Rowing is a great sport.
It’s demanding, but healthful. It teaches discipline, teamwork and goal-setting. It instills self-confidence, self-control and pride. Plus, nothing beats being out on the water at 5 a.m., in a driving rain.
But rowing also has a stigma: It’s expensive, and elitist.
For the past 4 years, Saugatuck Rowing Club has defied that stigma. The Riverside Avenue facility throws open its doors — and provides a place in its boats — to a special group of teenagers.
And the kids have given back as much as they’ve gotten.
Thanks to a partnership with Greens Farms Academy’s Horizons program — a national project that provides underserved children with academic, social, emotional learning and enrichment programs — SRC welcomes more than a dozen 8th graders for 6 weeks each summer.
Three afternoons a week, the Bridgeport children clamber off buses and into the sprawling clubhouse. Very quickly, it becomes their home.
“Our mission is twofold,” says Diana Kuen, a beginner/intermediate SRC coach who oversees the program.
“We want to introduce them to a sport would never otherwise have a chance to experience. And it’s our responsibility to chip away at the socioeconomic barriers that exist in our own backyard.”
They start like many beginners. Some are terrified of the river. None ever touched an oar.
Under Kuen’s direction, they row on an ergometer. When they’re ready, they step into a boat and onto the water. Figuratively — and literally — they jump into the deep end.
Kuen and co-coach Bridge Murphy watch closely. They figure out which kids will work best where, and who is comfortable going out alone.
The new rowers are like boys and girls everywhere. They’re quick learners. They want to succeed. They love to compete.
And they sure have fun.
“These kids bring joy and levity with them every day,” Kuen says. “They are genuine, authentic and happy.
“Each afternoon is filled with laughter, pride and a sense of purpose. When they step into the club, they light everyone up.”
None of that comes easily. The coaches demand that these youngsters — just like any new rowers — step out of their comfort zones.
One girl was terrified. The first victory was getting her out on a launch, with the coaches. Gradually, she eased into a boat.
At the end of 6 weeks, Kuen says, “she was an outstanding rower.”
One boy was so successful at rowing with 7 teammates that he asked if he could scull alone. Once he pushed off from the dock however, he froze.
Every day throughout the Horizons program, the coaches and kids talk.
“They’re great communicators,” Kuen says. “They understand that this is about so much more than rowing.”
On the final day, each 8th grader spoke from their hearts about what the program meant. Kuen and Murphy listened, with tears in their eyes.
That final session ended with a pizza party. An SRC member — someone who’d witnessed the kids’ transformation, and appreciated the can-do attitude they brought every day — bought ice cream cakes for everyone.
On the way out, SRC general manager Suzanne Pullen overheard 2 girls talking.
“I’ll miss this place so much,” one said.
But not as much as the Saugatuck Rowing Club will miss them.
(Hat tip: Frank Rosen)