Rowing's popularity fueled by cleaner rivers, more opportunities for girls
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Before the late 1800s -- and before the city's rivers were lined with industry -- the banks were filled with boathouses.
Rowing was an egalitarian activity, at least among men, enjoyed by industrial laborers and craftsmen as well as the wealthy.
But as smoke-belching mills squeezed out the boathouses and Pittsburgh's three rivers became clogged with barges, rowing became an activity primarily for students from elite colleges and the affluent.
It wasn't until the closing of the steel mills in the early 1980s that rowers started tenuously finding their way back to the rivers. Three Rivers Rowing Association, Pittsburgh's largest boathouse, was founded in 1984.
Title IX, the federal law that bans sex discrimination in education and athletics, led to an explosion of women's collegiate teams.
"[Title IX] definitely has changed the face of rowing in that there are a lot more women getting involved," said Joy Nix, who runs First Row at Three Rivers Rowing, "which is awesome."
Rowing is being recognized as a path to self-discipline, better grades and college scholarships. Programs around the country, and in Pittsburgh, are cropping up, some offering the sport free of cost to girls who otherwise might not be able to afford it.
In the wake of the sport's growing popularity, the region is gearing up to build new boathouses.
Robert Morris University in Moon is ramping up a capital campaign to raise funds for a boathouse on Neville Island. In McKeesport, officials envision partnering with the YMCA to build a boathouse on the Youghiogheny River. And in Oakmont, Steel City Rowing built a new boathouse last summer to accommodate its growing membership.
"There is a clamoring in the rowing community for another facility," said Craig Coleman, director of athletics at Robert Morris University. "There's no doubt that there's a high demand out there and that we'd be able to meet the community need."
While Title IX and cleaner rivers have drawn more newcomers to rowing, participants are staying with the sport for the same reasons they always have: the rigor and camaraderie that comes with propelling a boat through the water in perfect synchronization and the opportunity to see views that few experience.
"Especially when the sun is setting and you're on the water and you're looking at the city ... it's pretty," said 18-year-old Kaitlin Thomas, a former rower with First Row at Three Rivers.
"Man, it's fun," she said. "And then you get a view."
At the collegiate level, women in the sport had a difficult time at the outset. At Yale University, members of the women's rowing team were not allowed to shower in the men's boathouse and were left to wait in frigid temperatures after finishing practice.
In 1976, the female team members wrote "Title IX" on their backs and disrobed in the office of an administrator to protest treatment.
The stunt, documented by a New York Times reporter who had been invited to witness it, earned the women a locker room and margin of respect.
But the sport wasn't recognized by the NCAA until the late 1990s, sweeping up athletes like Midge McPhail, now the women's rowing coach at Robert Morris.
Ms. McPhail was a 32-year-old former high school basketball player when a rowing coach caught her striding across the campus of the Ohio State University in the late 1990s. She'd never been on the water, but she was asked to join the school's fledgling Division I squad.
"When I started rowing, I had never rowed before in my life and they plucked me off of campus," she said. "By the end, they were paying for all of [my tuition]."
Women's rowing has been a huge beneficiary of Title IX. Ms. McPhail and other former collegiate rowers said it came down to a simple calculation: A women's rowing team can bring in more than 50 athletes, about equal to a men's football team.
NCAA membership voted to add women's rowing officially, and its inaugural season was in the 1996-97 school year. The number of teams jumped from 76 in 1995 to 90 in 1996, after the NCAA announced it would add the sport. By 2000, there were 138 teams.
Last year, the NCAA tallied 143 teams and nearly 7,000 women rowers. That's about a twentyfold increase from 1990, when the NCAA counted 300 women rowing for organized club teams on college campuses.
The impact has trickled down to the high school level, where clubs have seen participation grow among girls.
At Steel City Rowing, girls outnumber boys 2-1 in youth programs. Three Rivers Rowing, where girls typically represent about two-thirds of the youth rowers, has seen a more than threefold increase in participation in the past five years, with about 80 girls.
Rick Brown, the club's executive director, said part of that growth can be attributed to the fact that girls see the opportunity to get college scholarships. And since participation has not kept pace with the growth at the collegiate level, scholarships are less competitive than for basketball or other popular sports.
But those in Pittsburgh's rowing community emphasized an increase in participation among men and women of all ages. Both Steel City Rowing and Three Rivers Rowing saw a boom in participation after coupon deals drew hundreds of people into novice rowing classes. Both clubs offer the classes and teams for adults.
Randy Stalter, head coach of Steel City Rowing, said membership overall has grown about 50 percent in the past five years.
Mr. Stalter sees it as a result of more people of all ages looking to get in better shape without feeling stuck in the stagnant air of a gym.
It helps, too, that the rivers have been cleaned up, partly attributed to the advocacy efforts of rowing groups. And Pittsburgh's rivers, particularly the Allegheny, have ideal water for rowing.
"The river has gone through a huge change," Mr. Brown said. "It's been cleaned up and there's less traffic."
It's also a sport that rowing coaches say anyone can pick up, no matter their age or fitness level.
"It's pretty visible in our city. It's not hidden in a lake 20 miles away," Mr. Brown said.
And the more newcomers that come through the door, Mr. Stalter said, the more people get hooked.
Anne Hockenberry, a Ross teen who will row for Ohio State University in the fall, said it was not the prospect of college money that drew her to the sport or kept her in it through hours of grueling practices after long school days and in frigid temperatures.
Instead, she fell in love with the rigor of the sport and her team. She calls the girls she rows with "my best friends."
Rowing requires a level of fine-tuned teamwork and coordination not seen in other sports. If one person is slacking, others can sense it instantly.
"When you're in a race, they're pulling their hardest for you, so you pull your hardest for them," she said.
Even the process of getting the boat -- a delicate, thin-bottomed vessel called a shell -- into the water requires a complex choreography among teammates. Once in the boat, the rowers are held at rapt attention by the coxswain, the person who sits at the head of the boat and gives commands to turn and maneuver the boat in the water. If one person loses focus, the rest suffer.
"There's a really intense sense of team you get on a rowing squad ... it's kind of like a cult," Ms. Hockenberry said with a laugh.
And the feeling of being out on the water is indescribable, she said. It's a chance to escape the landlocked world, and the rigor of the workout is mind-clearing.
"For myself to be happy and able to stay focused, rowing is something I need to just function, kind of," she said. "It's kind of an addiction, I guess."
The nature of the sport -- the progressive skill-building, the need for teamwork, the level of focus required -- is why some say it's the ideal character builder for young people. Studies have found that participating in rowing can lead to better grades and fewer discipline problems.
That's part of the logic behind First Row, a program started in 2008 that offers rowing at Three Rivers Rowing free of cost to girls attending public high schools in Pittsburgh.
The program, headed by Ms. Nix, also has an academic component one day a week, offering such services as professional mentors and SAT prep.
Ms. Nix said similar programs have started nationwide to help girls get scholarships to attend college, but she believes the sport can help the girls even if they don't stay with it beyond high school.
"We want girls to take away skills whether or not they continue to row," she said, adding that they've seen the girls perform better in school.
First Row is part of an effort to break rowing's enduring image as a sport reserved for white males and Ivy Leaguers, or "hoity-toity," Ms. Nix said.
It's an impression not lost on First Row participants. Ms. Nix recalled the girls perusing the covers of rowing magazines and asking, matter-of-factly, "Are there any black people who row?"
Ms. Thomas, a Northside Urban Pathways High School graduate who grew up in Lincoln-Lemington, signed up as a junior because she wanted to try something new and she liked that it was something that would set her apart from her peers.
"How many times do you see a girl from Lincoln rowing?" she said. "Not that many people row, at least where I'm from."
She stuck with it because she loved being on the water and the feeling of accomplishment after a tough workout.
Ms. Thomas was good enough to attract the attention of college recruiters and likely could have earned a scholarship, but she worried about juggling academics and athletics in college, so she opted to attend Community College of Allegheny County after graduating. She plans to transfer to a four-year school after completing general education requirements.
Ms. Nix hired her after she graduated from high school as an intern for the boathouse and later introduced her to a masters rower who is a speech pathologist for UPMC.
"It's definitely good networking if you want to stay in Pittsburgh and be around successful people in Pittsburgh," she said.
At least twice a week, Ms. McPhail gets a phone call from a coach looking for a boathouse for a team. Ms. McPhail's Robert Morris team rows from a dock attached to a bowling alley on Neville Island, a fact not overlooked by Dr. Coleman, the athletic director.
"We pride ourselves in having outstanding facilities for our students. They really have really inadequate facilities," he said, referring to the women's rowing team. "It's time to address that."
Ms. McPhail and Dr. Coleman said a boathouse also would serve the at-large rowing community, providing access to the Ohio River that doesn't involve driving all the way to Washington's Landing on the Allegheny River, home to Three Rivers Rowing.
The proposed Neville Island facility would cost $4 million to $6 million. Robert Morris is raising money for the project.
"It just seems like a perfectly natural place for a boathouse to be," Ms. McPhail said.
McKeesport manager Dennis Pittman said his city is talking with the McKeesport YMCA about the possibility of a new facility at McKees Point Marina, complete with a boathouse.
"We would love to be able to utilize our Yough riverfront," he said. "I'm hoping we can use this as an effort to entertain and keep young people in the region."
Ms. Hockenberry is one young person who can attest to the attraction of rowing.
"You kind of learn to step back ... and just focus more on the boat and less on the world around you," she said. "Because when you're in the boat, it's the boat that matters."
First Published July 14, 2011 12:00 am