This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Philadelphia City Rowing, a nonprofit that offers District high schools free access to competitive rowing, helped Masterman High School senior Deblyn Lawrence find her voice.
They liked what they heard.
Lawrence knew next to nothing about the sport a year and a half ago when a friend encouraged her to join PCR. One day, early in her tenure, the girls’ varsity boat was without its coxswain – the member of each boat that yells instruction to the other rowers.
A coach asked Lawrence to sub in, and she recalls that even though the electrical amplifier in her boat wasn’t working, "they could hear me all the way down the river."
Soon after, Lawrence was cox-ing the varsity boat in competitions. Today, only a year later, she’s team captain.
"The first time I got on the boat, my biggest shock was just being on the water. … I just thought it would tip," Lawrence says.
"Now that I’m on it every day, it’s like ground to me."
Hers is a sentiment expressed by many PCR participants, most of whom had no prior knowledge of the sport but have come to embrace the full-body, stamina-testing challenges that rowing provides.
Thanks to PCR, scores of District students like Lawrence, representing 18 different schools, are gaining exposure to a sport long defined by its exclusivity, and they are pushing past both physical and cultural barriers in the process.
Launched in 2009 by former Columbia University rower Libby Peters, PCR’s signature initiative is a free, year-round rowing program offered to about 80 District high school students, many of whom would not be able to participate otherwise. By removing the $1,000 to $2,000 fee that most private school students pay to row crew, PCR hopes it can get the city’s less-affluent youth on the water.
During the fall and spring, PCR competes in local regattas against private and suburban schools. Summers and winters are for training and instruction – both vital since almost none of the students who have entered PCR have prior rowing experience.
Additionally, throughout the year, PCR provides one-on-one tutoring for students in need of academic support.
Offering such a costly program free of charge is made possible through private donations and partnerships with both the School District of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Department.
Any student who is interested in the program can simply visit the PCR website and fill out a form electronically.
The District donated some hand-me-down boats that it obtained from Princeton University and had been collecting dust at the Navy Yard for over a decade. The Parks and Recreation Department loans PCR its boatyard, a small, fenced-in plot of land on the south end of Boathouse Row. It’s a modest space compared to the stately structures along the Schuylkill River’s east bank, but it’s a start.
PCR Executive Director Terry Dougherty hopes the organization will have a boathouse of its own in the next three to five years, one that will double as a community space for people who are looking to try the sport.
It’s an ambitious project requiring, by Dougherty’s estimate, a $6 million investment. But with the progress PCR has made since its launch two-and-a-half-years ago, it would be unwise to doubt her.
Waves of success
Much of PCR’s progress has been on the river, where its teams have already gone from underdog to champion.
In the program’s early days, simply completing a race was no small feat. The original members still reminisce about a race in which a particularly bad sequence of strokes sent Qadir Fisher, a junior at Engineering and Science High School, overboard.
"I just remember being in the water and thinking, ‘[Isn’t anybody] going to stop?’" Fisher recalls.
"I wasn’t worried about being embarrassed. I just wanted to finish," he says.
They did, with a drenched Fisher in tow, earning the admiration of the other participants and displaying a down-but-not-out determination that would serve them well in the future.
In 2011 the PCR upstarts captured the city championship in the boys’ novice eight division and were winners in four of five events in the local Manny Flick series, a string of competitions held annually among Philadelphia high schools.
And as word spreads of PCR’s successes, more and more students want to join.
In spring 2010, the program enrolled 44 students representing 12 city schools. By this spring, membership had grown to 80 students.
More than just the victories on the water, PCR’s growth reflects the tremendous sense of community the program inspires in its participants.
"I really feel like this is my second family," says Central High School freshman James Garcia.
"And it’s really nice," says Masterman sophomore Oriana Marcial, "because you can always depend on the other people around you."
Eight oars, one goal
Rowers do depend on the people around them, probably more than athletes in any other sport. Success requires perfect cohesion, and there is no hiding weak links. If one member of the boat cannot stay in rhythm, the entire team suffers.
As boys’ coach Dana Schmunk, a former silver medalist at the rowing world championships, points out, there are no substitutions once out on the water. The team must make adjustments in real time and rise above any obstacles together.
"From the time you leave the dock to the time you get back, there are no changes," says Schmunk.
"Everybody’s got to work together, and you can’t have that selfish attitude."
Central junior Mike Palamountain offers a similar sentiment, explaining why the PCR cohort has such a strong bond.
Rowing "brings kids together who would never know each other or want to hang out – and forces them to be the ultimate teammates," he says.
"This program … opened me up [because] I met a big, diverse group of people [with] different personalities," says Maurice Scott, a PCR captain and senior at Parkway Center City.
"It gave me an open mind," he says.
Rowing delivers other benefits as well, including physical fitness and a military-like sense of structure. There are regimented count-offs for tasks as basic as taking the boat to dock.
And because it is a niche sport with few athletes of color, some of PCR’s best performers stand a great chance at college scholarships or, at the very least, can use their participation as leverage in the college application process.
Scott hopes to attend the Naval Academy and row on the school team. His Parkway classmate Salim Ellis is being recruited by the University of Delaware. Other PCR students talk about the possibility of rowing at Temple and St. Joseph’s universities, or even some of the sport’s Ivy League powerhouses such as Princeton and Yale.
"It is a great avenue toward continuing education," says Terry Dougherty.
The opportunities are abundant in Philadelphia, a city known as a hub in the country’s rowing community.
The Stotesbury Cup Regatta, the world’s largest and oldest high school rowing competition, takes place on the Schuylkill River. So does the Aberdeen Dad Vail Regatta, one of the nation’s preeminent intercollegiate events. The boathouses along the river churn out many of the sport’s best athletes. The governing body that oversees their activities – the Schuylkill Navy of Philadelphia – is the oldest amateur athletic union in the country, an early predecessor to the NCAA.
It is deeply ironic that Philadelphia’s public school students have had scant access to one of Philadelphia’s hallmark sports. It’s a point not lost on Dougherty or the region’s rowing cognoscenti.
"Everyone really wants to see rowing opened up to everyone from the Philadelphia public school community," Dougherty says.
The Philadelphia Scholastic Rowing Association showed its support by waiving the rule that competitors represent a single school and by helping cover entrance fees.
Even with those warm gestures, the PCR students remain aware that their race and class diversity gives them a unique status in a sport still dominated by the privileged.
"As soon as we would row by, everyone would just stop and look," says Central junior Yuriah Myers-Doyle of PCR’s early races.
"No one ever saw anything like us before."
For the most part, crew members say they pay no mind to the stares, except, of course, when they can use them as motivation.
PCR’s competitors may enjoy nice boathouses and other material advantages, Deblyn Lawrence observes. "But when it comes down to it, none of that stuff matters unless you really have the heart to push yourself and get yourself to that threshold you’ve never experienced before."