Rowing connects Detroit youth with fitness, the environment and big scholarship opportunities
Olympic sport’s program to diversify nets big results for sport, athletes
By Phreddy Wischusen
The Michigan Citizen
The morning sun only just rose above the surface of the Detroit River, and Adrienne Thomas has already finished her workout. Thomas, a 16 year-old rower and rising Cass Tech senior, is helping to carry her boat, or “shell,, off the canal behind the former Fisher Mansion now a Hare Krishna temple surrounded by manicured grounds on the city’s east side and into the Detroit Women’s Rowing Association Boathouse.
Rowing, as a sport, most likely began in ancient Egypt. The modern version, dating to the early 18th century, places racers (either individuals or groups of 2, 4 or 8) in a narrow shell pulling oars — fluidly and in perfect unison — as fast as they can, across the water.
Although rowing, crew as it is sometime known, has been one of the winningest programs for U.S. Olympians over the last century, historically very few African Americans have participated. Richard Butler, inclusion manager for USRowing, hopes to change that.
Butler grew up in Pittsburgh, Pa. He was athletic as a childand became the director of a Pittsburgh YMCA and a fitness entrepreneur. He knew nothing about rowing until his 40s when he was asked to help train a local crew.
“As a kid, like most African American kids who live in an urban area, your parents say, ‘don’t ever cross the railroad tracks and don’t go near the river.’ (The) boathouse was across the railroad tracks and near the river,” Butler told the Michigan Citizen.
Once he encountered the sport, he fell in love. “I cannot believe I’ve lived around these three rivers for almost 55 years of my life and it took until I was 40 to get on them.” Butler says rowing is a full-body work out with no impact — like swimming — that enables athletes to participate for their whole lives, even into their 90s, unlike sports like football or hockey that wear on the body.
“Studies have shown it’s the number one aerobic and anaerobic workout you can get,” Butler says. In addition to a workout for the arms and legs — Butler says 80 percent of rowing is leg work — the core muscles are engaged to help keep the boat balanced in spite of the frenzied movement taking place within.
“Everyone who rows usually has nice washboards,” he quips.
Butler quickly rose to be the executive director of the Three Rivers Rowing Association, becoming the first African American to hold such a position in the history of the sport.
USRowing, the pre-eminent rowing organization in the country, asked Butler to serve on a taskforce investigating how to broaden crew’s racial and socio-economic profile.
The taskforce identified three major issues to address: awareness (traditionally few inner city residents have participated, which means that few inner city residents know the sport exists); affordability (rowing, with its reliance on high-end equipment — boats, oars, rowing machines, and so on — and prime river front locations for boathouses, can be very costly); and accessibility (in addition to the costs, it can be hard to find transportation to boathouses, which are few in many cities).
To address those issues, Butler and USRowing created America Rows “to increase the opportunities in rowing highlighting its advantages for underrepresented youth, people with disabilities and people of all ages, socioeconomic circumstances and fitness levels,” according to their website.
“We’re doing a Jackie Robinson thing, without some of the issues that Jackie Robinson went through,” Butler says. “We may have institutionalized systems in place, but I can get through that by working with kids all over America.”
Butler has since convinced 35 of USRowing 100–plus national affiliates to pledge to actively diversify their programs. The Detroit Women’s Rowing Association is one of them.
The DWRA was founded in 2002 by Renee Adams Schulte, to provide rowing opportunities and rowing equipment designed specifically for women. As the program has grown, it is now open to rowers of all sexes and genders. “We have stay at home moms of four kids and corporate leaders,” says Schulte who didn’t begin rowing until she was 40. The vivacious leader has now been coaching oarspeople for 20 years.
Over the past few years Schulte has worked tirelessly to promote the sport to a broad range of young men and women, speaking at Cass Tech high school, securing multiple grants to provide rowing lessons /access to lower-income youth across the city.
Even with generous grants, there are still challenges. Ninety percent of Detroit youth she tries to introduce to the sport have no swimming experience, she told the Michigan Citizen.
Butler echoes Schulte’s dilemma: “We can’t begin to have this conversation about rowing until we have the conversation about swimming. Unfortunately African American youth and adults are somewhere above 50 percent cannot and will not swim (Latinos’ ability to swim is similar, he said). You can’t row, if you can’t swim. Right away we have a barrier to entry.”
Schulte has dealt with that by enrolling potential rowers in swimming classes, even lining up donations to purchase swimsuit for students who don’t already have them.
For city kids, rowing is more than a great work out, it gives them access to many opportunities beyond the boathouse.
“The number one college scholarship going out right now is rowing for women,” says Butler. “If we can get a young lady two years of experience (rowing before college), her opportunities rise big time — from a Division III school to a Division I school through rowing.”
Even if a rower isn’t a great oarsperson, Butler says when rowers eventually apply for jobs, “What we find is the bankers they are interviewing with or the Wall Street people or the law firm they are interviewing with, someone in there knew a rower, and right away you have this shared network. It’s almost better than LinkedIn. It’s like joining a fraternity, and all over the country you have a fraternity brother in that firm.”
Thomas plans to keep rowing in college. “Even though competing is difficult… I don’t think my life would be the same if I didn’t row. It’s put discipline in me to accomplish everything I need to in a time slot,” she says. “When we have to get up early in the morning, I don’t have so much time to waste at night when doing my homework. It puts me on a schedule.
Thomas has always had good grades, but for the young lady who used to prefer rising at noon, getting up early means she’s absorbing more of her lessons. “It’s definitely more applicable what I learn in school when I row. The physics and the biology that we use in science … those are the things that happen in the water.”
She describes hitting a seaweed patch in the water and using her botanical knowledge to discern the type of seaweed, which informs her how far away she needs to move to avoid it, how deeply to drop her oar to get away from its snares. “You can use the different aspects of physics to make the boat go quicker, faster and smoothly.”
The Black United Fund has recently provided the DWRA with a grant to involve even more young African Americans a chance to row this summer. To give new urban rowers the best coaching possible, the DWRA has brought in champion rowing coach John Bancheri of Grand Valley State University for a series of summer workshops.
Bancheri grew up in a New Jersey inner city program, and says he would never have finished high school if it wasn’t for his rowing coach Bob Garbutt. Rowing earned Bancheri a full ride scholarship to a university in Florida, and now he has been coaching for 34 years. Bancheri says programs like the DWRA are the grassroots of the sport, which has prepared more youth than ever to participate in the sport at the college level.
“Diversity adds to the sport as a whole,” Bancheri says. “…(W)e get better athletes, (which) raises the (overall) level of athleticism in the sport.”
Rowing also has a positive environmental impact. Butler says many first-time rowers have no idea what’s in the water, and frequently ask him if there are sharks or crocodiles. Once they start rowing “they see Blue herons and swans for the first time. They have wonderment of the water,” Butler says. “I find that they, like all rowers, become natural stewards and environmentalists of the water.”
To learn more about summer rowing scholarships and other rowing opportunities with the DWRA, visit dwra.org, or call 313.475.9647.