In a Sport Steeped in History, Community Rowing, Inc. is Building an Even Brighter Future

Boston’s Community Rowing, Inc. might be the most aptly named organization in America

Looking backward, paying it forward.

When you talk to Bruce Smith, it’s impossible not to get excited. The CRI Executive Director’s confidence in the potential and power of sport to change lives for the better is infectious—but it goes beyond that:

While his sport of choice is on the water, the sky’s the limit.

“I’d like to say that the way we’ve grown is strategic,” Smith says. “But the truth is that I’m an entrepreneur. We just came up with this thought experiment: What can we do to make the world a better place?”

He’s not kidding.

“After poking around and trying different businesses, and working in real estate and the startup world, the truth is that I think that people are severely alienated from each other, their communities, and their environment, and that’s really unhealthy.

“Think about it: If someone made a pill that would make you make friends and be healthy every day, everyone would take that pill, right? It sounds crazy, but I think rowing is that pill.”

He’s right: it sounds crazy. But he’s not finished.

“I think that in rowing, we have the best tool to build social connection. The paradigm in the U.S.—and you can see it playing out in presidential politics right now—is one where everyone assumes that to make progress, you have to fight the other person, and take something away from them. That’s how people feel growth happens, and I think it’s a really 20th-century way of thinking—you see it in the form of world wars, in how people use the environment. Everything is conflict-based. And, you also see it in terms of which sports grew the most during the 20th century—in the U.S., the obvious answer is football. It’s a conflict- and violence-based sport.

“But at the turn of the 20th century, say around 1910, the most popular sports in the U.S. were baseball and rowing. Rowing is a sport that challenges each individual to contribute to a collective, to the maximum extent of their personal ability. That was the model that helped the United States become a preeminent country, and if we don’t teach people how to cooperate better, then we’re doomed to failure.”

Hearing Smith spell it out, it’s hard not to find his point of view compelling. Looking through the headlines recently, things feel divided. The various constituencies often play up those divisions to their own benefit, rather than stressing the commonalities that bind us together. Common ground has become No Man’s Land.

“It’s about capturing people’s imagination, and giving them a model to understand the world that is concrete and tangible, and that also carries the values that are critical for our survival, both as a society and as individuals: cooperation and health.”

At a moment when the popularity of combat sports is at an all-time high, it’s clearly an uphill battle, but it’s one worth fighting…to use an unfortunate metaphor.

“We have so far to go, but if we could get every middle schooler in the country to at least consider rowing, as a real opportunity, then by the time they get to be a high school student or an adult, the idea of rowing as a mainstream sport wouldn’t seem outlandish to them.”

Technology is helping now, too—drones are making the sport more accessible to viewers on the riverbanks as well as at home, and a growing emphasis on environmental responsibility suits rowing quite well: after all, it’s an outdoor sport, often contested on rivers that run through many of America’s major cities.

Also, just maybe, rowing could instill its inherent values—cooperation, teamwork, and selflessness in addition to competition—in a new generation of Americans.

“We also need to work with the leaders in our sport to think more about the future. If we can do that, then rowing could be something that all Americans consider their birthright: America and rowing—yes, because we’re cooperative people, who work very hard.”

There’s no question, these are lofty goals. But not impossible. Here’s how two of his colleagues—Matt Rostron and Ellen Minzner—are working to make them a reality.

Read on.

Spreading the word.

London Youth Rowing was about a year old when I started working with them,” explains new CRI Director, Matt Rostron. “I had been working with Concept2 in the North of England, doing community outreach to encourage access into our rowing club. That had gone very well—we built some competitions that wound up going quite well, numbers-wise.”

That’s when the founder of London Youth Rowing got in touch.

“It was an interesting model, but it wasn’t quite working,” Rostron explains. “The reason for that was that they had two or three members of staff—they had about 80 rowing machines, and what they were doing was finding energetic P.E. teachers, putting rowing machines into the schools through doing competitions, and then taking the machines away again and just having them available to use if and when.”

The trouble was that the community of P.E. teachers in London, as in much of the U.K., was made up of passionate, but largely transient people hailing from other parts of the world, like South Africa and Australia. They’d be in town for a little while, and the work they did at the school with LYR was great, but then they’d be off, and it would be time to teach a whole new batch of teachers for us to ‘convert’ again. Also, while it was an introduction to rowing, it wasn’t long enough to make it stick.

“So, it occurred to me—and this is something that is relevant to me here in Boston as well—is that instead of going bottom up, we needed to go top down. We needed to find the decision-makers in the education departments for those local boroughs (London is made up of 32 or 33 boroughs—all of which are sort of their own little towns, and are run differently when it comes to education and financing, etc.), and then push downwards.”

That way, LYR staff would be able to work with administrators who would likely be in place for the foreseeable future, and make efficient use of their time.

How’d they get in touch? “We did that through various competitions and events happening across London, and we got involved in those. There’s a very cool Olympic-style event called the London Youth Games, which is made up of 33 different sports—we got indoor rowing into the middle of that, which meant that the whole of London knew about indoor rowing.”

Once these administrators saw the potential benefits of indoor rowing for their students, they became advocates for the sport.

But the strategy didn’t end there.

“Then, we approached Sport England,” Rostron, who had become London Youth Rowing’s CEO, says.

The British National Lottery funds many sporting and cultural endeavors, and the results have been impressive, to say the least—just look at the Olympic medal table from Rio, and you’ll see what I mean. But the money doesn’t go only to the elite athletes in Britain—it also goes to develop sport at the grassroots level.

Backed by Sport England, LYR were able to put five rowing machines into roughly 100 state secondary schools (what would be called middle schools in the U.S.), support them with resources, and fund coach education for the teachers and the older students.

It worked.

“Our biggest year, we had 10,890 kids.”

From the original three staff members, London Youth Rowing expanded to 28 people. They went from one location on the water to 10, and from a half dozen schools to well over 100 within the greater London area.

It wasn’t long before that commitment to providing access to sport became a commitment to providing access to other opportunities.

“These kids were developing skills—teamwork, time management, and goal setting—that are the same ones you use in the workplace,” Rostron says. “So, we got access into some corporations, so they could get mentoring and work experience.”

It also worked for their corporate partners, in particular PricewaterhouseCoopers—London Youth Rowing, which reached kids all across the city with a hugely diverse array of backgrounds, proved to be an excellent source of young talent, through Rostron’s LYR social mobility program. Not only that, but it actually increased company loyalty to PwC among its mentors, working with the rowers.

“What tends to happen is that people were moving into PwC, they were staying for a two or three years, and the really great ones were getting headhunted and leaving,” outlines Rostron. “So it was costing PwC a big chunk of money to keep them—they were basically training people to leave. But actually, two or three of the mentors who were working with us, came back afterward and said they wanted to stay, because they wanted to work at a company that offered this sort of program.”

They then took that same model and applied it to many other major industries. “It became a school and LYR program, called Breaking Barriers, and those kids then funneled straight into the mentorship scheme.”

Now, Rostron is working to apply that same model to the Boston area.

“By simply putting rowing machines into schools for longer, you enable kids to fall in love with the idea of physical activity, and being physical,” he says. “If you only put the machines in for a short time, what happens is the kids either hate it and walk away, or they really like it, and get the bug for it—but then lose the opportunity, and maybe find a different sport.”

Through extended loans of machines, coach and teacher education about the sport, and giving the kids themselves responsibilities when it comes to running an indoor rowing program at their schools, rowing becomes a part of their daily lives.

“We’re rolling this out in Boston, but with one eye on the future,” he explains.

For Rostron, his vision of the future looks like a lot of healthy, cooperative kids expanding their career opportunities and social connections through rowing.

He has reason to see it that way.

Expanding opportunities.

“This Paralympics effort is really the fruition of what I really have interpreted as ‘rowing for all,’ through many different iterations,” explains recently-returned-from-Rio Ellen Minzner, Director of Outreach at CRI, and coach of the silver medal-winning Legs, Trunk, and Arms Four with Coxswain at the Paralympic Games last summer.

“I grew up in Lawrence, Mass., which is kind of one of those little mill towns that has high unemployment, obesity rates, crime, etc.—it has a lot of things going against it,” she remembers. “It was an area where there weren’t a ton of super-positive opportunities for kids to get involved in stuff. So when I started rowing as a student at Villanova University, I got all excited, thinking wow, I just found this awesome new sport, and I grew up in a town with a river, so I’m going to go home and join the local rowing club!

“Of course, I got home and was immediately reminded, hey, there’s no rowing club here ya moron,” she says with a laugh. “I thought, ok, that’s got to change.

Having fallen in love with the sport of rowing, Minzner was determined to make it accessible to more people—to offer that same opportunity to all.

After college, Minzner moved to Boston, and learned through her sister that there was a local rowing club, CRI, that would offer her a chance to stay involved as a coach and a coxswain. It was the fall of 1988.

“It was such an amazing experience. One of the things that made a big impression was that they had rowing for people with disabilities. I needed more coaching hours anyway—I thought, great!”

She continues: “We didn’t have specialized equipment, and there wasn’t really any coach training at that time—we had a few pontoons [to steady the boats] and some basic things. It was crazy, but I worked with some amazing people.”

And again, rowing made an immediate connection.

“I remember people telling me, ‘This is the only place I can feel free. This is the only place where I can get out of my wheelchair to do a sport—not like wheelchair basketball where I have to stay in the chair.’ That was really cool—but I had no idea where it would lead.”

Fast forward a few years. Minzner did start a rowing club in Lawrence, Mass. She also got a degree in urban planning, and put it to good use there. She had added to her coaching resume, serving as an assistant at Kansas State and the University of California, Berkeley. But her connection to CRI remained strong.

In 2011, she returned.

The USA LTA Mixed 4+ (Photo: Ed Moran/USRowing)

“I was really happy and excited to be back at CRI, which had really grown by leaps and bounds,” she says. “I went right back to this idea of rowing for all, but not only for underserved kids—they had just started the program for military veterans, and were ramping up their programs for people with disabilities. We did a lot of work to get as many people involved as we could.”

There’s no denying that CRI is at the leading edge of rowing clubs, in terms of both scale and of experimenting with new ideas.

“We’re operating at a scale that just means we’ve just made more mistakes than anyone else,” Minzner says. It’s not false modesty. She’s getting at the idea that they want to try things—that not everything will work, but that there is a sense in the CRI boathouse and community that new ideas are welcome.

“We’re better for each one of those mistakes,” she adds.

One of those ideas, for Minzner, was that no matter what the program, CRI would work toward some level of a competitive goal.

“Not cut-throat competition, win-at-all-costs approach, but rather that there will be a day at the end of the season where we are appropriately stressed, and we have to do what we’re good at in front of our peers. It’s going to be difficult but it’s going to bring us closer together, because it’s going to be awesome no matter what the result, whether it’s a 20-stroke race in front of the boathouse, or we’re off to the national championships.”

Or maybe even the Paralympic Games.

“We had some crews that were getting pretty good at some of the different disciplines,” Minzner says, “so I started looking at how other crews were performing at the national para-rowing trials. People weren’t even entering—there’d be either one entry, or no entries. I thought, ok, this is happening in New Jersey—we’re not that far away. We’re going to enter a boat in every event at trials. I don’t care if we lose by a mile. But it’s ridiculous that these events are unsubscribed, and even if all we do is provide an honest race for the winners, we’re going to do it.”

In 2014, they executed Minzner’s plan. And they won. A lot.

“That was a big eye-opener for us. Some of our crews were not really ready for international competition yet, so we didn’t send everybody that year, but it really pointed out that wow, maybe we were really at the cutting edge of para-rowing in the U.S., not necessarily because we were fast, but because we were the only ones that had the wherewithal to get there. And that really made it clear what needed to change about para-rowing and para-sport in general.”

It was also the year that CRI became the home for the USRowing LTA Mixed 4+ selection and training camp.

“So we started running the camp, and in the first year there weren’t a ton of athletes trying out—we started a big recruiting push.”

That came with expectations.

“We wanted to make sure that we would be pushing our para-athletes the same way we would anyone else, that our offerings and our expectations for para-rowing on the same as those for any athlete, only making considerations when those considerations were necessary for a specific athlete.”

She adds: “I think that that competitive pyramid is a direct link to everything we do: That the athletes should have whatever they need to pursue their goal to the best of their abilities. For some that means a once-a-week therapeutic (but still goal-oriented) rowing session, and for others that means the support that is needed to pursue elite and international competition.

“The message that we can spread when we have success at that level…it’s more valuable than any marketing campaign. It means that the rights of athletes with disabilities to participate and compete are recognized; it means that our voice is recognized on the international stage to help make some changes along with FISA [the world governing body of rowing] and para-rowing in general.”

And it means that we hear you, loud and clear. ^DFG

If you liked this story, please make sure to login and recommend it! For more information about Community Rowing, Inc. in Boston, please visit their official website.

Story by Bryan Kitch, for UpMetrics Data for Good.

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