by Jen Whiting
Tucked between Philadelphia’s Lloyd Hall and Fairmount Rowing Association is one of the newest–and most innovative–rowing clubs on Boathouse Row. Now in its seventh year, Philadelphia City Rowing serves the area’s inner-city middle schools and high schools and blends rowing and academics to spur a college-entrance rate that is unusually high; in 2016, 100% of the seniors that were active in the program were accepted into four-year colleges.
Founded by Libby Peters, Tony Schneider and Catherine Reddick, Philadelphia City Rowing is privately funded and works in concert with the City of Philadelphia to maintain the outdoor footprint used to house the program’s equipment at the eastern-most end of Boathouse Row.
Terry Dougherty, the program’s executive director, explains the program this way, “No matter what the student’s upbringing is, they’re here to row. We have rowers from all over the city. We provide logistical support like snack bars and public transportation tokens to our athletes, and we also have an incredibly strict academics policy: if your grades fall below a C, you don’t row.”
During an afternoon interview near their launch dock, Dougherty watches over her program like a mother bear. She seems to know every athlete by name, “Jasmine, come here for a minute, please,” she calls, as she introduces me to one of the senior coxswains on the team. The rowers that are milling about the dock area as Jasmine heads toward us are as diverse a group of rowers as I’ve ever seen.
Jasmine Butler is a senior at The Academy of Palumbo and is aiming to cox in college. She tells me that after rowing during her freshman year she switched into the coxswain's seat because it suited her better. Watching her cox a boys eight on the Schuylkill River during practice, I see that she has a discerning eye, able to pick out the needs of each seat, and unafraid to call on the boys who are rowing in her boat to make changes.
Dougherty explains the details of the program, as the afternoon sun heads for the horizon. “Our local high schools have a graduation rate of 61%. We are about rowing, yes, but we use the sport to bridge the gap for these students. We provide SAT preparation classes, homework help and tutoring. We’re lucky because we can partner with so many good programs.” I ask her for details. “Many area universities require their students to do community service. One example is Drexel Medical School. The students partner with us for their hours of service by providing nutrition workshops to our athletes. Another example is how we handle the swim test each athlete is required to pass. Most of our students don’t swim when they sign up for the program, but if they can’t swim, they can’t get on the water.”
Dougherty, a long-time athletics administrator, used her contacts at Temple University to partner with their aquatics department. Temple agreed to provide pool time and lifeguards. Now, Philadelphia City Rowing runs a Swim-to-Row program so every student who wants to row can learn to swim first. “Swimming is a life experience for them. The lessons build confidence, which comes out when they get into a boat."
Philadelphia City Rowing (PCR) is supported in its mission by many corporate alliances. Says Dougherty, “Last year, Delaware Investments picked us as the beneficiary of their annual golf outing.” She pauses, and smiles. “That one donation will cover three years of our college readiness program–for all 120 of our athletes. We are always seeking new partnerships, always looking to connect PCR with folks who want to be involved in the community.”
Indeed, Philadelphia City Rowing has been tagged as one of the best places to volunteer in Philadelphia. John Hogan, who was once the commodore of the Schuylkill Navy, is now a committed PCR volunteer. “John is here everyday,” Dougherty explains. “He works with the middle school program, the novice boys, really, he’ll jump in anywhere to help.”
The coaches at Philadelphia City Rowing are as diverse as the rowers. Imani Johnson is a Temple University student doing an internship, coordinating events, working in the office and coaching in the afternoons. Johnson says it's like coming home; she rowed for PCR in high school. Richie Fredericks and Ryan Rickus, two of the boy's coaches, trail the eights as they row by sixes. I sit behind them, their ponytails flowing in the wind.
Something about this club makes me feel at home. Perhaps it’s that the focus is on building the athletes up academically, “Anything below a C and they don’t row,” Rickus reminds me. Or perhaps it’s that, as we pass the historic boathouses from which much of our history has sprung, I realize that Philadelphia City Rowing is blazing a new trail, writing a new chapter in the history of our sport. “We hear it at regattas,” Rickus, who has been a coach with the program for six years, says over the motor. “Folks aren’t quite ready for us to be fast.”
As trailblazers know, others may not be ready, but the trail is still being blazed. Nina Sponheimer, a coxswain who attends String Theory High School and has coxed at PCR for three years, spent last summer at Vesper’s high performance camp with the Junior team. Opportunity does create opportunity; Philadelphia City Rowing is a testament to that.
As the sun dips behind the Philadelphia Art Museum, the boats head back to the PCR dock. As boats come off the water and oars are stowed away, coaches hand out bus and rail tokens and granola bars for the ride home. Dougherty tells me they have special passes for the students that allow them to ride public transportation after 7:00pm. I survey the outdoor racks that make up their outdoor facility. Racks and bins and storage units are in the shade now. Tomorrow is an academic day for these rowers; they’ll be in the indoor facility PCR maintains for academics, workshops and winter training.
I think back to what Rickus told me, that some folks aren’t ready for PCR to be seen as a force in the rowing world. But maybe that’s too short of a goal. With a fully-funded athletic and academic program, success rates of 100% on-time graduation and 100% college acceptance for their athletes, Philadelphia City Rowing already is a force in the world, and not just the rowing world.
Complete information about Philadelphia City Rowing can be found on their website at www.philadelphiacityrowing.org.