Javier Suarez, CRI’s manager of middle- school programs. A Boston local, he spent three summers rowing at CRI in high school. After graduating from college, Suarez looked for ways to get involved with organizations that facilitated his journey to higher education—a search that led him back to CRI in a role where he now seeds relationships between the boathouse and community partners.
“I really like being a part of their journey, letting them know that students throughout the city can do anything.” Suarez said of his involvement with middle schoolers.
In the realm of health and fitness, Let’s Row’s influence is measurable; the erg doesn’t lie. Students achieve significant and consistent improvements in speed and stamina and are introduced to such mental-health topics as demonstrating resilience, managing challenges within and outside rowing, dealing with stress, and nurturing and maintaining friendships.
Always, the stewards of Let’s Row are looking for ways to improve— “not necessarily to grow the program in numbers,” Benford said, “but to work on the enrichment of the program we’re offering now.”
Some immediate goals include:
• Improving ease and accessibility of transportation for all users of the Harry Parker Boathouse;
• Offering even more snacks to everyone who uses the boathouse, including up to 250 youth rowers daily;
• Continuing partnerships with Cambridge Boat Club and five Cambridge public middle schools;
• Expanding the scholarship program, with an emphasis on listening to and meeting the needs of the community.
“Community” remains the cornerstone of the success of Let’s Row. By creating a strong, diverse, and welcoming community, Let’s Row expands access to rowing to countless middle-school students who otherwise may never have had the opportunity to experience our incredible sport in their own backyard. It’s about expanding in a meaningful, ongoing way.
“There are a lot of ‘firsts’ and ‘onlys’ in DEI,” Benford said. “We don’t want one kid from O’Bryant Middle School in Boston. We want a group of them. People feel connected to a place through feeling safe and having friendships.”