Beyond rowing: Inner-city girls benefit physically, mentally from the sport

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It's a good way to express yourself," said Pearl Mackey, 16, a student at City Charter High School, Downtown.

"I've learned discipline, self control, motivation. There's nobody making you come to practice."

Ms. Mackey is one of 34 students who take part in First Row, a free program sponsored jointly by the Three Rivers Rowing Association and Communities in Schools.

First Row introduces girls from inner-city high schools to the sport of rowing. Participants meet four afternoons a week. Two sessions are devoted to rowing practice; two to teaching, mentoring and counseling sessions that focus on improving classroom grades and preparing to take college admission tests.

The program is limited to girls "because of the inequality of athletic programs for high school girls within the Pittsburgh city limit," according to First Row's mission statement.

The exercise rowing benefits girls "at high risk for future health problems," the mission statement says.

First Row is part of the reason why the Three Rivers Rowing Association was named the USRowing Club of the Year for 2010. USRowing is recognized by the U.S. Olympic Committee as the governing body for the sport of rowing in the United States.

TRRA was selected for the honor from more than 1,100 member organizations in USRowing.

Rowing is a complex sport that provides benefits beyond the physical, said Lexi Joachim of Communities in Schools, the academic coordinator for First Row.

"I really like this program because of the opportunity to learn other life building skills such as team building, problem solving, working through difficult tasks," she said.

Among other schools involved in First Row are Peabody, Westinghouse and Northside Urban Pathways Charter School. The program provides transportation to and from the rowing centers and schools.

First Row operates throughout the school year. During the fall, the girls develop a comfort level with the water through swim lessons and learn rowing techniques. During the winter months, the program focuses on the girls using indoor rowing machines and indoor tanks to work on fitness and blade technique. This includes participation in a local high school indoor regatta.

By spring, the girls finish up swim lessons and pass a basic skill test before they can practice on the water. Then they move to the racing shells and prepare for a race at the end of May.

The national award is based on a point system that includes participation in USRowing sponsored events, safety and community outreach.

In addition to First Row, the Three Rivers Rowing Association has won praise for its adaptive rowing program for people with vision problems and for people with physical disabilities. TRRA has the second largest adaptive rowing program in the country after Philadelphia.

In the summer, TRRA has three adaptive rowing programs -- a weekly recreational program for those with physical disabilities, a weekly recreational program for people with low vision or blindness, and weekend competitive racing practice.

Because of the excellent facilities TRRA has at its two boathouses in Washington's Landing and Millvale, First Row can be offered throughout the school year.

The Three Rivers Rowing Association also provides a home for the crew teams of five local high schools and three area colleges.

"TRRA has dedicated itself to enhancing its contributions to the sport of rowing, within its membership and in the community as a whole," executive director Rick Brown said in a statement. "We were founded on the belief that our sport should be open to everyone, and we continue to serve athletes with disabilities and inner-city youth under the same guidelines as our nationally competitive youth and adult programs."

Mr. Brown was presented with the award earlier this month at a USRowing banquet in Tampa, Fla. This is the second time TRRA has been named Rowing Club of the Year. TRRA won the inaugural award in 2002.

The association has 475 active members, and about 500 high school and college students row out of its boathouses, Mr. Brown said.

The membership fee for adults is $385 a year. For students who are not affiliated with one of the school crew teams, the fee is $215 a year. The fee provides full access to the facilities at the Washington's Landing and Millvale boathouses, and use of TRRA's rowing sculls, dragon boats and kayaks.

There are nominal additional fees for instructional programs such as the Winter Rowing League; to join teams, and to take part in competitions such as the Pittsburgh Indoor Rowing Championship, which will be held Jan. 29 at North Catholic High School.

For information:; 412-231-8772, or send an e-mail to

Jack Kelly: or 412-263-1476.


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